A big and sometimes tumultuous tent

An interview with NIF president Brian Lurie half a year into being in the hot seat, driving the influential, controversial organization.

New Israel Fund president Brian Lurie (photo credit: Courtesy)
New Israel Fund president Brian Lurie
(photo credit: Courtesy)
"Which of you is causing me the most trouble? ” New Israel Fund president Brian Lurie asked the heads of the many groups that his organization funds at a recent meeting during one of his biannual trips to Israel.
“Five of them raised their hands at the same time,” says Lurie, noting that “the one who is really causing me the most trouble didn’t raise a hand.”
Such is life as president of one of the most powerful funds of liberal Jewish organizations in Israel, including all of the complex realities of trying to restore or improve the sometimes embattled organization’s image.
Although Lurie, who took the helm of NIF in the summer of 2012, takes issue with the idea that he was brought in to be a friendlier, less controversial and harder-to- attack face of the organization, that is certainly his style when compared to the group’s previous leader, highly controversial former deputy Knesset speaker and Meretz MK Naomi Chazan.
After allegations were made that NIF funded groups that provided large amounts of evidence for the Goldstone Report, which made allegations against Israeli soldiers for war crimes during the 2008- 2009 Gaza War, extra-parliamentary Zionist group Im Tirtzu portrayed Chazan in an ad with horns on her head and associated her with the report.
While Lurie admits that he and Chazan have the same fundamental principles, he says that “we come to the issues from different places. I worked in the Jewish establishment; I’m American. She came from a minority party and is Israeli.”
He continues, “It’s easier for me to talk to the Jewish establishment in the Diaspora and easier for some right-wing politicians to talk to me if we’ve been friends forever. She carried some political baggage because of her background in the opposition” – fighting head-tohead over issues in the Knesset – “but the hatchet job done on her was grossly unfair.”
An ordained Reform rabbi, Lurie comes from the US Jewish “establishment,” having served as executive vice president of the United Jewish Appeal and for 17 years as executive director of the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, among other positions, where he frequently rubbed elbows with top Israeli officials across the spectrum.
Lurie says that “I knew what I was getting into. I knew it was going to be controversial, the strong feelings people had, I was aware of that.” But he also knew that “the New Israel Fund is the best organization to impact in a more complicated world. I can’t think of another one with the same tremendous resources at play.”
Lurie says that his diverse group of old friends, including former Likud foreign minister Moshe Arens, still talk to him and have not broken ties over his new role.
DESPITE LURIE’S generally calm and almost philosophical manner, he gets serious and forceful when it comes to discussing the controversy surrounding some of the organizations that NIF funds.
Responding to allegations that NIF funds organizations involved in anti-Israel activities, like the divest from Israel movements or forums where Israel is labeled an apartheid state, he says, “We’re a big tent. NIF is an organization in the middle of a complicated time.
We will support organizations which are not black and white, but gray. If an Arab organization does not believe” in an Israel constituted “as a Jewish state, but does believe” in an Israel that is “a state of all of its people, I understand their feeling; still, NIF believes we need a Jewish state.”
Naomi Paiss, NIF’s vice president of public affairs, who is present throughout the interview, adds that NIF has clear funding guidelines and “won’t support organizations working to deny the Jewish people’s right to sovereign selfdetermination.”
But, she says, if “leaders of Arab organizations prefer a multinational, multicultural state,” NIF won’t cut them off.
She said that there are many targeted purposes having to do with change for organizations like Adalah, Massawa and Kayan, but that at the end of the day the organizations are not “designed to change the State of Israel” itself, regardless of their beliefs, she says.
Paiss also says that she often attends events where speakers express views she disagrees with and that NIF “can’t hold organizations responsible for what other organizations say in a free forum.”
She notes that outgoing defense minister Ehud Barak once said Israel would become “an apartheid state if there was no peace.”
Regarding the recent first-time publication of the amounts of funding NIF gives to various liberal organizations in Israel as part of a recent law demanding such reporting, Lurie says that NIF has always been “transparent. We list our donors, most of whom are individuals and foundations.”
