In the Israeli political discourse, the New Israel Fund is identified with the most extreme fringes of the left and in the eyes of many Israelis, the NIF undermines Israeli democracy.
This article is an open letter to any Liberal American Jew who has ever donated or considered donating to the New Israel Fund (NIF).
Like you, I am a Jew. I am also an Israeli and politically conservative. While we may differ in many things, we share a core identity and values because we are both Jewish. We, and our descendants, probably share a common destiny as well. I find it very unfortunate if that is not the case.
On this premise, I would like to address what is probably one of the biggest causes of discontent for Israelis with the American Jewry – the actions of the New Israel Fund.
When American Jews consider being involved with the NIF, they should take two factors into consideration: One, that in the Israeli political discourse, the NIF is identified with the most extreme fringes of the left. There is a consensus among a majority of Israelis regarding the illegitimacy of organizations such as “Breaking the Silence”, “B’tselem” and “Adalah”. No one is saying these organizations should be legally banned, but almost no one in Israel takes their claims seriously, and almost everyone is suspicious of the motives of people who support these organizations.
Which leads me to the second factor, which is the strong identification the NIF has with American Jewry. The NIF widens the rift between Israel and American Jews, and every cent that goes into the NIF further exacerbates the situation. You can be a liberal, that is fine, but it is important that you understand that when you try to convey your message by means of the NIF, you turn away the Israeli public from your message.
There is one thing that separates, in the eyes of many Israelis, the NIF and its satellite organizations from other, legitimate, left wing organizations: The NIF modus operandi undermines the Israeli democracy. I know that this is a harsh claim but I will prove it with three examples, though there are many more.
Appropriation of “Democracy” itself
The first example is with the very definition of the concept of “democracy” itself. The Israeli left, with the encouragement of the NIF, has appropriated the term, claiming that ‘democracy’ is a governmental function that champions human rights. I believe that this appropriation of the term is a common occurrence with leftist movements the world over, but this, none the less, doesn’t make it true. Webster and Oxford English dictionaries, at least, don’t agree with that definition and define democracy in the old fashioned way: “government by the people; especially: rule of the majority”, as Webster puts it.
Human rights are important, and in my eyes should be a part of any democracy. In no way though, are they the essence of democracy. If that were the case, democracies would not have armies, thus leading to the extinction of said democracies at the hands of enemies, who have no such commitment to human rights. If human rights were the essence of democracy, no democracy could maintain establishments such as prisons or even mental institutions, where certain individual rights are sacrificed for the sake of the right and well being of other individuals and the collective. Simply put, identifying democracy with human rights is not only literally wrong, it is also suicidal at worst, and impractical at best.
The way in which the NIF uses the term in Israel is even more at odds with any possible interpretation of democracy: Politics at times creates circumstances that necessitate choosing between individual rights and other values; or the conflicting legitimate rights of two individuals or groups. The true essence of democracy is that such questions are determined by the people through mechanisms that involve majority rule. However, according to the Israeli left, led by prominent figures from the NIF, the only democratic outcome of such a debate is what they decide it should be. This, without any presumption of consistency no less. They claim to fight for minorities, but there are some minorities – like the Haredim, or the Jews in Judea and Samaria – who’s human rights are always magically necessary to be sacrificed for the greater good.
It is not their opinions themselves that trouble me, nor the inconsistency. Israel is a free country and any individual or organization has the right to an opinion. What troubles me is the claim that the NIF is the only official interpreter of the meaning of ‘democracy’, and worse – that which opposes its views, undermines democracy. This is the exact opposite of democracy: when the rules of the game predetermine the outcome, this is not a democracy. The meaning of democracy cannot be that only the opinions of people who identify with the NIF are to be considered.
So, by abducting the term democracy and portraying any oppositions to its opinion, regardless of its virtues, as an attack on the system itself, the NIF is in effect undermining Israel’s democracy. Employing this tactic undermines democracy, because it undermines the right of the other side to have a legitimate opposing opinion in any debate.
The first offense against Israeli democracy is messing with the meaning of the term itself. The next two offenses are tied to the practices the NIF uses to promote its ideology.
The Civil Service Conundrum
Israel has a severe problem with its government structure that is not the fault of the NIF. What it can be faulted for is taking advantage of this weakness to promote its agenda against the legitimate wishes of the Israeli citizens.
In Israel, like in the UK (but unlike in the US), government officials and employees may receive tenure and cannot be fired upon transition of administrations. This works well in the UK, due to its long chivalry tradition of knights who pledged allegiance to the crown and took pride for not having opinions of their own. In Israel, on the other hand, this has never worked. In the first three decades of the country, appointments were strictly and out-rightly political. This was not a problem, because the long standing Mapai governments enjoyed the trust of the people. The first time Israel needed to address the question of what model of government appointments should be preferred – the American or the British – was after the 1977 elections, when the Likud took power for the first time.
Given the clear political nature in which appointments were made at the time, the answer should have been clear: the new administration gets to appoint its own people. But this was not the decision the new Prime Minister, Menachem Begin made. He decided to credit the existing officials with impartial professionalism. He kept them from packing their stuff and looking for other jobs and let them keep their positions, at the expense of the democratic decision that brought him to power.
Some people call it chivalry, I call it a severe case of Stockholm Syndrome. For decades, Begin had been hunted by both the British, during the pre-state era and by Mapai, once the state was created. For the Israeli left, Begin was the ultimate nemesis. When finally elected, he was determined to show his admiration to the British by adopting their unfitting system, and how he is better than Mapai, by leaving its people in influential positions of power, despite the public ruling against them.
