Mickey Gitzin does not look like he fits the role he has been cast in – as an enemy of Israel and the Jewish people, as defined by the Israeli Right.
He is the new executive director of New Israel Fund, an organization politicians and groups on the Right like to blame for much of the country’s woes. It was recently called the "Destroying Israel Fund" by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s son, Yair.
Gitzin comes from what he calls “a classic, Russian-speaking, right-wing home.” His parents used to vote for Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu party and they still do not vote for parties on the Left.
He learned about liberal and progressive Judaism in the United States, where he was a Jewish Agency emissary in South Bend, Indiana, and lived in the UK where he earned a master’s degree in public policy from University College London. He attends weekly Shabbat services in Tel Aviv that feature poems by Haim Nahman Bialik.
There is a sign in his office bearing the mantra “Keep calm and carry on.” It was a gift from the head of NIF in the US, Daniel Sokatch. Cards with the same slogan were distributed to people in Britain when England was under German attack during World War II, and it was also adopted as a mantra by Prof. Gerald Steinberg, the head of NGO Monitor, an organization that is critical of NIF.
NIF is constantly under attack from right-wing organizations like Im Tirtzu, politicians on the Right like Culture Minister Miri Regev, and associates of Netanyahu.
In his first interview with English media since taking over from Rachel Liel at the helm of NIF on July 1, Gitzin told The Jerusalem Post
he believes Netanyahu and other right-wing leaders criticize New Israel Fund in order to boost their political support.
“Historically, when leaders have been weak, they have united their people against a common enemy,” he says. “That was done to Jews throughout history, so the Fund represents the historic Jew.”
Gitzin says that when Netanyahu talks to Diaspora Jews, he talks about NIF-supported issues like religious pluralism, bridging socioeconomic gaps and LGBT rights in order to make Israel look good.
“That vibrant Israeli civil society that Netanyahu talks about is what we advanced,” Gitzin says. “Netanyahu is proud of the achievements he himself opposed, and he uses them to help Israeli public diplomacy abroad. If Netanyahu blames us for all the world’s ills, we must be having a positive impact on Israeli society.”
Gitzin says NIF’s critics only end up helping the organization raise more money for its causes by keeping it in the limelight. He says that also happened when an NIF vice president, Jennifer Gorovitz, was detained for questioning at Ben-Gurion Airport.The Post
spoke to NIF critics ahead of the interview and came armed with their main complaints about the organization.
Despite being on the job for only two months, Gitzin had answers ready for all the claims, as if he had heard them all before, countless times.
The main accusation against NIF is that it funds anti- Israel activity, backing efforts to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel (BDS).
Gitzin responds that NIF has three red lines about funding organizations: They do not have to be Zionist but they cannot support BDS, back refusal to serve in the IDF for ideological reasons or aid convicting IDF soldiers and Israeli officials abroad. For instance, the Coalition of Women for Peace endorsed BDS in 2011 and stopped getting money from NIF, Gitzin says.
But he draws a line that others would be uncomfortable with: NIF won’t stop funding an organization that boycotts goods from settlements but it would if it boycotted products from pre-1967 Israel. Justifying the decision, he said the State of Israel agreed to the same distinction by the EU, when it threatened to cut funding for Israeli projects.
NIF backs the controversial organization Adala, which tries to force Israel to give Arab citizens equal rights through court cases, and has been accused by NGO Monitor of co-sponsoring and participating in events at the UN Human Rights Council along with pro-BDS and lawfare NGOs. Gitzin says Adala fights in Israeli courts to enforce what Israeli laws guarantee Israeli Arab citizens.
He adds that NIF makes sure the organizations do not call Israel an apartheid state.
“We don’t say ‘apartheid,’ and none of the organizations NIF supports has a policy of treating Israel as an apartheid state,” he says. “I am Zionist, but it doesn’t mean everyone I support has to be Zionist. Part of the greatness of Zionism is respecting a variety of points of view. Our responsibility as a society is to help those with different views.”
