Asylum Seeker Protests Exploited to Undermine Israeli Democracy Advocates

16 January 2014

right-wing campaign is launched following the historical African refugee protests in Tel Aviv.

Following the massive asylum seekers demonstration in Tel Aviv on December 28th, a coordinated right-wing smear campaign began. The critics accuse NIF/SHATIL and its grantees of instigating the asylum seekers as part of a wider strategy aimed at undermining Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. For example, Ronen Shoval, the outgoing chair of the extremist Im Tirtzu group, wrote: “Lurking behind the infiltrators is a series of organizations that seek to delegitimize Israel that are financed by foreign countries and funds (such as the New Israel Fund), whose goal is clear: to do away with Israel’s Jewish and democratic character.”

This week, Im Tirtzu took it a step further and organized a demonstration in Tel Aviv under the banner of “Saving Israel from the NIF.” Meanwhile, the chair of the Knesset’s Internal Affairs committee, Likud MK Miri Regev, — who is infamous for her comments during a 2012 rally calling African asylum seekers “a cancer in our body” — called a special government hearing into the relationship between Israeli NGOs and the asylum seekers.

In response to the campaign, NIF issued the following statement: “There have been many claims that the New Israel Fund is responsible for the asylum seeker protests. These resemble the claim that NIF was responsible for the social protests in the summer of 2011. Neither of these claims is correct. The protests belong to the asylum seekers – they are the ones who initiate them, manage them, and lead them. For years, NIF has supported civil rights and social change organizations working in many areas – supporting workers, women, disadvantaged populations, the periphery, as well as organizations dealing specifically with the refugee issue and organizations which were established by refugees.”

NIF’s Executive Director in Israel Rachel Liel commented: “When the government has no answers or solutions, it directs the fire against the aid organizations and turns the residents of south Tel Aviv against them. This spin is especially ugly because the aid organizations, including those supported by the NIF, are the only ones who have been working for years in the neighborhood. Through civil society and communal activism, volunteer lawyers and social workers give assistance to the residents – citizens and asylum seekers, Israelis and Africans – during the most difficult times and in the face of the government’s complete indifference.” Her sentiments were echoed by Shula Keshet from NIF grantee Achoti, which developed an initiative bringing together Israelis and asylum seekers to improve conditions in south Tel Aviv.

It is important to emphasize that a number of other figures in Israel have also expressed support for asylum seekers’ rights. President Shimon Peres said: “We remember what it means to be refugees and strangers, and we will act as accepted and correct from a moral and global perspective”, while renowned author David Grossman has also spoken up, saying: “There are people who have undergone terrible trauma…Israel needs to find a way to deal with this situation.”

The false accusations against NIF are likely designed to increase support for yet another round of anti-NGO legislation, which is currently making its way through the Knesset.

“Please know that NIF will always support Israelis who hold true to the dream of a shared society, inherently pluralistic, committed to equality and democracy,” said NIF CEO Daniel Sokatch. “We will not abandon these voices. We will not be intimidated by the tactics the extremists are now embracing.”