The Jewish people are all too familiar with the concept of scapegoats. The very word comes from the Torah, describing an actual goat metaphorically carrying the people’s sins away into the desert. And for centuries, Jews were blamed for everything from the Black Plague to Germany’s defeat in World War I.
And yet now, the New Israel Fund has been pushed into the scapegoat position, not by anti-Semites or extremist thugs, but by the Prime Minister of Israel himself. No sooner had he reversed his commitment to an agreement with the UN to sensibly and humanely resolve the issue of the 38,000 African people seeking asylum in Israel than he cast about for someone to blame. He pointed his finger at NIF, who has proudly supported organizations aiding refugees and the thousands of Israelis speaking out against inhumane deportation. He went so far as to call for a parliamentary inquiry into NIF, despite the Knesset’s legal advisor’s warning last fall that a similar proposed inquiry into Breaking the Silence was illegal.
Even to the most partisan Israelis, the accusation against NIF was a reach. NIF was accused of somehow convincing the government of Rwanda, one of two African countries with which Israel claimed it had some sort of agreement to accept the deportees, to refuse entry to those who left Israel involuntarily. A senior Rwandan official actually tweeted that his government didn’t know what the New Israel Fund is and dozens of leaders in Israel, the US and elsewhere pointed out that the accusation was not only ridiculous but harmful to Israel’s democratic fabric and freedoms.
“This whining and this wild attack on the New Israel Fund is a strange and serious phenomenon….first of all, does anybody know who NIF is? They are the Israeli Nobel Prize winners. The best of the professors from the universities are there. Senior military people. They are people who do excellent service to help those for whom it’s hard. And, yes, they want a country that is just and that is equal. Most of them are outstanding Zionists their entire lives,” said Dan Meridor, a Likudnik and former Deputy Prime Minister.
“What Netanyahu wants in this case is incitement, not a search for truth,” wrote right-wing settler and journalist Israel Harel, who continues to castigate NIF for its opposition to the occupation and to the settlements. “More fuel on the bonfire of hatred and division.”
“From my close acquaintance with some of NIF’s supporters, I know with full knowledge that they are acting out of a sense of mission to Zionism and the Jewish people,” said Rabbi Benny Lau, the head of Jerusalem’s Rambam yeshivah. “If we do not preserve their honor, we will be rending apart the people of this nation.”
The outspoken defense of NIF from many quarters was echoed by an unprecedented increase in donations to NIF by Israelis. In the few days following the prime minister’s smear, more than 3,000 Israelis made donations to NIF. Some made the gift “in honor” of the Prime Minister. Among them were members of Knesset including Meretz Chair Tamar Zandberg and the Zionist Union’s Shelly Yachimovich and Miki Rosenthal, who each proudly posted about their contributions on social media. The surge in donations led NIF Executive Director in Israel, Mickey Gitzin, to characterize the Prime Minister as a “champion fundraiser.”
But the bottom line for both Israel and NIF is deadly serious. As Anti-Defamation League leader Jonathan Greenblatt posted, “Intimidation & false accusations are not how you debate in a democracy.” The Prime Minister’s latest attack on NIF, albeit transparently designed to get him out of trouble with his right-wing base, confirms that Israel’s democratic institutions, from civil society to the judiciary to the free media to the national police, are at risk from an increasingly authoritarian-minded political leadership. NIF’s support for the human rights of African people seeking asylum, Palestinians and other marginalized minorities cannot be used as a pretext for official persecution.