The Truth in Black and White

14 April 2016

We live in a time when the debate over Israel’s direction, both on the ground and here in the diaspora, leads to overheated rhetoric and outrageous behavior. Sadly, we often see the discussion turn to spurious and baseless attacks on NIF, our organizations, and indeed virtually anyone who dares to publicly promote a vision of Israel not in line with that of the ultra-nationalists who currently dominate the debate in Jerusalem and in some of the corners of the American Jewish community. Difference of opinion is one thing — as we say, two Jews, three opinions — but all too often, what goes on is something much worse.

Case in point: the other day a friend of mine wrote this heartfelt open letter to his college-age daughters about the ways in which the American Jewish community has become a difficult place for many people – like him and his girls — who refuse to choose between their commitment to Israel and the Jewish people on the one hand, and to liberal, universal, and humanistic values on the other. It’s a beautiful and deeply moving piece, and for his troubles he received one of the vilest and most violent death threats that I’ve seen in a long time. And believe me, I’ve seen a lot of them.

But sometimes, I see a nasty attack piece and it actually makes me laugh. In the fevered imaginings of the ultra-nationalist and ultra-Orthodox newspapers, NIF is simply the reason for all of Israel’s problems. I got one of those just the other day. It was a screed in an ultra-Orthodox paper, condemning moves in Israel to try to bring the remaining so-called “Falash Mura” from Ethiopia to Israel. This paper, which wants to prevent these Ethiopians from coming to Israel, claims, “It is all about money. They are funded by the New Israel Fund, who is happy to bring more missionaries to Israel… The New Israel Fund is involved and the goal, to destroy Yiddishkheit.”

Now that’s a new one. I’ve heard the allegations that we support BDS (we don’t), supplied the Goldstone report with its information (we didn’t), and that we will fund attempts to drag Israelis into international tribunals (we won’t). But spiriting missionaries into Israel to convert Jews to, what, Ethiopian Coptic Christianity and destroying Yiddishkeit? Vey is meer: this is certainly a new one.

Instead, let me tell you just a bit about what NIF and Shatil and our family of organizations have done on behalf of and in partnership with Israel’s Ethiopian Jewish community.

As grant-makers — knowing that this community needed to be able to speak for itself within Israeli society — NIF invested in Ethiopian-Israeli leaders. We seed-funded Tebeka (“advocate for justice” in Amharic), the first Ethiopian legal advocacy organization in Israel more than 15 years ago. We have proudly supported them ever since. And Tebeka has been at the forefront of defending the civil rights of Ethiopian Israelis. Just last year, a video showing an unprovoked beating of a uniformed Ethiopian Israeli soldier at the hands of the police sparked large protests against police brutality and for equality. Tebeka helped to meet the needs of the community at that critical moment, opening a hotline for Ethiopian Israelis to report police violence and helping jailed protesters secure legal representation. In the months that followed, Tebeka worked with the police to help them improve relations with the Ethiopian community and with the Education Ministry to introduce new curriculum that would curtail racism.

As capacity builders, we partnered with Ethiopian-Israeli leaders to help them build a better Israel. Take the story of Meherta Baruch-Ron. She grew up poor and illiterate in Ethiopia. At the age of 10, her family left the country, marching hundreds of miles north to a refugee camp in Sudan before making it to Israel. Today, she is the Deputy Mayor of Tel Aviv. She is also the founding chair of Temerach (“the Elected”), the Forum of Ethiopian-Israeli Municipal Council Members, which grew out of a training led by NIF’s action arm, Shatil, and Tebeka. This is what she has to say about her partnership with NIF: “Shatil is our address for professional advice and guidance. It is an organization that enables discourse on every subject, with every group; an organization with a history, a future, and a trunk full of tools.”

Finally, I want you to know about our partnership with Dr. Avraham Neguise. Today he is a Knesset Member. But long before he was a national leader, he was an advocate for the rights of the Falash community, going back to the first airlifts of Ethiopian Jews. He founded South Wing to Zion, one of the first organizations to advocate for the rights of Ethiopian-Israelis and their families left behind. When Neguise waged a lonely struggle against the Israeli government, which had refused to recognize the Falash Mura as Jewish, NIF and Shatil were the first organizations to have his back. “From the beginning, when everyone else saw us as troublemakers, NIF and Shatil believed in our cause,” says Neguise. “NIF supported us financially all the way and in 1994 sent me on an educational tour of the U.S. where I managed to recruit supporters in the Jewish community. I really thank the leadership of NIF and Shatil.”

Whatever the rantings of our critics, these three quick examples demonstrate the reality of NIF’s work building a better Israel. We are a community of individuals who believe in democracy and in equality. We invest in the organizations and in the individuals in Israel who are advocating for those values. And our work has an impact — just ask the leaders of the Ethiopian-Israeli community in Israel.