Tell them the truth, Mr. Leibler

It can't be delegitimization of Israel to point out that the state is threatened by Jewish extremism.

baruch marzel 88 (photo credit: )
baruch marzel 88
(photo credit: )
Yet again, the important research presented recently by Steven Cohen and Ari Kelman, which demonstrates the estrangement of young Diaspora Jews from Israel, is being used to demonize organizations and values that do not comply with an invisible but real "party line." Isi Leibler condemned the New Israel Fund, among others, as a "Jewish defamer of Israel" in these pages. Apparently, providing a platform for two prominent Arab citizens of Israel - among the 28 diverse representatives of Israeli society who spoke at the recent NIF Forum in New York - is enough to consign our organization to the infamous category of self-hating Jews. Notwithstanding Leibler's criticism, NIF is proud of the fact that we encourage open debate regarding sensitive topics, and allow an often-unheard minority to present their perspectives of their role as Israeli citizens to an audience that cares passionately about the future of Israel. The saddest aspect of this knee-jerk reaction is that it will undoubtedly increase the disaffection so many young Diaspora Jews feel for Israel. Our own research demonstrates that many American Jews, of all ages, love Israel but are distressed by certain flaws in its democratic character. They - and we - would like to see Diaspora Jewish communities become as vibrant, passionate and free-wheeling in debate about the future of Israel as are Israelis, and without fear of the self-appointed censors who denounce such conversations as anti-Israel or subversive. Suppressing discussion of Israel's choices, and of its character and identity, will guarantee that even more Diaspora Jews are alienated from dishonest and manipulative efforts to "defend" the state. This is especially true for younger Jews. Every parent knows that if there is one evil that young people immediately recognize, it is hypocrisy. When Jewish organizations trumpet Israel as "the one democracy in the Middle-East," and then denigrate those who point out where Israel does not quite live up to the title, today's young Jews will not be fooled. When organizations attempt to equip young Jews with information to battle the all-too-real anti-Israel propaganda on college campuses, but do so by ignoring issues pertaining to human rights and social justice, the most likely outcome is alienation from the propaganda emanating from both sides in the all-or-nothing screaming match. Certainly, most young Jews would like to respond to ignorant calumnies by those who categorize Israel as an apartheid state, but not by avoiding the intricate and difficult story of two peoples and one land. WE AT THE New Israel Fund actually have a special tie to the younger generation - we employ and work with many of them at SHATIL, our action arm in Israel. Hundreds of Israelis younger than 35 regularly train and empower underprivileged people and communities all over the country, from the five Jewish-Arab mixed cities to the neglected development towns, from urban slums in Tel Aviv and Haifa to Beduin tents in the Negev. The young people leading our economic empowerment, religious pluralism and human rights programs are themselves the best example of how Israel can evolve into a society that lives up to the values of its founders. We would venture a guess that an encounter with these activists, who work 60 and 70-hour weeks to improve the country they love, would do more to build a sense of connection among young Diaspora Jews to the real Israel that exists than any number of expensive public relations or outreach campaigns. Our New Generations program has provided a constructive venue for young donors and activists to participate in an open intellectual environment. For many of these formerly disconnected Jews, there is real power in conversation. And, as an observer remarked of the recent NIF Forum, "Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this conference was the large presence of young people in their 20s and 30s - a demographic group that Jewish and especially liberal Jewish organizations have had difficulty recruiting in recent years." AS SOMEONE who has worked in various countries around the world promoting democracy, I am excited by the fact that my current job allows me work for an established, albeit flawed, democracy, with a thriving civil society that holds the Israeli government accountable for its actions. Having spent several years living in Israel during the second intifada, I also appreciate the profound sense of physical and psychological insecurity that many Israelis experience on a daily basis. Balancing democratic freedoms with security concerns is no easy matter, as Americans have quickly learned in the years since 9/11. But it cannot be, as Leibler claims, de-legitimization of Israel or of Zionism to point out that the state is threatened by the forces of extremism, intolerance and ultra-nationalism. The week after hundreds of soccer fans booed the memory of Yitzhak Rabin, while cheering his assassin, is a strange week to be criticizing progressive organizations for their supposed disloyalty to Israel. NIF will continue to promote the values of democracy, equality and social justice for all Israelis. We believe our work, and our values, will attract young Jews to a realistic vision of Israel - the Israel that still strives to live up to its ideals. In the marketplace of ideas, we are confident that our vision of advancing democratic change will stand up quite well, no matter how many shrill voices attempt to force us into a dying paradigm. We are not alienating the Diaspora from Israel; we are offering the Diaspora a way to work with Israelis to build the state we all know to be possible. The writer is the CEO of the New Israel Fund.