NEW YORK, Nov. 12 (JTA) — A group fighting for social justice in Israel is launching a media campaign to fight what it considers threats to Israeli democracy. The New Israel Fund is launching a Web site and running a series of ads in The New York Times, the Jerusalem Report and several major American Jewish newspapers, urging Jewish leaders to speak out about social inequities the group says undermine Israeli democracy. Dubbed the Voice For Democracy campaign, the effort will focus on the growing gap between Israel’s rich and poor, the need to protect the rights of Israeli Arabs and Palestinians, and the battle for religious pluralism in Israel. The effort comes several months after a group called the Israel Project launched a high-profile campaign touting Israeli democracy as a way to build American public support for Israel during the Palestinian intifada. Some Jewish leaders are blasting the New Israel Fund campaign, with one critic calling the effort “disgraceful” and “self-destructive.” “The people from the New Israel Fund obviously don’t go to Israel,” said Helen Freedman, executive director of Americans for a Safe Israel. “Jews shouldn’t be worried about some false democracy that can’t exist with people whose stated intention is to kill you.” But Norman Rosenberg, executive director of the Washington-based fund, said the ads are meant to spark debate about Israel’s social ills and raise money to fight them. “In Israel these issues are debated every day in every way, but that is not the case here” in the United States, where “any questioning is seen as Israel-bashing,” Rosenberg said. While he acknowledged that Israel is engaged in a “difficult” military struggle with the Palestinians, Rosenberg said that “we want to make sure that another casualty doesn’t become the democracy we care so much about. “Our perception is that Israel’s strength depends on having these discussions,” he said. The first ad is slated to appear on the Times’ Op-Ed page Friday. “The only democracy in the Middle East must remain a democracy. Even in war,” the ad says. Timed to precede Israel’s Jan. 28 elections, the ads initially will offer a broad overview of the issues, then will focus on specific topics through end of the year, New Israel Fund officials said. Despite the timing of the ads, fund officials insist the campaign favors neither left nor right in Israel. “This is a nonpartisan effort,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, the group’s communications director. “Whether it’s a Labor or Likud government, we’re advocating change no matter who’s in charge.” Among the first issues addressed are civil rights for Israel’s 1.2 million Arab citizens, “who are waiting to have the promise of democracy fulfilled for them,” Rosenberg said. The Times ad warns of threats by some Israelis “to forcibly transfer Arabs, including citizens of the state.” Such talk, once considered radical, has grown “commonplace,” Rosenberg claimed. Also topping the New Israel Fund’s agenda is the growing economic gap in Israel. Ben-Ami said a recent U.N. report showed that Israel has replaced the United States as the developed nation with the widest gap between the top and bottom 10 percent of wage earners. Subsequent ads will discuss “the tension between religious and secular authorities” and the battle for legitimacy by “nontraditional” Jews, Rosenberg said. The fund has spent $150,000 on the effort so far, and hopes the ads will “generate more funding” for future ads and media campaigns, Rosenberg said. The campaign represents a departure of sorts for the New Israel Fund. Founded in 1979, the group has awarded more than $120 million to 600 Israeli groups working for civil rights, religious freedom and other social issues. The fund hopes its ads will prompt “the next level of discussion” about the Israeli democracy that was touted in the recent Israel Project campaign, Ben-Ami said. Those earlier ads were produced by the American Jewish Committee, a group of Silicon Valley business people called Israel 21c and Washington pollster Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi. The ads illustrate Israeli democracy with pictures of the Knesset and of an Arab woman casting a vote. The New Israel Fund ads are framed around the questions, “What type of democracy is Israel, and what type of democracy should Israel be?” Ben-Ami said. Larry Weinberg, executive vice president of Israel 21c, said his group’s pro-democracy ads are aimed at “a completely different audience” of Americans “who don’t even recognize that Israel is a vibrant democracy.” However, Israeli democracy “is served by a vibrant debate” about its very nature, Weinberg said. Lewis Roth, assistant executive director of Americans for Peace Now, welcomed the New Israel Fund effort. At the height of the Oslo peace process, when it seemed that the military threat to the country was over, Israelis “looked inward” and focused on social problems, Roth said. In the midst of the intifada, he said, these issues “get buried.” “It’s healthy to have a campaign to remind people about the essence of what having a Jewish state means,” he added. But Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, said the New Israel Fund should be addressing what he called the real threats to Israel: Arab and Palestinian terrorism. “At a time when” Palestinian Authority President Yasser “Arafat is ordering the murder of Jews, paying for the murder of Jews, where is the New Israel Fund?” Klein asked. The group should be focusing attention on the situation in Arab countries, Klein said, where people are arrested, tortured and killed for political purposes, women are abused, and “they’re teaching their people to hate others.” But Rabbi Don Rossoff, of Temple B’nai Or in Morristown, N.J., took a very different view. Rossoff, a board member of the Reform movement’s Seeking Peace, Pursuing Justice campaign — which recently organized a nationwide “teach-in” on the moribund peace process — said concern about Israeli social issues is “an expression of our love” for the Jewish state. “Not everything that Israel does or has done is always the best, and not everything the Palestinians have done is always the worst,” he said. “People who care about Israel will care about all aspects of Israeli society.”
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