On the 11th floor of a Seventh Avenue office building in New York City, an oversized silver mezuzah hangs beside a mahogany door. The dark wood is emblazoned with the words “New Israel Fund” in gold letters, inscribed in both English and Hebrew. Inside, the walls of the office are painted with the same blue and white of the Israeli flag.
The New Israel Fund (NIF) was founded in 1979 to expand the reach of the United Jewish Appeal, a philanthropic organization that worked to provide aid for Jewish and Israeli communities worldwide. Today, the NIF has offices in 12 cities in 6 different countries, from Jerusalem to Miami. The organization advocates for the advancement of “democracy and equality for all Israelis” by providing funding for NGOs that promote “human rights, social justice and religious pluralism” for every inhabitant of the Jewish State, both Jew and Arab. “The NIF is a pro-democratic, Israeli organization that’s based in the roots of Zionism,” says Itzik Shanan, an Israeli employee of the NIF in Jerusalem.
The NIF states that it works towards a progressive Jewish State that lives up to its founder’s vision of a just, egalitarian society. “Work needs to be done to close the gap between where Israel is now and what was outlined in the Declaration of Independence,” says Jimmy Taber, NIF’s associate director for development in the NY/Tri-State area.
The organization, however, has sparked controversy because of its opposition to Israeli settler and military activity within Palestinian territories. The NIF considers the settlements to be an impediment to the peace offered by the two-state solution and this position is reflected in the agendas of the NGOs they fund. For example, NIF supports Breaking the Silence, an organization that documents testimonies of Israeli soldiers, which highlight the abuses of the military against Palestinians. The NIF’s opponents are adamant that this practice is treacherously anti-Israel. “They fund organizations that are calling for the delegitimization of Israel in the European community,” says Richard Allen, founder of the conservative watchdog group JCCWatch. “These are organizations that are very, very evil.”
For several years now, Taber and his colleagues at the NIF have been dealing with this controversy in the context of, of all things, a parade. The NIF’s critics have wanted the organization banned from New York City’s annual Celebrate Israel Parade, an event that bills itself as “the single largest gathering in the world in support of Israel.” Last year more than 200 Jewish organizations, from the conservative Park Avenue synagogue to the Chai Motorcycle Riders Association, joined in the event as more than 35,000 participants waved Israeli flags and banners while they marched and rode floats down Fifth Avenue. The UJA-Federation of New York, the current incarnation of the United Jewish Appeal, funds the event, which will be held on May 31 this year. Michael Mittelman, the director of the event, says that the intention behind the American parade has always been to “show there is much affinity for Israel in our community and that celebrating Israel can unite people with different views, beliefs and agendas.” For this reason, overt political lobbying groups, such as the progressive group J Street, are excluded from participating.
The parade was inaugurated in 1965, and the New Israel Fund has been marching since the organization was founded in 1979. But this year, thanks to new parade rules, the anti-NIF camp has reason to believe that the group might actually be banned. The furor surrounding the NIF’s participation in the parade illustrates how tough it can be to maintain a progressive Zionist identity at a time when the Jewish State is feeling particularly besieged, both by the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and from international opposition to the state’s policies. In this anxiety-provoking climate, the voice of the liberal Zionist finds itself attacked all on sides.
In the registration form for the 2015 Celebrate Israel Parade, the parade’s organizers, the New York’s Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC), the branch of the UJA-Federation that coordinates community events, explicitly banned any organizations that support the boycott of Israel. The stipulation stems from antagonism against the 10-year-old Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, which wants the global community to impose non-violent pressure on Israel so that it ends what BDS proponents consider to be the colonial oppression of Palestinians. The new rule reads: “All groups must oppose, not fund, nor advocate for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, which seeks to delegitimize the State of Israel by not recognizing it as a Jewish State.”
The New Israel Fund insists it opposes BDS. “The reality is we don’t support BDS,” Taber says. But not everyone believes the organization’s leaders. “They are calling for a boycott of Israeli companies,” Allen argues. “Their goal is to distance American Jews from supporting the state of Israel, which is clearly against the purpose of the Israel Parade.” Allen has been leading the charge against the NIF’s parade participation for several years. Last April, he organized a rally of 200 people outside the headquarters of the UJA-Federation to protest their inclusion.
The NIF’s position on the boycott movement is nuanced and easily misunderstood. Their statement on the movement reads: “NIF will not fund global BDS activities nor support organizations that have global BDS programs.” While they are against the global movement to boycott the Jewish State as a whole, they are willing to support organizations that advocate for a boycott of companies that profit from Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory. However, Naomi Paiss, a spokeswoman for the NIF, recently told Haaretz that this policy remains, at this point, hypothetical. Currently, no NIF grantee advocates for a settlement boycott. “Recognize and explain the difference between the global BDS movement and the right that Israeli citizens have to protest with their pockets,” writes Stephanie Ives, the NY/Tri-State state director for the NIF, in an op-ed for The Jewish Week.
The NIF’s opponents refuse to see the distinction. “[The settlements] are part of Israel, and any boycott of Israel is harmful,” writes Ronn Torossian, a PR expert who represents conservative Israeli interests, in an editorial for The New York Observer. “This isn’t a matter of right versus left,” argues Torossian, in another op-ed penned for The New York Post. He writes, “Those who stand with the New Israel Fund are wrong—as are those who’d let it march in our city’s Celebrate Israel Parade.”
