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?
Daniel Sokatch: I went to Israel in 1994 to go to rabbinical school. I realized pretty quickly that what was exciting to me was less the rabbinate than it was Israel. I dropped out of rabbinical school and stayed in Israel for a year and a half, working and soaking up what was a completely golden age, and went back to the United States in September 1995, just about five weeks before the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
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.
DS: Netanyahu led a series of economic shifts that have transformed the country in ways that have resulted in great prosperity for some and — as we saw this summer, when almost half a million people took the streets — massive amounts of discord for many others. But it was a mélange of factors that caused this transformation, and it’s an ongoing transformation.
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?
DS: The ad doesn’t mention Iran at all. Murray Koppelman — this is a pillar of the New York Jewish community [who traveled to Iran and pledged to match all contributions to NIF for the new campaign, up to $500,000] — wasn’t afraid Israel was turning into Iran. He worried, though, because he saw things that reminded him of developments in Israel that have been unsettling to him in recent years, like the segregation of buses, like the removal of images of women in the public sphere, like the attempted crackdown on human rights or civil rights organizations to do their jobs. These things disturbed him, and he came home and said, ‘I don’t want to see my beloved Israel go down that path.’ That’s what the campaign is about.
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?
DS: These are charges made either by extremist right-wing organizations who have vowed to — to use their terminology — “delegitimize” any organization or any individual that doesn’t subscribe to their definition of what it means to be pro-Israel. But we don’t have anybody who gets to dictate what it means to be pro-Israel, and I’m deeply gratified by the response of the Jewish establishment of this country — for the most part — in refusing to blacklist organizations like NIF.
JJ: You brought up the Jewish establishment, so I have to ask you about Peter Beinart.
DS: I knew you were going to ask me about Peter Beinart.
JJ: Is there something that you usually say when people ask you about him?
DS: (Laughing) No, but I’ll say this. I think that our community prides itself on being a big tent. And lots of people say things and put forth ideas. If they do it with good intentions and civility and respect for the opinions of others, I think that we’re crazy not to encourage them.
JJ: How do you hold onto your idealism?
DS: One thing I picked up when I was in rabbinical school was the belief that there are two Jerusalems: Yerushalayim shel ma’alah and Yerushalayim shel mata — in the rabbinical tradition, a heavenly aspirational Jerusalem and a real, actual city where people live. One day, I was walking home and I looked up at the sky when I heard the roar of a jet. There was a big airplane, which flew from the east over Jerusalem, circled the city twice, and flew back to the east. This is 1994, when you can’t do that without violating some enemy country’s airspace.
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.