Menu JTA Search

NIF’s Rosenberg to step down

WASHINGTON, July 17 — On his first two trips to Israel in 1989, Norman Rosenberg was awe-struck. Having grown up “just Jewish” in a Conservative home in New York, the civil rights attorney was bowled over by the free society Israelis had built. “To have had the courage to create a democracy when most of the people who came there didn’t come from democracies really struck me … as a remarkable achievement of our people,” Rosenberg recalled in an interview last week. Tapped to head the New Israel Fund (NIF) the following year, he presided over the liberal philanthropy through a stage of growth, which has only stalled in the past three years of Arab-Israeli strife, and occasional controversy. NIF, which will turn 25 next year, has as its goal “to strengthen the democratic fabric of the state,” Rosenberg said. It underwrites Israeli nonprofits seen as addressing civil and human rights, religious pluralism and socioeconomic gaps. Rosenberg, 57, announced last month he will be stepping down as NIF executive director at the end of this year to direct the I Am Your Child Foundation, founded by film director Rob Reiner to advance education on early child development. The foundation, which has operated out of Hollywood, will be moving to Washington by the end of 2003, as part of an effort to beef up its advocacy work. Rosenberg will begin splitting his time between NIF and his new business address as of September. During his tenure at NIF, the organization has boosted its annual income roughly fivefold to $21,305,843 this year, he says. At times, it has also become a lightning rod for critics on the Jewish right. In 1998, a lecture series on Israel’s 50th anniversary planned for the Smithsonian Institution drew fire from Americans for a Safe Israel, B’nai B’rith and the Anti-Defamation League. These groups faulted the lineup, which was slated to address such topics as “The End of the Zionist Dream? The Rise of Post-Zionism” and “Full and Equal Citizenship? The Place of Israel’s Palestinian Citizens.” After Rep. Michael Forbes (R-N.Y.) called for congressional hearings on the matter, the Smithsonian scrubbed the program. NIF went on to host the speakers, who included New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman and West Bank settler leader Yisrael Harel, in its own multi-city tour. Today, Rosenberg grants that the proposed Smithsonian series “could have been a more textured program,” but the NIF leader defends its overall approach. “It seemed to me that telling the full story of Israel was a sign of the maturation of the state,” said Rosenberg. “In my view, it doesn’t cast a negative light; it shows it as a normal state.” In May of this year, Bar Ilan University politics professor Gerald Steinberg launched an attack on NIF, lumping the group with Arab propagandists who challenge Israel’s right to exist. The conservative Jerusalem Post columnist blasted the fund’s alleged grants to Physicians for Human Rights Israel (PHRI), the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions and the Arab Association for Human Rights and Adalah: Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel. In fact, NIF only awarded grants to Adalah in 2002, while acting as a fiscal agent for donor-advised gifts to the other three groups. PHRI is a former grantee. “The NIF is explicitly and avowedly in support of a strong and healthy Jewish state,” declares Rosenberg of the anti-Zionism charges. “That’s our red line. Anybody who crosses that red line does not win support from this organization.” Rosenberg’s own passion for the group he’s led seems to flow from his earlier career as a civil rights lawyer. Prior to his NIF leadership, he headed the Mental Health Law Project (now the Bazelon Center), which advocates for the legal rights of people with mental disabilities. Earlier in his career, he battled for the rights of children with disabilities and those of prisoners. Upon viewing NIF projects in the Jewish state 14 years ago, Rosenberg saw the connections to his own efforts as a “social change agent.” “This work in Israel was very much like the work I did in the U.S.,” he recalled. A New York native, Rosenberg earned his law degree, summa cum laude, from the State University of New York at Buffalo in 1971. He worked there as an assistant professor until 1977, overseeing a legal clinic. A rising star in Jewish philanthropy through the 1990s, NIF saw its fortunes suffer somewhat in recent years. The group’s total support and revenue dipped in 2000 to $21,425,765 from $24,541,642 the year before, rebounded again in 2001 in $24,872,776 and declined again in 2002 to $21,305,843. “Since the October [2000] Intifada, American Jews have been much more worried about Israel’s survival than in years past,” said Rosenberg. “For many, civil rights and human rights seem to be mere luxuries when people fear for the survival of the state.” While individuals with a record of support are contributing more than ever, he said, foundations with slumping portfolios are giving less and new individuals are tougher to recruit. “It’s been harder to reach new people since the second Intifada, to get people to sit and listen to this story,” said Rosenberg, who believes his message, while compelling, does not translate into easy “sound bites.” “We believe the strength of the country is about strength of borders but also the strength of the social fabric,” he argued. NIF retrenched in the United States last year, closing offices in Los Angeles, Chicago and Boston, ostensibly in an effort to boost grant-making in Israel. Rosenberg says the impact on grants will not register until the end of 2003. Looking back on his career, he highlights the cooperative ventures between his group and other philanthropies. A Green Environmental Fund draws on the resources of the Dorot Foundation, Nathan Cummings Foundation, the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Foundation as well as NIF for its grants in the Jewish state. Rosenberg can also point to grantees such as Masorti, the organization of Conservative Judaism in Israel, and the Center for Jewish-Arab Economic Development that have won subsequent funding from others. “There are many federations that support the organizations we support,” said Rosenberg. “I think that’s a tribute.”