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New Israel Fund Takes Stock of Its Success and Shortcomings

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The New Israel Fund is taking advantage of its 20th anniversary to take stock.

The grass-roots advocacy and civil rights organizations that the fund supports in Israel have achieved significant victories for women and minorities in the courts, in businesses and in increased public awareness.

The fund itself has grown from a San Francisco-based upstart in 1979 to an international enterprise with offices on three continents.

Even its harshest critics acknowledge the significance of its work.

Since its inception, the fund has been at the forefront of philanthropic innovation: providing philanthropic outlets for American Jews who want to support progressive causes in Israel and want a say in directing where their donations went.

But for all its high-profile activity, the new Israel Fund has yet to join the big leagues of Israel-focused philanthropies.

In 1997, for example, when NIF revenues neared $18 million, Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, raised more than $52 million in private support; and the American Society for Technion — Israel Institute of Technology, more than $64 million, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

“We’re a small philanthropy by the standards of worldwide Jewry and certainly American Jewry,” said Norman Rosenberg, the fund’s executive director since 1989.

Rosenberg believes that other groups have an advantage because they offer donors a concrete connection to their contributions.

“Bricks and mortar add a kind of stability and seriousness that doesn’t necessarily apply to concepts,” he said.

This realization, however, only strengthens his determination to increase the fund’s public visibility and donor base.

Over the years, the fund has focused its efforts on non-profit groups advocating for values that its leaders feel are essential to democracy, providing seed money and skills training through Shatil, its technical- assistance arm.

Projects concerned with civil rights; the environment; gay and lesbian rights and the rights of people with disabilities; assistance for new immigrants; and Arab-Jewish coexistence have stirred the interests of fund supporters.

It has also set out from its beginning to create a true partnership between Israelis and Diaspora Jews; Israelis constitute one-third of the board of directors.

In 1980 — the year after Jonathan Cohen, a businessman, and his wife, Eleanor Friedman, an heir to the Levi Strauss fortune, first gathered a group of like- minded friends in their Mill Valley, Calif., living room — the New Israel Fund awarded its first $84,000 in grants to 20 Israeli non-governmental organizations.

Last year, 200 groups received grants, according to the fund, and another 500 receive some form of technical assistance.

Still, Cohen said in a telephone interview, the $17.4 million the fund brought in for 1997 is “a drop in the bucket compared to the resources required to really create more broad-based change within the society.”

The fund’s grantees are “operating within a framework that has been extremely difficult,” he said, referring to Israeli government spending policies that favor the Orthodox and reinforce their political clout.

The fund’s single largest grant recipient, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, won several landmark decisions, including the right of women to serve on religious councils. Together with the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center, ACRI in 1995 successfully petitioned the Supreme Court to uphold the legitimacy of non-Orthodox conversions performed in Israel.

ACRI’s work to defend the civil rights of Palestinians and Hamas activists has also brought condemnation — and even physical threats. In 1994, right-wing fringe groups placed an unexploded bomb outside the fund’s New York office.

The fund’s own activities have also fueled the ire of some American Jews.

Last January, the Smithsonian Institution — buckling under public pressure – – pulled out of a lecture series commemorating Israel’s 50th anniversary that it had planned to co-sponsor with NIF.

Americans for a Safe Israel, a New York-based organization, The New York Post and Michael Forbes, a Republican congressman from Long Island, N.Y., had criticized the program of discussions led by journalists, Knesset members and political activists — as unfair and one-sided. Rosenberg responded by charging the program’s opponents with “Jewish McCarthyism.”

The controversy generated national media coverage and prompted the fund to take its program on the road to 23 sites. A spokesman for the fund, Gil Kulick, said one positive effect of the clash was to raise the fund’s public profile.

Donors to the New Israel Fund today number over 17,000 — a 100 percent increase over the last three years.

While the “leftist” label has been hard to shake, the fund is far from an association of aging hippies or anti-Zionist subversives.

According to David Arnow, the fund’s director of public relations and a past president and chairman of the board, the fund’s contributors are “really involved in the Jewish community in a lot of ways.”

Arnow, himself a former vice president and current executive committee member of UJA Federation of New York, said a recent study commissioned by the NIF found that 70 percent of contributors are members of synagogues and more than 50 percent make repeated trips to Israel.

They also give to their local federations (72 percent, according to the study), and a healthy number of federations also give directly to the fund, Arnow said.

As the fund looks ahead to its third decade — and the aim of doubling its income — at least one of its leaders is hoping to return to the fund’s original goal.

Cohen, who plans to rejoin the board later this year, said recently that attracting “social activists with only marginal ties” to the organized Jewish community should remain “a high priority, given the weakening bonds between North American Jews and Israel.”

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