Looking back on my decades-long love affair with Israel, if you had told me at any point in that time that, on the eve of Israel’s 70th birthday, the prime minister of that country would blame the organization I lead for his own fecklessness and for his political failures, I would have said you were out of your mind.
Nothing about what is happening in Israel now would have ever made sense to me. Not when I was fourteen and first getting hooked on Israel reading Leon Uris’s “Exodus;” or when I was seventeen and spending the summer in Israel; or when I was twenty-five, living and working in Jerusalem during the golden years of the mid-90s; or when I was 39, leading my first mission to Israel as the CEO of one the nation’s largest Jewish Federations; or when, at 41, I became CEO of the New Israel Fund so that I could play a role in the holy work of helping Israel become the country its founders intended in to be.
I certainly would not have believed the Trumpian fashion in which the prime minister would falsely accuse us of trying to “erase the Jewish character of Israel,” or that he would demand, on the basis of these lies, that we be subjected to a parliamentary committee of inquiry.
But readers of this column — and of the Israeli, Jewish, and general press, for that matter — are aware that this is precisely what happened a couple of weeks ago. Reeling from his own embarrassing failure to resolve Israel’s asylum seeker crisis — actually backing out of a decent deal with the UN he had triumphantly announced only hours earlier — the prime minister did what he does: he blamed it all on someone else.
This is a strategy that has become all-too familiar to Americans watching our president’s use of social media.
In this case, the target was us. NIF, the prime minister claimed, had successfully pressured the Rwandan government to abandon an agreement in which Rwanda would receive payment to accept thousands of Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers who would be forcibly deported from Israel.
It was an absurd accusation, and it was met with derision from across the political map. Former Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor, a storied leader of the Likud, called the prime minister’s move a “whining and wild attack.”
“They’re the ones who convinced Rwanda to back out?” he told Army Radio. “What type of talk is that? Really. It’s an embarrassment. They’re trying to point the fire in another direction. They catch some scapegoat and attack it. They turn them into enemies of Israel? What is this?”
The new chair of the Labor Party, Avi Gabbay, charged that the prime minister had undertaken a “dangerous McCarthyistic campaign.”
“The public isn’t going to be fooled by this pathetic and dangerous attempt to divide Israelis and incite against the New Israel Fund,” he wrote. “NIF is not responsible for the situation in south Tel Aviv, not for the cost of living, not for the housing crisis, and not for the dangerous process of polarization that’s taking place among different parts of Israeli society.”
To be clear: we at NIF are very proud of the support we provided to the tens of thousands of Israelis who protested the deportation plan and to the Israeli NGOs working on this issue. We backed a campaign that resulted in El Al pilots stating that they would not take part in flying refugees to countries where their safety could not be guaranteed. We supported the mobilization of Israelis for demonstrations large and small. We amplified the voices of those who wanted to speak out.
That’s what NIF does: We support those Israelis working to realize the values enshrined in Israel’s Declaration of Independence.
The Knesset will return from its Spring Recess next week. The prime minister and his allies are planning their push to change Israel into a place that you and I would no longer recognize. The values of democracy and equality that we cherish would be gone. We, you and I, need to be prepared to fight for all that Israel can be.