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Jewish Journal

New Israel Fund renews local presence after four-year hiatus

by Tom Tugend

November 1, 2007 | 8:00 pm

"People in Israel are so overloaded by big problems, mainly security but also corruption, that it's easy to disconnect from dealing with social inequities," said Ronit Heyd, a young Israeli activist.

Heyd, joined by Ilana Litvak, who came to Israel from the former Soviet Union, and Nidal Abed El Gafer, a Palestinian lawyer, were in Los Angeles last week as three "connected" Israelis, working to empower their country's underprivileged and raise the level of civic involvement.

Their presence at a roundtable was sponsored by the New Israel Fund (NIF), which has just raised its Los Angeles profile by reestablishing a local office, after a four-year hiatus.

Its director is Ellen Barrie Aaronson, long active in the Jewish community and the entertainment industry, most recently as vice president for development at Johnenelly Production, is in the process of setting up the office.

NIF was founded in 1979 to work toward "a more just, equitable and pluralistic state of Israel," according to its mission statement. NIF helps grass-roots groups, through grants, training and coalition building, to move into the Israeli mainstream. These groups include new immigrants, especially Ethiopians, women's rights activists, gays, Israeli Arabs and people with disabilities. Since its establishment, NIF has distributed more than $200 million in grants to 800 organizations in Israel.

Shatil (Hebrew for seedling), NIF's action arm, mentors and trains civic groups to take their fates into their own hands and bring their needs to the attention of government, media and society at large.

In addressing some 80 people at the Beverly Hills Country Club (located in Cheviot Hills), three speakers representing Shatil illustrated their organization's principles through concrete examples of their work.

Gafer, a graduate of the Tel Aviv University law school, has worked to prevent the demolition of "illegal" Arab homes through court appeals. In another case, he has sought to allow students from inferior Arab schools to attend better Jewish schools.

He has had some success in this "affirmative action" suit, but, he noted, Arab and Jewish students must use the common school playground at separate times.

Heyd worked in northern Israel, heavily shelled during the Lebanon War, when wealthier residents fled south, but the poor stayed behind.

"The Israel government failed to provide shelter and food for those left behind," Heyd said. "We got grass-roots groups together to demand public hearings on why the government had fouled up."

Litvak's main concern is to find ways of boosting Ethiopian and Russian kids, who have great difficulties in keeping up in school.

In a conversation after the meeting, Aviva Sagalovitch Meyer, NIF's national associate director, said that the Washington, D.C.-based organization has a $25 million annual budget and six branch offices in the United States, four in Israel, and one each in London and Toronto.

Meyer said that about 6 percent of NIF's general support donors and revenue came from the L. A. area, and she hoped that the establishment of a local office would raise these figures.

Last month, the Ford Foundation renewed a $20 million grant to NIF.

The Los Angeles roundtable was marked by a harmonious atmosphere, in apparent contrast to a similar all-day seminar in New York.

There, according to a JTA report, an Arab speaker, whose organization is supported by NIF, regretted that his fellow Palestinians didn't take up arms to fight the denial of their rights by "Israeli occupiers."

Another Israeli Arab, a law professor at Hebrew University, called for a change in Israel's flag and national anthem.

It is NIF's support of Arab groups, such as those represented by the two speakers, that raise the hackles of critics. One opponent cited is Gerald Steinberg, director of NGO Monitor, a hawkish pro-Israel watchdog organization.

Referring to the remarks of the two speakers, Steinberg said, "This is not about making Israel a better society; it's about denying the legitimacy of Israel to exist."

In response, Larry Garber, NIF's CEO, said that his organization would continue to fund Arab rights groups, even if they say or do things with which the NIF doesn't quite agree.

Meyer, NIF's associate director, added, "When you join a group, not everything is going to be something you like; you support the broad position. You don't expect to agree with every position."

Eliezer Ya'ari, who heads NIF's operations in Israel, said that differences between NIF and its critics come down to a matter of ideology. On one side are those, in Israel and the Diaspora, who see Israel as a Middle Eastern country of all its citizens, as against those more interested in preserving the Jewish nature of the state, even at the expense of democratic principles.

"The challenge in the next 60 years," he said, "is making Israel a part of the Middle East."

For more information on the New Israel Fund, call (310) 566-6367. For more information on NIF, e-mail eaaronson@nif.org.

JTA associate editor Uriel Heilman contributed to this article.

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