April 25, 2012
There’s more than one way to support the Jewish state
In the landscape of American Jewish organizations, The New Israel Fund (NIF) has long occupied a prominent place on the left side of the aisle. Back in 1979, almost three decades before the “pro-Israel, pro-peace” lobby J Street was established, when Peter Beinart was still in elementary school, NIF began supporting Israeli-based non-profits that advanced the Jewish and democratic identity of Israel.
In the years since, NIF has donated more than $200 million to civil- and human-rights organizations in Israel. Its current list of grantees includes groups advocating for women, Palestinian Israelis, Ethiopian-Jewish Israelis, and Reform and Conservative Jewish practice, to name a few.
The Journal caught up with NIF CEO Daniel Sokatch, formerly the founding executive director of the Los Angeles-based Progressive Jewish Alliance, to discuss changes he’s seen in Israel, how NIF is advancing its mission in the Jewish state and how he manages to stay optimistic about the future.
Jewish Journal: You lived in Israel in the 1990s; how has the country changed since then?
Today, [Israel is] a very different place in terms of the hopes and aspirations that people there feel are realistic. It’s a very different place in terms of the demography. The situation of the Arab-Israeli sector was quite different than what it is today. Many of the fractures and schisms that are so apparent in today’s Israeli society were less exacerbated then.
JJ: Benjamin Netanyahu, both in his time as finance minister and now as prime minister, seems to have really transformed the country.
JJ: Your organization recently launched a new campaign with an ad in The New York Times focusing on extremism and the treatment of women in Israel. It was inspired by one NIF supporter’s trip to Iran, and his concern that there might be parallels between the situation of women in Iran and Israel. Did you worry about that comparison?
JJ: NIF will have a booth at this year’s Celebrate Israel festival in Los Angeles and representatives of the group will be marching in New York’s Celebrate Israel Parade, even as there have been some calls for NIF to be banned, calling the group anti-Israel. What’s it like to be at the center of that contention?
JJ: You brought up the Jewish establishment, so I have to ask you about Peter Beinart.
JJ: Is there something that you usually say when people ask you about him?
JJ: How do you hold onto your idealism?
When I got home, I learned it was King Hussein of Jordan in the plane, the flight was to signal the surprise signing of the peace accords between Israel and Jordan, and Rabin had been in the control tower at the airport talking to him. At that moment, I saw the coming together of the heavenly and the actual Jerusalems. I saw what’s possible, I tasted it — we all did. I just don’t think that’s dead or over; I just think it’s a long hard road to get back there.