Patriots in the best sense of the word

Rather than ‘delegitimizing’ Israel, hundreds of groups supported by New Israel Fund emphatically legitimize Israel’s claim to its place among Western liberal democracies

On Sunday, the board of directors of the New Israel Fund will gather in Tel Aviv to chart the course for an increasingly visible organization that has worked to advance equality and justice for every Israeli for almost 32 years.
NIF’s core mission is to strengthen Israel’s democracy. A vibrant democracy demands openness, not just in dialogue, but also in practices and policies. A strong Israel, an Israel with the security to withstand external enemies and internal divisions, also requires a civil society sector that advances the interests of those whose voices are not often heard in the corridors of power.
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AS THE founder and first funder of dozens of Israel’s most internationally respected organizations, the New Israel Fund is accustomed to controversy. Many causes that were cutting-edge when we first took them on are now supported by the mainstream, from the first battles for women’s rights to the passage of legislation protecting the disabled from discrimination and exclusion. Our support for organizations advancing human rights, and for those advancing civil rights for the Israeli Arab sector, has been a particular lightening rod. It has always provoked attacks from those who perpetrate the increasingly hollow myths that Israel can do no wrong, and that almost any criticism, however loving, of Israeli policy or actions is somehow disloyal.
In a democracy, of course, one is free to express any opinion, and the latest publicity stunt from NGO Monitor is just that, an opinion – and a partisan one at that.
Those familiar with NGO Monitor know it as a mouthpiece for a right-wing ideology, a “monitor” that never monitors settler, haredi or ultra-nationalist groups but only those with progressive values. And, of course, NGO Monitor is itself entirely unmonitored. It does not appear to meet accepted standards for transparency or accountability, and provides little information on its governance or funding.
NIF, by contrast, is a responsible funder that regularly reviews its principles, policies and funding decisions and receives excellent ratings for transparency from Guidestar and other philanthropic oversight organizations. Our donors understand and support a vision of Israel in which ideas and ideologies contend in an open space. Rather than “delegitimizing” Israel, as the current buzzword has it, the hundreds of groups and thousands of activists NIF supports emphatically legitimize Israel’s claim to its place among Western, liberal democracies.
But that claim is fraying. As much as NIF must focus on its own strategies and the increasing demands on its resources, we are even more concerned with the diminishing tolerance of dissent in Israeli society. The recent survey by the Tami Steinmetz Center for Peace Research at Tel Aviv University showing that more than half of Jewish Israelis think there is “too much freedom of speech” is only the tip of the iceberg. As peaceful demonstrations are disrupted or forbidden by the police, as the rights of Israeli Arab citizens are called into question, as some members of Knesset brazenly attempt to shut down progressive civil society, we have a lot more to worry about than sniping from organizations that exist primarily to send out press releases.
THERE IS no question that Israel is facing an increasingly hostile international environment. And some of that hostility is rooted in antagonism to Israel’s very existence, an antagonism we combat as fiercely as any organization that is rooted in a love for Israel and in the belief in the best of Jewish values. But Israel must ask itself whether some of its own policies – policies that the NIF family of organizations critique and question – are contributing to Israel’s increasing isolation from its friends and supporters. Israelis must recognize as well that the drift toward authoritarian and anti-democratic sentiment is a profound threat to the cohesion of Israeli society. Silencing opposition voices serves no one but those who would see the Jewish and democratic state we support disintegrate into an ultranationalist, extremist parody of the dreams of its founders.
The tens of thousands of Israeli activists who participate in the social change organizations supported by NIF are patriots in the best sense of the word.
They call on their country, every day, to live up to its ideals, to promote freedom, justice and equality for all its citizens, and to refuse to settle for an Israel in which civil rights are subject to political whim.
They are a critical component of what makes Israeli society strong and resilient.
When these difficult days pass – and we have no doubt that Israel has what it takes to get past them – it will be in part because Israeli civil society didn’t give up or give in.
The naysayers of the world, those for whom conformity of thought is a greater source of comfort than democratic freedoms, may continue to seek headlines and attention at the expense of Israel’s democracy.
We will continue to take responsibility for our work, our choices, and our dedication to the Israel we know to be possible.
To do anything less would be to turn our back on the country we love.
Daniel Sokatch is CEO, and Rachel Liel the executive director in Israel, of the New Israel Fund.