This publication and past publications have been met with critiques of NIF and its refusal to sever or delay in severing its connections with certain organizations it funds by Gerald Steinberg’s NGO Monitor, among others.
Lurie hits back at the criticism, saying “I’d like to ask Gerald when was the last time his donors were made transparent.
I don’t know where to find his donor list, if it is listed. Is that balanced?” he asks, hinting that Right-leaning organizations are getting a pass on reporting their funding while Left-leaning organizations are being scrutinized.
Paiss says that a right-wing organization called Elad “even went to court to prevent making their donor list public.”
Lurie and Paiss also asked who had funded an Im Tirtzu campaign against Lurie with ads in 20 Jewish newspapers across the US.
ASKED WHAT he thinks of the election results, Lurie gives a somewhat confusing answer, as if he wrestling with his own contrary feelings or uneasiness about certain aspects of the results.
Lurie begins with the word “hope,” but goes on to describe several results of the election that sounded like the opposite of what would give him hope.
He says that the loss of Likud moderates (some of whom he is friendly with, which shows the breadth of his contacts) like “Dan Meridor and Bennie Begin was a real blow to the Likud party, Israel, the Jewish people. It saddens me.”
Lurie says the fact that these moderates did not finish high enough on the Likud list to make it into the 19th Knesset means Likud will lose “values they instilled in the party, which is still the largest. They will be sorely missed in the next government. They were true democrats with a small ‘d’ – people whose only ambition was to make the state a better place.”
In contrast, Lurie says that “the current Likud is like other parties to the Right. I’m not sure if there is anyone to the right of Likud” as it is currently constituted.
Where does he disagree the most with Likud and “other parties to the Right”? He says that we “can’t just absorb chunks of the West Bank and say that’s our destiny. That’s such a mistaken concept.
We live in a larger world, we’re part of it, and these barriers and borders,” lead to conflict with those who are “friendly to us, like the US and Europe.”
Lurie also says that his view of the election results will ultimately depend on “what the government would look like. If Yesh Atid is in it, I would be more hopeful.”
He says he does not agree with some left-leaning groups that are hoping for an “all-Right government to force Obama to take a very strong position” against some of the right-wing policies, and that he would “rather see a more moderate-centrist government in place.”
Lurie adds that it’s better to have a “smiling, open, positive face than a closed one. A more moderate government would be good for Israel, good for Diaspora Jewry and good for the world.”
Asked who represents the “smiling, open, positive face,” Lurie identifies Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid, though he is still critical of Lapid for comments he made categorically opposing forming a government with a group of “Zoabis,” referring to the Israeli-Arab parties.
Lurie states that Lapid’s “Zoabis” remark was an “unfortunate comment.
Someone might not like [Haneen] Zoabi, but the plural of it got me.”
IRONICALLY AND despite all of the above, Lurie says that NIF has very little to do formally with issues like the peace process.
“We believe in a two-state solution, but we’re worried most about internal issues, not external – that is someone else’s job,” he says matter-of-factly.
He says that many issues mentioned in the election, such as “housing, the middle class, the poor, the safety net and social welfare, working for a more equitable society are cornerstones we’ve been working on for years,” and are the organization’s focus far more than foreign policy is.
At this point Paiss interjects, noting the example of funding programs that help youth at risk in development towns and marginalized populations, such as an afternoon school in Ashkelon that teaches the fundamentals of Judaism. Both also cite Arab youth, Ethiopian youth, women’s empowerment and educating the Beduin community as major NIF goals.
Lurie takes a deep breath before wading into the controversy regarding the Beduin.
Although helping the Beduin community is a major priority, he says that “NIF has no position” on the state’s current proposal, which was largely developed by outgoing minister Bennie Begin and essentially proposes recognizing and allowing 62% of Beduin communities in the Negev stay in place while relocating and compensating the rest.