Since February, the NIF’s opponents have ramped up their attacks, and criticism of the NIF has gone beyond concern over the legitimacy of their presence at the parade. The Jewish Daily Forward went so far as to describe it as a smear campaign. “This is a character assassination of the worst kind,” wrote Deborah Lipstadt and David Ellenson. In early March, Pamela Geller, the controversial conservative political activist, announced that an ad campaign worth $100,000, indicting the NIF of seeking Israel’s destruction, would soon be running on the sides of New York City buses, just in time for the parade. The banner ad is jet black. In one corner reads the hashtag “Jewicidal” and in another corner is the slogan “BDS: the new Nazism.” Just above the text is a wartime photograph depicting Nazi persecution of German Jews. “There’s one side of it that’s just sad,” Taber says. “It’s a real violent rhetoric that seems to be coming from a place of fear.”
THE BOYCOTT, DIVESTMENT and Sanctions (BDS) movement was initiated in 2005. A multitude of Palestinian groups endorsed a global “Call for BDS,” which requested that the international community impose on Israel similar cultural, trade, and financial restrictions to those placed upon apartheid-era South Africa. The call was intended to peacefully delimit Israel until the state agreed to three concessions: first, to end its “Occupation and colonization of all Arab lands”; second, to ensure “the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel”; and third, to grant the right for all Palestinians to return to “their homes and properties as stipulated in UN resolution 194.”
For many Jews, the problem with the initial Palestinian call for BDS and the traction the movement has since gained internationally is that it encases an anti-Israel agenda in what Ilan Troen, the director of Brandeis University’s Center for Israel Studies, maintains is merely “the language of human rights.” Gideon Aronoff, CEO of Ameinu, a liberal Zionist organization that is firmly against the boycott movement, says, “When people say they support the global BDS movement they, intentionally or unintentionally, are committed to the destruction of the Jewish state.”
Todd Gitlin, a sociologist and political writer at Columbia University, agrees. Writing in Tablet magazine last year, he described the global BDS movement in terms of what he calls “the politics of ‘radical’ gestures.” He wrote, “BDS looks like a plausible feel-good proposition for people who are weary of endless bloodshed,” but “many supporters of BDS do not understand, or have not thought through, just what they are subscribing to.” For example, while the Call’s first objective appears to be a reasonable, progressive request, Gitlin says the phrase “is coded to imply the very existence of the state of Israel, as recognised in 1948, is what constitutes ‘colonization.’” In other words, for the occupation and the colonization of all Arab lands to end, Israel would have to be geographically dismantled. Aronoff argues that the parade’s new rule thus reflects a “fairly mainline Jewish organizational position.”
Mittelman did not respond to a request for an explanation as to why the new anti-BDS rule was added to the event registration. Aronoff, though, said, “The Celebrate Israel Parade is intended by organizers to be a feel-good, unifying event. There is a strong desire for it to not be a source of controversy.” Clarifying parade policy was meant to prevent further protest. It was not, he argues, an attempt to exclude progressive organizations like the NIF. But unfortunately the new rule, rather than allay uncertainty, has only contributed to the confusion.
At the beginning of this year, when the parade’s registration packet was first released, the New Israel Fund’s conservative opponents rejoiced because it seemed clear that the NIF would not be able to participate. “Those who dedicate their time to demonizing Israel have no place in a parade to celebrate Israel,” said Michael Dickson, director of a pro-Israel advocacy organization called StandWithUs, who “lauded the new guidelines,” according to the Times of Israel. In the same piece, Matan Peleg, CEO of Im Tirtzu, an Israeli extra-parliamentary Zionist group, is quoted as saying that the new rule “is a giant leap for American Zionism. It is saying that those who reject Israel as a democratic state and are pro-BDS are not with us.”
However, it’s currently impossible to know for certain whether the NIF will or will not participate. In February, Mittelman told the Times of Israel that a list of participating organizations will not be released until a week prior to the date of the parade. Taber says, “We’re preparing for the parade the same as every year.” He says that the New Israel Fund’s policies match the parade’s developed guidelines, so he thinks they will be marching. “ It’s important for us to participate because we are part of this community,” he says.
Meanwhile the attacks on the NIF continue to rage. Taber mentions a cartoon that was uploaded to YouTube in the middle of February. It’s titled “The Eternal Jew?” The animation portrays a hook-nosed Jewish caricature carrying out the nefarious bidding of a European financier who wants to run newspaper headlines depicting Israel in a negative light. The cartoon ends with the traitorous Jew hanging himself from a tree, the final order of his European puppet-master. Logos belonging to a number of progressive organizations, including the New Israel Fund’s, are then displayed next to the swinging body. A narrator announces, “The Europeans may seem different to you … but to them you are exactly the same.”
“It’s the most anti-Semitic attack I’ve ever suffered,” Taber says, “and it was made by Israelis.” The Samaria Settler Council, an organization that protects Israeli rights in the occupied territories, produced the piece of propaganda. Aronoff stresses how this “grotesquely un-nuanced way of thinking” serves as a political tool for the far right. It works to “silence voices on the left and to promote their exclusive political orthodoxy,” he says. By bracketing all leftist groups under the alarm-sounding label of the global BDS movement, ultra-conservative Jews are able to “justify a campaign against all progressive organizations.”
Rabbi Ayelet S. Cohen, who works at Manhattan’s Jewish Community Center, says that this is what’s truly problematic about the controversy surrounding the parade. “People are getting a suspicion of something that’s based on lies, and yet it’s a very powerful campaign,” she says.
In spite all of this Taber remains undeterred. Being a Zionist while sustaining a progressive vision can certainly have its challenges, but that’s why he’s proud to be a part of the work the NIF does. “People feel shutdown by the dominant discourse,” Taber says. “They feel alienated.” He adds, “It doesn’t have to be this way.”
Jas Chana is a freelance journalist who is based in New York City. Follow him on Twitter @jsjchana.