Remembering Franklin M. Fisher, z”l

1 May 2019

NIF mourns the loss of our former Board President Franklin M. Fisher, z”l.

photo of Franklin M. FisherFranklin M. Fisher was the Jane Berkowitz Carlton and Dennis William Carlton Professor of Microeconomics, Emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Frank was a distinguished and valued leader for peace and progressive values, serving as the President of New Israel Fund and Americans for Peace Now. He was a celebrated economist, earning recognition the American Economic Association and an honorary degree from Hebrew University in Jerusalem for his work in the field. For the last 25 years, he worked tirelessly on projects using economic modeling to settle disputes over water rights in the Middle East. He died this week at the age of 84 to complications of Alzheimer’s disease.

Below is a eulogy written by NIF’s CEO Daniel Sokatch:

Frank never shied away from what was difficult. Indeed, he devoted his life to solving hard problems. He applied his expertise as an accomplished economist to resolving intractable disputes—bringing together Israelis, Jordanian, and Palestinian with experts to foster cooperation in sharing scarce water resources. And he brought that principled dedication to his leadership at the New Israel Fund. For those of us who had the privilege of knowing Frank, he was a wellspring of moral conscience and wise counsel.

Everyone I know who knew Frank has their favorite “Frank story.” In the hours after I shared the sad news of Frank’s passing with our NIF community, I received emails recounting many of them. Not surprisingly, some of them are very funny.

Like the time Frank, then the Treasurer of the Board, had to deliver his Finance Report at the Board meeting by video from Boston, since he couldn’t be in Israel for the Board meeting in person. Frank began his report, then stopped, and said, “Oh, I forgot. We’re in Israel.” He stood up, took off his suit jacket, undid his tie, and sat back down. And now, more appropriately attired for Tel Aviv, continued with his report.

Most of the stories are deeply moving. One Board member recalled the time, many years ago, when Frank changed the course of the New Israel Fund. A human rights organization, the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel, had come to the NIF and applied for a grant. This was many years ago, and at that time, NIF had never given a grant to a human rights organization. That work was seen as just too controversial. The request from PCATI set off a real debate at the Board meeting. Would it be too much? Was it too risky for NIF to get into the human rights business? The debate when on and on. At one point, this Board member recalled, Frank got up and left the room. After a while he came back and returned to his seat. A few minutes later, the Chair of the Board announced that an anonymous donor had agreed to make a special donor advised gift to PCATI, so that NIF wouldn’t have to.

Of course, the real beauty of this story – the thing that was classic Frank Fisher – was that that debate, and his decision to make that anonymous grant as a means of resolving it, was actually the tipping point in the long discussion, decades ago, about whether or not NIF would take the bold and risky step of supporting Israel’s human rights organizations. It was at that point that the Board, inspired and moved by Frank’s example, took a deep breath and transformed the New Israel Fund into the home base and engine of Israel’s human rights sector.

Frank told me that same story a few years ago. He was proud, and rightfully so, that NIF had taken that courageous step. That decision made NIF supporters out of a generation of people like me, a generation who came to see NIF as forging a path for progressive American Jew to support the brave and patriotic Israelis working to change their country for the better.

That same spirit of courage and commitment continued to animate Frank’s leadership at NIF. A young NIF staffer shared this story, which took place much more recently:

“Frank was such a special person. At a Board meeting about five years ago, there was a debate that went on for quite a while about whether we should consider ending a grant to one of our high profile and very controversial grantees. Frank finally spoke up, and with tears streaming down his face, talked about how these brave young people were saving the soul of Israel. That ended the conversation.”

I, too, have my Frank stories. One in particular stands out. It was fairly early in my tenure as CEO, and, once again, the Board was in a deep debate about some difficult issue. When it was Frank’s turn to speak, he advocated – as always — the harder, more courageous path. He said that, despite the challenges to Israeli democracy we were facing, he had no doubt that one day, our vision for Israel would prevail. That Israel would become the beautiful ideal its founders intended it to be. But, he continued, welling up, as he spoke, even if we ultimately did not succeed in our efforts, when his grandchildren asked him one day what he did when Israel’s democratic soul was in danger, he at least would be able to tell them that he and NIF had done everything we could to save it.

Needless to say, the Board ultimately supported whatever it was Frank wanted us to do. I found Frank in the hallway a bit later during a break, and told him how deeply moved I was by what he said, and by his willingness to be so honest and vulnerable. He smiled at me through his tears and said, “Yeah, I do it all the time.”

These “Frank stories” illustrate how, for me and for so many of us, Frank was the heart and soul – the conscience — of the New Israel Fund during his long years of leadership. He was brilliant, big-hearted and deeply compassionate. A happy warrior. We will miss him terribly.

May his memory be for a blessing.