“Without civil society, Israel’s civil infrastructure would have completely collapsed in the wake of October 7”

21 March 2024
NIF Israel Director Mickey Gitzin


The below interview with Mickey Gitzin, NIF’s director in Israel, was published by Calcalist on March 7, 2024. This version has been edited and shortened for accessibility. You can read the full article, in Hebrew, here.  

How has October 7 affected NIF?

“In the weeks and months after October 7, we received an overwhelming amount of money – we received $8 million in donations, above and beyond our regular budget. Our international donors, mainly in the United States, are very connected to this place and very much wanted to help Israel, yet have found themselves feeling isolated. Many diaspora Jews in progressive circles, where they used to feel most at home, after October 7 were deeply alienated by the lack of condemnation of Hamas’s atrocities that day. At the same time, these are not people who are prepared to join the Jewish mainstream where Israel’s actions are unquestionably justified and defended. For them, the central path to engagement with Israel runs through the New Israel Fund.”

What did NIF do with all of this money?

“NIF found itself in a position that it has never been in before. Most of the money we received immediately following October 7 was allocated to humanitarian aid, which is not normally something NIF does. But, in this moment of emergency immediately after October 7, we booked hotel rooms for the evacuees, and sponsored food and shelters for residents of the unrecognized Bedouin villages. We also invested in community organizations which helped the residents of Sderot and Ashkelon and helped people actualize their rights vis-a-vis government institutions because people, especially those from weaker socio-economic groups, don’t always know their rights or what they’re entitled to.

Why were you needed?

“The State was absent on October 7. (We even received requests from government ministries to house people.) This absence of government services wasn’t just due to the fact that it was in shock from October 7. It was also the outcome of a long process of privatization of state services and the government simply not knowing how to respond to a crisis.

“The government has gotten much weaker in the last few decades–largely because of patronage and cronyism. The result was that the best, most qualified professionals were simply not appointed to key government offices. This has meant that, without civil society, Israel’s civil infrastructure would have completely collapsed in the wake of October 7. Aside from philanthropy and civil society, nothing was working that day. I say this with great pain: a situation where philanthropy leads the emergency response for citizens left with nothing is the worst form of government neglect.”

Where did the rest of the money go?

“A major issue that we dealt with was protecting democratic values during the war, especially those of Israel’s Arab citizens. The government very quickly began arresting people, suppressing free speech, and persecuting Arab citizens. We also worked to reduce and prevent a repeat of the violence that occurred in October 2000 and May 2021. Another element of our work has been to prepare for the reality after the war.”

Why should NIF have an opinion of the day after?

“Because this is what reality requires. The policy field is an area in which we will invest millions. We are an ideological fund with a clear worldview, which understands that there will not be a better reality in Israel as long as there is no ideological and political alternative to the current government. Over the past 15 years, Netanyahu has held the worldview that Hamas needs to be stronger in order to prevent negotiations with the Palestinian Authority and the establishment of a Palestinian state in the future. Now the question is, what’s the alternative?

We finance research institutes and security and political think tanks whose mission is to present alternative political and security concepts. Up until October 7, the political center’s thesis was that it was possible to ignore the Palestinian issue and manage the conflict. But we knew such a policy would blow up in our faces, and that’s what happened.”

In which research institutes are you investing?

“We are investing in setting up a task force that will engage with political-security issues in partnership with the Berl Katznelson Foundation and the Mitvim Institute. We have invested in a ‘100 Days Plan’ with former government ministry director-generals that touches upon all the fundamental issues in terms of what needs to happen for our political reality to change. The central question we are asking is, “What should be done when there will be a different political reality?” We are investing in veteran research institutes such as the Adva Center, the Forum for Regional Thinking, and Zulat for Equality and Human Rights. We are also looking for other paths to support plans for political solutions that will provide an alternative.”

Do you see elections on the horizon?

“The coalition’s overriding interest is to protect itself. In a reality like this, unless there is a dramatic shift here, I don’t foresee elections taking place. Those whose political aim is first and foremost to survive will continue to do everything to survive. People’s instinct is not to go against the government during wartime. That’s why I think that the war won’t ever end, because its very existence preserves the government.”

Tell me about NIF’s budget.

The 2023 budget was $30 million. Of that, $5-6 million remains in the countries where the money is raised for work in the Jewish communities. But last year we raised $12 million more than expected, $8 million during the war and $4 million before that toward the struggle for democracy. In recent years due to israelis’ frustrations with Netanyahu, there has been very large growth in funds raised from within Israel. Israeli donors used to represent one out of every ten NIF donors; now they represent one out of five.”

Are you more confident about the struggle for democracy?

“The Supreme Court has been preserved but everything around it has been weakened. Beneath the clouds of war, we see all the anti-democratic mechanisms operating in a much more extreme way—take the national budget, for example. The State disproportionately discriminates (financially) against the Arab minority and, at the same time, offers outsized handouts to specific sectors of society, specifically those represented by government ministers (namely, the National Religious and Haredi sectors). None of this is in Israel’s interest.” 

Will the quiet in the Arab street hold? 

“I see in the Arab minority a leadership and population that are exercising significant levels of responsibility. They understand very well that [Minister of National Security Itamar] Ben Gvir and his gang are trying to create a deliberate conflict in order to target them as the enemy. The story of restricting entry to Al Aqsa during Ramadan is case and point. It is a deliberate attempt to hurt this community in its very soul and inflame tensions between Jews and Arabs. Preventing Muslims from accessing Al Aqsa on Ramadan is like saying Jews are not allowed to fast on Yom Kippur. It’s a political campaign that could have terrible results. It’s an action on the scale of the Inquisition to prevent people from fulfilling their religious duties.”

Doesn’t this Sisyphean struggle wear you out?

“I live in a combination of despair and hope. The reality is very difficult. But on the other hand, I get to work and be exposed to lots of brilliant and creative people who get out of bed in the morning to do good. There aren’t many people who get to experience life the way I do.”