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Questions about New Israel Fund grantees

New Israel Fund grantee MachsomWatch displays photos on its Web site of Palestinians surmounting concrete barriers on their way to school and work, such as this shot from Abu Dis in 2003.  (Neta Efroni/MachsoWatch)

New Israel Fund grantee MachsomWatch displays photos on its Web site of Palestinians surmounting concrete barriers on their way to school and work, such as this shot from Abu Dis in 2003. (Neta Efroni/MachsoWatch)

NEW YORK (JTA) – In October 2003, on the eve of a JTA series about its financial support for vitriolic pro-Palestinian groups, the Ford Foundation announced a landmark $20 million grant to a Jewish group.

Not just any Jewish group: the New Israel Fund, an organization dedicated to social change in Israel, yet criticized by some for funding groups involved in Israeli Arab and Palestinian rights that accuse the Jewish state of horrendous human rights violations.

Nearly five years later, the NIF-run Ford Israel Fund is facing the same dilemma as Ford regarding the behavior of a small but influential number of its grantees: While these nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs, are mostly engaged in conventional civil rights work, there are dueling perceptions of whether some cross the line into anti-Israel demonization.

Do the words and actions of these groups incite hatred or challenge the legitimacy of Israel, as some observers believe, or are they engaged in legitimate political activism, exercising freedom of speech that no pro-democracy organization should dare censor?

For the NIF, the answer is clearly the latter. Yet cognizant of its predominantly American Jewish donor base, the organization often finds itself navigating a delicate line.

“Our family of organizations represents a wide range of opinions on various difficult issues, and we do not expect them to adhere to an NIF position in every instance,” said Naomi Paiss, the group’s spokeswoman in the United States. “We expect organizations to share our values in the broad sense, and one of the most important of those values is free discourse in the democratic context.”

Even as it defends freedom of speech for its grantees, the NIF downplays the role some of them have played in injecting fodder into the steady stream of anti-Israel propaganda that permeates the public debate in Israel, in the international arena and on the Internet.

Critics of the NIF counter that some of the grantees’ public pronouncements have inflamed domestic tensions between Israeli Jews and Arabs, and between hawks and doves, while also feeding into a global PR machinery that tends to ascribe the most nefarious motives to Israel’s every move.

More specifically, a portion of these NIF-Ford grantees, like some of Ford’s direct grantees, supply kindling to the notion of a binational state in Israel as well as to the so-called “Durban strategy,” a reference to the 2001 U.N. anti-racism conference in South Africa that castigated Israel.
Pro-Israel advocates say the latter destructively brands the country as an “apartheid” state – in other words, racist and criminal – while stoking international pressure to punish Israel just as apartheid South Africa was punished: through boycotts, divestment and sanctions.

The NIF itself would never endorse such a position, said one longtime supporter, so it wrestles with how to respond.

“I’m sure it causes a lot of controversy among NIF donors because the fine line between endorsing and tolerating is a huge distinction, not a small quibble,” said Brian Lurie, the co-chairman of the Inter-Agency Task Force on Israeli Arab Issues, a coalition of 80 American Jewish organizations that promotes Israel as a “Jewish democratic state” providing full equality to its Arab citizens.

Among the more controversial examples of positions and actions taken by NIF grantees:

* In 2006-07, two NIF grantees entered Israel’s national debate over a constitution with their own proposals: Adalah: The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, with its “Democratic Constitution,” and the Mossawa Center’s “An Equal Constitution For All?”. These two groups propose a “binational” state that would couple an unlimited “right of return” for Palestinians with abolishing the Jewish Law of Return. Some Israeli Jews advocate a binational state, but the overwhelming majority of Israelis views it as tantamount to eliminating the state’s Jewish character and adamantly opposes it. In addition, some NIF-Ford grantees weighed in on a third such proposal, the “Future Vision of the Palestinian Arabs in Israel” which appears to oppose Israel being a Jewish state.

