As a progressive Jew, I look on with grave concern at the recent attacks on the New Israel Fund (NIF). But this is not a left-right issue. All responsible members of the Jewish community, regardless of their political position, should be alarmed. The assaults on NIF represent a sharp, but consistent, deterioration in Jewish public discourse. (See story on Page 15.) The evidence is clear enough. A new Israeli group called Im Tirtzu has run ads in newspapers and billboards depicting NIF President Naomi Chazan as possessing a horn (what have we sunk to when a Jewish organization applies such old and pernicious anti-Semitic stereotypes to fellow Jews?) and accusing NIF of being responsible for accusations of war crimes against Israel. Meanwhile, a long article in the Israeli newspaper Maariv on Jan. 29 blamed NIF as one of the chief conspirators behind the Goldstone report. On the basis of that article, several members of the Knesset moved to create — fortunately without success — a commission of inquiry into the link between NIF grantees and the Goldstone report.
These accusations cannot be seen in isolation from other attempts at delegitimization of progressive voices. In late December, Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren referred to the new Israel lobbying group J Street as a “unique problem” that “opposes all policies of all Israeli governments.” More recently, the well-known law professor and Israel “advocate” Alan Dershowitz characterized Judge Richard Goldstone as a traitor to his people and an “evil, evil man.”
What actually is the common thread that links NIF to J Street (and, for that matter, to Richard Goldstone)? It is hardly their blithe disregard for the welfare of the State of Israel. On the contrary, all are Zionists who strongly support the idea that the State of Israel has a right to exist in peace and security — alongside a peaceful and secure state of Palestine. This is what is known as the two-state solution, and it is the declared policy of the government of Israel as articulated by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
What so unnerves the critics — and what prompts them to try to shame the NIF into silence — is that the NIF manifests its loyalty to Israel by pursuing a simple and noble aim: to assure that the Jewish state realize the soaring rhetoric embodied in its own Declaration of Independence. To understand how misguided the criticism of NIF is, let us recall the words of the Declaration. Its drafters conceived of a state that:
“will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.”
If this is a set of ideals to which the guardians of Israel’s good name still adhere, then the NIF must be seen, without hesitation, as a force for good. For over three decades, it has acted on the principle that “Israel can live up to its founders’ vision of a state that ensures complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants, without regard to religion, race or gender.” It has consistently sought to realize this vision by funding a wide array of important causes: providing assistance to battered women, promoting religious tolerance, encouraging economic empowerment to impoverished Jews and Arabs alike, supporting a greener Israel and working on behalf of the rights of immigrant workers. This is not glamorous work. But it is essential work. It is work that seeks to benefit those in greatest need, indeed, those who have fallen between the cracks of Israeli society.
NIF has a powerful vision of “Yisrael ha-yafa,” the beautiful Israel that was on display in the Haiti relief effort. It believes that it can best advance this goal by comforting the afflicted, a task that requires, at times, afflicting the comfortable. For NIF, it is far better to be self-critical than self-satisfied. This is not to be excoriated. It is to be honored. After all, it is a similar impulse that led this country to expurgate its own racist tendencies and structures. It is a similar self-critical impulse that we frequently ask of Islamic societies as they battle their jihadist demons. And it is an impulse that has animated Jewish activists from the biblical prophets to the labor unionists in this country in the 20th century.
Now is the time to stand up against the vitriolic attacks on the NIF. Not only are our norms of communal civility at risk. More importantly, our commitment to the supreme Jewish value of “justice, justice thou shall pursue” (Deuteronomy 16:20) — the foundation of our moral being — hangs in the balance.
David N. Myers teaches Jewish history at UCLA. He is a member of the state board of the Progressive Jewish Alliance.