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Behind the Headlines: the New Israel Fund Comes of Age, Its Causes Embraced by Mainstream

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The well-dressed crowd noshing on risotto with wild mushrooms and the performance by an Israeli dance troupe at a Lincoln Center theater recently could have been the staples of any United Jewish Appeal event.

But to those present at the bar mitzvah celebration of the New Israel Fund, the professional touches were more a reminder that the NIF is entering a new phase of maturation.

Still, Norman Rosenberg, executive director of the fund, is hesitant to say that the organization is entering the mainstream.

“Our activities, which once were thought to be outside of the mainstream, turn out to be very much in the mainstream of thought in Israel and this country,” he said in an interview.

The New Israel Fund was founded in 1979 by an heir to the Levi Strauss fortune, Eleanor Friedman, and her husband, Jonathan Cohen. They felt that a variety of social problems were emerging in Israel that were being neglected by traditional Jewish philanthropies.

Their concept of fund raising was unique. Instead of Americans raising the money and Israelis spending it, Americans and Israelis would be partners in deciding how the fund’s resources were to be spent. The fund’s board of directors includes North Americans and Israelis.

Beginning with a meager budget of $80,000, the fund this year allocated more than $8 million.

A RADICAL AGENDA?

Yet tarnishing its success are claims that the New Israel Fund has a radical-leftist, anti-Zionist agenda, especially at a time when Israel’s relationship with America is on tenuous ground.

“The fund from the beginning has remained avowedly non-partisan,” said Rosenberg. “We are guided by Israel’s Declaration of Independence and try to support institutions that will provide equality between the various peoples of Israel. But we do not take any positions or fund any political parties. We speak through our grantees.”

And it is through their grantees that the fund conveys a decidedly political message.

At the center of the controversy is the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. Rosenberg spoke of the association as one of the major success stories of the New Israel Fund.

Thanks to grants from the fund, the association went from being virtually unknown to being a major advocate for civil rights in Israel.

Last year, the fund granted the association the largest allocation of it recipients, $722,510.

But the association’s work on behalf of Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza Strip has elicited charges that the New Israel Fund indirectly funds the work of Palestine Liberation Organization agitators.

The group’s media director, Karen Friedman, sees things differently. A citizen’s civil rights, whether Jew or Arab, are guaranteed in Israel’s Declaration of Independence and are also values that define the basis of the friendship between the United States and Israel, she said.

Now that the Cold War is over, America no longer needs Israel as it once did, Friedman said.”The only thing that the two have in common are shared values.”

But if those shared values, such as democracy, tolerance, and pluralism, are eroding, Israel will no longer enjoy U.S. support as it once did, she warned.

The notion of shared values is a complicated one. Recipients of New Israel Fund allocations are often organizations that embrace a much more progressive agenda than most Americans support, especially when it comes to Israel.

And for many American Jews, when they donate money to Israel, they expect it will be spent for the benefit of Jews, not Israeli Arabs, Druze, or Palestinians.

MOST GIVE TO UJA, AS WELL

But Associate Director Aviva Meyer pointed out that 20 different federations allocate money to the fund, and 65 percent of its donor base gives money to the United Jewish Appeal.

The New Israel Fund’s grantees cover a wide spectrum. They include:

* The Association of Forty for Recognition of Arab Villages, an organization that helps Arab villages within Israel’s pre-1967 borders to receive official recognition from the Israeli government.

* The Fund to Aid the Druze, where funding goes to help Druze citizens finance their education after completion of the Israeli army.

* MEITAV: The Israeli Center for Puppet Theater, a group which uses puppet theater with children to improve Jewish-Arab relations.

* The Dai Movement, formed to improve the quality of life among Israel’s poor neighborhoods of predominantly Sephardic Jews.

* Israel AIDS Task Force, a grass-roots organization founded to assist people with AIDS and their families.

The New Israel Fund has also helped fund rape crisis centers and battered women’s shelters, which are helping to raise awareness about issues long ignored in Israel.

“We take care of projects that fall through the cracks of traditional philanthropies,” said David Arnow in his speech at the recent bar mitzvah celebration. Arnow served as the North American chair of the fund for almost a decade.

But as Israel is faced with the enormous task of absorbing the new immigrants from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia, the fund has moved into new venues.

“Absorbing immigrants means more than providing housing and jobs. It means educating these immigrants about utterly new practices and precepts equality, minority rights and the rule of law, to name just a few,” said Arnow.

SHAKEN COMMUNITY TO ITS CORE

An example of this is the New Israel Fund’s support of Shiloh, a private family-planning center that has initiated programs for Soviet women, for whom abortion is the only known form of birth control, to teach them about other available methods.

But as Arnow noted in his speech, more mainstream organizations have begun looking more closely at some of the fund’s grantees, and have supported some of the very same institutions.

The fund will continue in its efforts to bring what once was outside the mainstream into the forefront of the American Jewish agenda.

“The fight to preserve the founding vision of Israel has been raging and has finally shaken the American Jewish community to its core,” said Arnow. “Today we stand at the head of a movement to build the kind of Israel we too long took for granted.”

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