* In March 2007, eight groups that promote human rights for Israeli Arabs and Palestinians who live under Israeli occupation successfully petitioned the Israeli High Court of Justice against what it labeled the “Apartheid order” to create an “Apartheid road” on which Israeli police would restrict Palestinians from traveling in Israeli cars in the West Bank. The petition did not mention Israel’s justification for the directive, which it said was to prevent the transport of possible terrorists. Seven of the petitioners were NIF grantees: Yesh Din, Bimkom, Machsom Watch, HaMoked: Center for the Defense of the Individual, the Association of Civil Rights in Israel, Physicians for Human Rights-Israel and the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel.

* In March, The New York Times quoted a lawyer for the Association of Civil Rights in Israel – a flagship grantee of the NIF and a prime recipient of its funding – explaining, “There is already a separate legal system in the territories for Israelis and Palestinians … With the approval of separate roads, if it becomes a widespread policy, then the word for it will be ‘apartheid.’ ”

* Adalah’s April 2008 newsletter contains an article by the group’s general-director, Hassan Jabareen, titled “The Israeli Regime of Hafradah (Separation in English and Apartheid in Afrikaans).” With no mention of Palestinian attacks, Jabareen alleges that Israel “aims to redefine the Jewishness of the state.” Also in April, five Adalah board members joined an Israeli Arab delegation to South Africa in a visit the group itself portrayed as commiserating with fellow victims of apartheid.

Critics find these actions unacceptable.

These groups “campaign against Israel in the United Nations and around the world using terms such as ‘racist’ and ‘apartheid,’” said Gerald Steinberg, the executive director of NGO Monitor, a Jerusalem-based group that monitors organizations for what it views as anti-Israel bias. “This is not in any sense a ‘civil rights’ movement but rather the Durban strategy of demonization.”

Such a slogan as “Israel is apartheid” both damages the image and undermines support for Israel, said Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

“It has an erosionary effect when said by people who have the aura of legitimacy and authority, like academics, intellectuals and human rights activists,” he said. “First, it feeds those who want to believe and do believe what they’re saying about Israel. But it also influences those not knowledgeable enough about the situation who are hearing from these supposedly lofty sources whose biases they’re unaware of.”

Hoenlein, who also sits on the Inter-Agency Task Force on Israeli Arab Issues along with Larry Garber, the head of the NIF, said he does not think “Jewish monies should be supporting organizations that advocate the dissolution of Israel as a Jewish state.”

“There has to be a distinction between those that may be critical of an Israeli policy or practice and those who undermine her legitimacy and security,” he said.

The $20 million, five-year Ford grant to the NIF in late 2003 injected significant funds into the organization. The overall NIF budget for 2008, for example, is $29.2 million, of which the $3.5 million in Ford money constitutes 12 percent, according to Paiss.
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Ford officials told JTA that a second $20 million grant to NIF will likely be made in October, with virtually the same Ford grantee guidelines applying to NIF grantees. The Ford guidelines were developed in 2003 on the heels of a JTA investigation that highlighted the anti-Israel excesses of certain grantees at the 2001 Durban conference.

NIF grantees, including NIF-Ford grantees, must devote the funds to “charitable and educational purposes” and not “carry on propaganda or otherwise attempt to influence specific legislation, either by direct or grass-roots lobbying.”

At the same time Paiss, the NIF spokeswoman, said that while NIF is nonpartisan, “achieving social change obviously encompasses influencing government agencies and legislatures to effect positive change in our issue areas.”

She also said that NIF had its own guidelines that preceded the Ford revisions.

In addition, NIF grantees must operate according to Israeli law on nonprofit organizations, or in Hebrew, “amutot.”

The NIF agreement with grantees cites the Amutot Law of 1980: “An Amuta shall not be registered if any of its objectives negates the existence of the democratic character of the state of Israel, or if there are reasonable grounds for concluding that the Amuta will be used as cover for illegal activities.”

And that, NIF officials say, imposes an even tougher standard than the Ford guidelines.

“Our grantees answer to a higher power – the State of Israel,” Garber said. “As long as they’re in line with Israeli law, that’s good enough for us.”

According to Paiss, Ford contributed some $4.25 million to NIF in the decade and a half prior to the 2003 grant. Ford said it decided to award the first $20 million grant to “build capacity” on the ground for progressive Israeli groups it supports.

