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NIF changes funding guidelines, but what does it mean?

By Ron Kampeas, JTA

September 21, 2010 | 2:45 pm

New Israel Fund director Daniel Sokatch says the Jewish identity issue will become integral to the group's pitch to donors.

New Israel Fund director Daniel Sokatch says the Jewish identity issue will become integral to the group's pitch to donors.

When Adalah, an Israeli Arab legal rights group, joined an initiative in 2007 to create an Israeli constitution that would dilute—if not remove—the state’s Jewish character, it unleashed a furor in pro-Israel circles.

Much of the anger was directed at the New Israel Fund, a fund-raiser for an array of progressive Israeli organizations that in the same year had sent or directed at least $70,000 to Adalah.

The controversy was among others involving the New Israel Fund that helped spur the formulation of new guidelines for its grantees. Made public last week, the guidelines require that grantees commit to avoiding actively undermining Israel’s Jewish identity.

Daniel Sokatch, NIF’s director, says the Jewish identity issue will become integral to the group’s pitch to donors.

“We believe that Israel is the vehicle for the national sovereignty of the Jewish people and simultaneously an open society conferring equality on all its citizens,” he told JTA in an interview in the group’s Washington offices.

A participant in a conference call Sokatch held Monday with NIF board members and major donors said the new guidelines were intended to clarify NIF’s mission and did not represent a shift in philosophy.

Qualifications in the guidelines left NIF’s critics wondering exactly how applying the new guidelines would work.

The change at NIF follows a difficult year for the organization.

Decades of muted criticism for its support of a handful of groups that track alleged Israeli abuses and accommodate the non-Zionist outlook that prevails in Israel’s Arab sector—among hundreds of organizations backed by NIF—burst into a noisy campaign calling for NIF to change its ways. Some Israeli lawmakers wanted to impose legal controls on how NIF operates in Israel.

Critics, led by NGO Monitor, an organization set up to track nongovernmental groups it says undermine Israel, said that NIF, wittingly or not, was allowing itself to be sucked into a movement that seeks to delegitimize Israel as racist in the hopes of replacing it with a binational or Palestinian state.

Ultimately, the calls to censure NIF were rebuffed by top Israeli officials and the criticism of NIF abated. An array of public figures, including important leaders on the political right, defended the right of nongovernmental organizations to operate without excessive scrutiny.

In at least one case, the campaign against NIF backfired against the organization’s critics.

Im Tirtzu, a group that had distributed an illustration of NIF President Naomi Chazan as a horned creature, has lost the backing of Jewish and evangelical groups that had provided it with hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Sokatch, who became NIF director 11 months ago, still isn’t resting easy. He is an evangelist of the notion that NIF is honoring both adjectives—“Jewish” and “democratic”—that pro-Israel groups attach to virtually every mention of Israel.

During the interview with JTA, Sokatch repeatedly pointed to a copy of Israel’s Declaration of Independence gracing an otherwise bare wall, making the point that both elements appear in the founding document. It was the basis, he said, for item seven in the newly published guidelines, under a section beginning, “Organizations that engage in the following activities will not be eligible for NIF grants or support.”

The item bars funding for groups that work “to deny the right of the Jewish people to sovereign self-determination within Israel, or to deny the rights of Palestinian or other non-Jewish citizens to full equality within a democratic Israel.”

It was the first time that NIF cited Jewish self-determination as a factor in funding.

“Whenever anyone applies to the New Israel Fund for funding or when they apply for re-funding, that will be the lens through which we make that evaluation,” Sokatch said, referring to the entirety of the guidelines, including passages that promote equal rights.

The guidelines are not retroactive, which exempts Adalah and a number of Israeli-Arab groups that submitted contributions to the Arab-Israeli constitution project.

Going forward, Sokatch suggested that NIF would not be as sanguine as in the past about such activities. In the past, the NIF leadership has said it does not agree with all that its grantees say or do, but it would support their right to speak as they wish in a democratic society.

Sokatch said last week that now, “if we had an organization that made part of its project, part of its mission, an effort to really, genuinely organize on behalf of creating a constitution that denied Israel as a sovereign vehicle for self-determination for the Jewish people, a Jewish homeland, if that became the focus of one of our organizations’ work, we would not support that organization.”

After JTA published Sokatch’s remark last week, it raised a storm of controversy. Sokatch subsequently contacted JTA to clarify, saying that such a “mission” would have to be central to an organization’s activities in order to result in a suspension of funding, and that NIF would be the one to make the determination over whether or not that threshold had been reached.

Gerald Steinberg, who directs NGO Monitor, was among the NIF critics wondering how the new guidelines would be applied.

“The question is how is it going to be implemented—when and how—and how are the internal battles are going to be resolved,” said Steinberg.

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