When asked about Breaking the Silence, which sends former IDF soldiers to American campuses to tell stories about experiences harming Palestinians, Gitzin says the problem is not with Breaking the Silence complaining about Israeli polices but with the policies themselves.
“Soldiers who served in the territories and endangered themselves tell stories so people will understand the price of the policies,” he says. “The national interest is complicated. The organizations we back represent the complexity of Israel. What hurts Israel is the impression that we limit expression.”
Gitzin says that when he was an emissary in the US, he did not feel comfortable talking about Israel as “a poster.” He realized then that it was wrong that he did not enter the complexities of Israeli life and that NIF is where those complexities are dealt with head on.
“The best way to make Israel look good is to change its policies,” he says. “The occupation doesn’t look good because it’s a bad policy. Neither does depriving Arabs of equal rights. Preventing women from praying at the Kotel doesn’t look good, so stop taking away their freedom of religion.”
Prior to NIF, Gitzin was the founding director of Israel Hofsheet – Be Free Israel, a grassroots movement that fights against religious coercion and for religious pluralism and the separation of religion and state in Israel. But he is careful not to classify himself as anti-haredi (ultra- Orthodox) and to stress that he opposes giving up the state’s Jewish character.
“Even haredi organizations say I’m not anti-haredi,” he says. “I am not against the haredi public but the connection between religion and state. I have haredi friends. We want to help them obtain employment and to strengthen haredi women.”
When he got the NIF job, Gitzin did not give up his seat on the Tel Aviv-Jaffa city council, where he represents Meretz. He chairs committees for diversity and public housing and advises Mayor Ron Hulda’i on global development and innovation.
Gitzin denied charges reiterated last month by Regev that NIF funds the weekly anti-corruption protests in Petah Tikva. NIF critics have said the funding comes through an NIF-backed organization called Zazim.
“Zazim didn’t put a dime in the protests,” Gitzin said. “Zazim did a separate campaign months earlier on the issue. Netanyahu and Regev know that if you repeat a lie again and again, someone will pick it up.”
Gitzin does not like being told that NIF and the organizations it backs represent the fringes of Israeli society and politics. He blames the campaigns against NIF for pushing it out of the Israeli mainstream.
“I’m not fringe, and if the prime minister fears us, we aren’t the fringe,” he says. “I think we represent what has become the Israeli mainstream on freedom of expression and religion. At first, we weren’t mainstream on issues like religion and state, social justice and LGBT rights, and Israel changed along with us. We aren’t embarrassed to promote what we believe in.”
Another common charge against NIF is that it is not an Israeli organization, because its funding comes primarily from American Jews and the organization is not registered with the Israeli registrar of non-profits. Gitzin responds that NIF is a partnership between US Jews and Israelis on its board and in its tax reports. The European Union funds two of NIF’s projects that help Beduin.
“Most American Jews are liberal so they feel comfortable with the fund and identify with our values,” Gitzin says. “The relationship between Israel and the Jewish Diaspora will only continue if there is real partnership. They have to understand our complexities and fears, and we have to understand theirs.”
Gitzin lashes out at a comment made multiple times by Likud MK David Amsalem that Knesset members should not care about what the Diaspora thinks, because they do not live in Israel.
Amsalem, who is not religiously observant, has made the comment regarding religious pluralism and other issues.
“If Israel is the home of the Jewish people, that has ramifications,” he says.
He stresses that NIF also backs relatively uncontroversial causes like immigrant absorption, women’s rights, shelters for battered women, clean air, press freedom and strengthening democracy.
“If democracy is cool now, it’s a huge success of NIF,” he says. “When we started, it was not cool at all. People understand the price of a society where democracy is not a core value. You can’t defend democracy without fighting the occupation. It can’t be democracy for Jews only, and it doesn’t stop at the border crossing.”
Gitzin says running NIF is “a dream job but one of many” and does not rule out a future career in politics.
“I have a lot more influence than an MK in the opposition,” he says. “This has the most impact on Israeli society as any job on the Left. It’s the best place for a progressive person to fulfill his aspirations. I never thought I would be here, but the fact that I am here is quite amazing.”