This decision by Begin created a false identification between leftist ideology and impartial professional standing. After all, those officials were celebrated for their professionalism, even when in fact they were appointed due to their personal ideology. So as the thinking went – aren’t the two actually the same thing?
This means that even without the NIF, Israel has a problem with public officials who lean far more to the left than most of the public. But without the NIF, it is fair to assume that the problem would have been resolved by now. The NIF manages to perpetuate this flaw in Israeli democracy and uses it to steer the Israeli governments away from the will of the public.
They do so by operating programs that are specifically targeted to those government officials. The flagship program of the NIF is the lawyers program. Around since 1985, this program picks talented liberal lawyers and sends them to get an LL.m in American university. The program is targeted, according to the Hebrew NIF website, to “train legal leadership in the fields of human rights, civil rights and social justice”.
Those three, of course, are outright heavily political liberal terms. The very thinking that an organization with such clear political motivation will have anything to do with training tenured civil servants is absurd. But the NIF managed to consistently knead into the public opinion the perception that those terms are in fact not political, but the essence of democracy. Object to them, and as I mentioned before, you object democracy.
Under the Begin civil service conundrum, the officials who are actually in charge of training public officials, embraced the programs. They treat the graduation from this program not as a political stain, that might undermine a candidates impartiality, but as a professional virtue.
Alumni of this program now sit as judges and public attorneys. Naturally, some of them stayed on home field and legally serve extreme leftist NIF supported organizations. It is not uncommon to see cases in the administrative court where the plaintiff, the state representative of the government and the judge are all NIF alumni. Graduates of this extremely political program discuss government policies in an official capacity, while the public and its representatives are kept out.
The Lawyers Program is only one example. NIF organizations operate programs for officials in other segments. For example, the NIF supported Hartman Institute operates a program in the IDF senior command college.
The NIF is political. This is why you support it or consider doing so – its agenda aligns with your liberal beliefs. But having a political organization interfering with the actions of Israeli elected government, disguised as a professional, impartial organization, is wrong. It ruins Israeli democracy.
Another common practice of the NIF which undermines Israeli democracy, is the fact that it encourages its satellite organizations to accept donations from foreign governments. The NIF even mediates between those governments and its organizations.
The reason this practice is so problematic is because it interferes with the role nonprofit political organizations are supposed to play in a democracy: a public representative needs to decide his agenda – that is, his answers to specific burning public questions that could not have been foreseen before the elections. In order to do so, he needs to hear from the public. Along with traditional and social media, NGOs play a crucial role in this mechanism. They have the professional knowledge on the various issues that enables them to articulate what the problems really are, and what policy should be adopted to answer them.
In order for this mechanism to work properly, the map of the organizations should reflect the spread of opinion in the public. When a certain portion of the NGO map gets significant financial help from elements that do not represent opinions of the constituency, the result is an unbalanced map of claims, that distorts the ability of the representative to see what the public really wants.
No private donor, conservative or liberal, can compete with the financial capabilities of a country or of the EU. Those government donations, mostly moderated by the NIF, destroy the capability of the Israeli public to convey what it truly wants to the government. A government that cannot hear the wishes of the public, cannot function as a true democracy.
Illegalizing cannot be the Solution
The thing about the two practical examples brought above is that they are extraordinarily sophisticated. In theory, a society has the power to oppose threats to democracy by deeming them as illegal. But the price of banning those two courses of action is too high.
It is a good thing for a government to outsource its employees training, and there is no effective legal way to distinguish between a true professional training program to the NIF’s ideological missionary programs.
It is also legitimate for a government to support NGOs in other countries. Such donations are common practice for governments who want to support establishments abroad that are affiliated with them (i.e the Greek government’s support to the Greek church worldwide). Governments that simply support the poor in other places is also a positive phenomenon – one which some of the NIF political enterprises are disguised as. Banning external government support to NGOs is costly in many ways, and the distinction between legitimate causes to NIF subversion is not easy.
The Respectful Way
Throughout this entire article I did not target the opinions or ideas supported by the NIF. While I, of course, heavily disagree with those opinions, they do have their merits, are legitimate ideas and are therefore welcomed. But even if you share views with the NIF, you must acknowledge that not all means are Kosher, and the ones that the NIF uses are obviously treif.
If, despite knowing what was described here, you continue supporting the NIF, then you have little trust in the ability of the Israeli public to make the right decisions for themselves. This premise is not only factually wrong, it also has devastating implications for the relations between Israeli and American Jews.
If you are the kind of American Jew who thinks that American Jewry knows better than Israelis what is in their best interest, well, then you are wrong. Israel is a vibrant democracy (despite the NIF malicious innuendo), and it welcomes discussion. Condescension though, is not a form of discussion.
If you care about Israel in the sense that you wish to have a say in the Israeli public discussion, welcome aboard. You don’t share our security burden, nor the immediate implications of the policies you suggest. This all means that you cannot take part in the electoral process, unless you make Aliyah. Despite that, and since you are Jewish, your opinion is welcome and matters to us. Yet, you must find a respectful way to engage.
Supporting the NIF and its satellite organizations does not imply respect for us. It therefore draws no respect from us. If you wish for your opinion to be heard by the Israeli public, stop trying to force it on us through the anti-democratic practices of the NIF, and let’s start talking.
Ziv Maor is the Editor of Mida Online magazine