Looking uncomfortable, Lurie says “we are studying it. But I’m going to do something dangerous. I’m going to give my own personal opinion, not yet reflected by the organization... Bennie Begin is a tzadik [righteous person],” he says. “What he is trying to accomplish, what the ministerial committee passed, among Beduin leaders is viewed as having flaws. Some want more money, more land. But equally, on the far Right, many say that Bennie is giving away the store, way too much, how could he have done this?” “Talking with Bennie, and after a cursory review, with the increase in money and land” in Begin’s plan over a prior plan that offered to recognize only 50% of Beduin communities, Lurie says “I think it’s the best attainable deal possible.”
He adds that reaching a solution “sooner is better. The longer this drags out, the less likely it can be resolved and there will be real loss. Bennie’s been the driving force.”
Paiss adds that many key NIF grantees “strongly oppose the plan,” saying that there is still far too much “forced relocation.”
Lurie says that the issue is “complex for the organization, with many groups opposing the plan now.”
We’ve had “lively discussions,” he says, and that he thinks that eventually more Beduin will come out and support the Begin plan.
REGARDLESS OF Lurie’s remark that NIF is an inward-looking organization, he does not deny that organizations that NIF has funded could have an outward impact – such as those that criticize the IDF and develop either nonflattering or biased (depending on your political leanings) video footage against it.
Once again, Lurie differentiates his own opinions from those of the organization.
“Personally, anytime I see the IDF portrayed in a bad light, it makes me nervous,” he says. “I totally appreciate how important it is to keep Israel secure and strong. Israel is living in a rough neighborhood, and without the IDF it would not exist.”
He says he recognizes that criticism of the IDF makes “everyone feel more vulnerable, including me.”
That being said, he says that both personally and speaking as NIF president, the organizations the NIF funds “do the right thing. We need a self-correcting mechanism with an occupation going on as long as this has, where inherently there are abuses.
“We might be the best army in the world on those abuses, as good as one can be – and no one with a 40-year occupation would be as good as we are – but we can improve,” he says.
“The more moral we are, the stronger we are as a nation, for the Jewish people,” he states.
WHEN LURIE took over as NIF president, he laid out a number of specific goals in public interviews, including moving the center of NIF’s Israel operations from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, joining the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations and making the structure of NIF’s funding strategy ”smarter,” among others.
How are these goals faring half a year into the job? Moving the center of operations to Tel Aviv is being explored. “There is no question; we need a Tel Aviv presence.
But how big and when? It is a necessity and it’ll happen before I leave,” says Lurie.
In contrast, joining the conference is a lower priority for now, “but it does make sense” at some point, he says.
Changing its funding strategy and structure in light of a changing world is one of Lurie’s primary goals and “at our board meeting this week we worked hard on this,” he says.
Discussing some less well-known projects of the organization, Paiss says that NIF was very involved in a campaign to change what was set to be an all-haredi 50,000-person city placed in the Harish wadi area between a regular middle-class town of ordinary Jewish people, a kibbutz down the road and an Arab village up the hill.
Paiss says the new city would have ruined an area where pluralism is working by artificially throwing in a new ghetto.
She says she has no problem with haredim moving into the new development, but that NIF is proud it has succeeded in making the new development open to all.
Paiss also discusses Right Now, an organization that advocates asylum for African migrants.
She says the group was founded by a graduate of NIF’s social justice fellows program and is “exactly the young leadership we want to foster,” adding that we “feel very strongly, if there was ever a case of treating a stranger well who has no other place to go, it’s here, since most of them are legitimately seeking asylum.”
Lurie criticizes some Israeli politicians for “public statements against the migrants,” which, he says, “hurt Israel.”
At the same time, he says that he “understood that it’s complicated in Israel and that it’s a balagan [mess] in the US Congress also,” adding that it is “wrong to single out Israel when Europe and the US don’t have it right either.”
This last exchange between Lurie and Paiss may be the most indicative of the still relatively new face of the NIF.
While he will not apologize for many of the organization’s controversial positions, it is likely disarming for opponents of the NIF to hear its president talking about the importance of the IDF, not singling out Israel and being ready to give personal opinions breaking with the organization’s policies.
NIF and some of the organizations it funds will likely remain controversial, but for those wanting to paint a blackand- white picture of the organization, Lurie will be harder to fit into the perennial box.