The recent Pew Research Center study of American Jewry has received a lot of
attention here in the US, not least because of what it said about the
respondents’ attitudes towards Israel. Anti-settlement and dubious about the
Israeli government’s desire for peace, many Jews in that survey have come a long
way from knee-jerk support for the policies of the current governing
My friends at the New Israel Fund, an organization I proudly
support, have done some research of their own, which tells us that NIF donors
and liberal American Jews in general are much more concerned about Israel than
they were when NIF last surveyed them in 2006. We are concerned about the
influence of the ultranationalist, settler Right and the ultra- Orthodox. We are
concerned about anti-democratic initiatives in the Knesset. And we are insistent
that if we voted in Israel, we would support the same liberal values we continue
to support in American elections.
This is why those of us who are
long-time donors to the New Israel Fund are bemused by its critics, who often
argue that NIF donors wouldn’t support it if they knew how edgy some of its
Well, guess what? NIF is pro-active and specific in
communicating the range of activists and organizations it supports, including
those that are on the cutting-edge of social change and those that deal with
Israel’s most difficult and controversial issues.
NIF explains why it
supports Arab-Israeli civil society groups despite the fact that they do not
embrace the Zionist narrative – and most people understand why that is, and why
it is critical that 20 percent of the population of Israel feels it has a stake
in the country’s future. And we certainly understand that NIF couldn’t possibly
agree with all the policies and opinions of the hundreds of organizations it
supports, organizations that work on dozens of critical issues; sometimes they
contradict each other and sometimes they disagree with NIF’s own point of view.
A prodemocracy organization working with a diverse and opinionated society has
no choice but to provide room for legitimate voices in the debate and allow the
discussions and even the arguments room to breathe.
The truth is, we who
are active in the American Jewish community know that the conversation has moved
on from “Israel-right-orwrong” to asking a deeper question: How can we help our
Israeli cousins build an Israel that is right? No longer do most American Jews
fear for Israel’s physical survival; we respect the IDF as the Middle East’s
most powerful army.
No longer do most American Jews reject the term
“occupation” for what has occurred on the West Bank since 1967, nor do we shy
from expressing concern for the terrible impact of that occupation, and the
ensuing settlement enterprise, on Israeli society and on the Palestinians. And
no longer do we assume that Israeli democracy will somehow always exist,
mirroring the Jewish and universal values of equality and justice, because
unfortunately we have learned that there are Israeli leaders who claim that
those values are wrong for Israel.
The “delegitimization” narrative, upon
which the Israeli government and its unofficial allies have spent millions in
hasbara shekels, plays much differently in the US. We who live with a Bill of
Rights know it is not delegitimizing to honestly question government policy,
military behavior, or abuses of human rights. We know that Israel has real
enemies that do not recognize its right to exist as a Jewish homeland – and we
point out that the best argument against them is an Israel that lives up to the
vision of its founders, not one led by demagogues who stoop to the lowest common
denominator of racism and exclusion.
NIF donors like me and many
thousands of others worldwide follow these arguments closely.
We were not
surprised when an Israeli judge found the radical ultranationalist group Im
Tirzu to have “fascist attributes.” Nor were we surprised (although maybe a
little amused) when the so-called NGO Monitor, the self-appointed watchdog that
only watches progressive NGOs, had its social media director banned from
Wikipedia for dishonesty. We are baffled that Israeli groups (or their funders)
would spend money in the US to attack NIF or J Street or Americans for Peace
Now, organizations that provide good reasons for our children to support, rather
than give up on, the notion that Israel can represent the best of Jewish values.
And at a time when other Jewish organizations are losing support, NIF’s is
increasing, significantly, every year.
We do worry about whether American
Jews are indeed giving up on Israel.
From NIF to ZOA and at every shade
of opinion in between, we all lose if the American community loses interest,
loses faith, loses its visceral connection to the Jewish homeland. NIF’s way of
supporting Israel – empowering social change activists in every sector for civil
rights, social justice and religious tolerance – is not everyone’s way, but we
don’t want other routes to Israel blocked off, either.
Unlike some, we
think Jews worldwide can and should choose what to say and how to support their
visions of Israel, unfettered by those who would cut off conversation and
So, as much as I have mixed feelings about
ultranationalist tycoons wasting their money, let me give them a tip. If you
want to reach out to NIF donors, and to the millions of Americans who share
their values, don’t bother telling us that our money supports organizations
representing progressive opinions and minority causes. We know, we know. Use
your money for something useful – support disadvantaged children or universities
or medical centers.
Israel will be a better place, and you’ll be getting
some bang for your bucks – or your shekels.
Carole Zabar is the founder
of the Other Israel Film Festival and a long-time donor to the New Israel Fund.