Ford had mulled such a move for several years, said David Chiel, the foundation’s deputy vice president of program management. He said the foundation was not influenced by the 2003 JTA series published just one day after Ford announced the grant or by criticism that it had supported too few Jewish groups over the years.

“I don’t think there was a causal link,” Chiel said. “This was a way for us to put our money where our mouth is, and be more grass roots.”

In the NIF, Ford found a partner that for nearly 30 years has provided some $200 million to more than 800 groups promoting civil rights, social justice, religious pluralism and environmental issues in Israel.

The NIF and its grantees prod Israel, in Garber’s words, to “live up to its ideals,” just as civil society would do in any vibrant democracy. Yet in the process, NIF-Ford Israel fund some grantees that promote the notion of Israel as an apartheid state.

Even Garber, in some of his commentaries and letters to the editors, has derided the parallel.

In a January 2007 entry on his NIF blog, Garber skewered Jimmy Carter’s controversial book “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid” for “superficial” analysis and a “poorly nuanced” grasp of the history that “inevitably place Israel in a poor light or fail to provide the context for Israeli actions.”
Then in a May 2007 commentary that NIF says it unsuccessfully tried to have published, Garber lamented “how many governments, NGOs, opinion leaders and international bodies around the world put Israel into a special, pariah category.” He continued that “Israel’s reputation has degraded to that of a colonialist and apartheid regime, particularly among progressive intellectuals who should know better.”

He blamed both sides for the propaganda.

“The ‘Israel right or wrong’ crowd is myopic in insisting on the rose-colored version of the Zionist dream,” Garber wrote. “In their own way, they do as much damage as their adversaries, those who insist Israel is at the bottom of every scale upon which civic virtue can be measured.

“Neither side is right,” he continued, “and neither side is blameless in the ongoing PR battle that sheds more heat than light.”

Garber did not mention that some of NIF’s own have helped turn Israel into that “pariah” by propagating the “apartheid” label and others.

Some of the grantees themselves appear to understand the tension.

One is Machsom Watch, an Israeli women’s organization focused on monitoring the country’s checkpoint activity in the West Bank – Machsom is Hebrew for “checkpoint.” In recent years Machsom Watch has received tens of thousands of NIF dollars.

Spokeswoman Hanna Barag said the group’s willingness to “look into the eye of the occupation” and allege abuses has earned it the charge of “traitors” from many Israelis. Machsom members have accused Israel of “apartheid,” but that’s not the organization’s position, she said.

Still, Barag said Machsom’s left-wing membership – ranging from “more extreme to less extreme” – is free to write whatever it wants on the group’s Web site, including references to Israel as an “apartheid” state.

“There is a lot of argument in our group about using this term because it doesn’t really fit what we think, which is that we’re talking about people of two different countries, Israel and Palestine,” said Barag, 72, a grandmother who served in the Israeli army, as did her two daughters. “But we do feel some system of apartheid exists here, where people are divided, if you want, according to their race. So for lack of a better term, some think the easiest way to describe this terrible situation is to use it.”

When making its case to Israeli society, though, Machsom tones down its language, thanks in part to a tip from NIF advisers.

“We have learned from the NIF that, for instance, when you talk to Israeli society, if you don’t want to immediately antagonize the greater public, we’d better use some kind of language that is more or less acceptable,” Barag said. “We’ve learned it’s better to be more careful and more exact.”

Lurie said he personally would shun the word “apartheid” to describe Israel, opting instead for “inequality.” He also said his Inter-Agency task force “would not suffer” the term at all.

But he stopped short of saying whether the NIF should draw a line on its grantees using the word.

“I understand the dynamic and the dilemma when you support a number of Israeli Arab institutions, some wonderful organizations with constructive agendas but which may take some difficult positions for Jewish supporters,” Lurie said. “You have to decide whether to support them or walk away.

“That’s a decision New Israel Fund has to confront on a regular basis, and I’m sure these are not easy decisions.”

For NIF, said Paiss, these are questions of free speech, the exchange of ideas.

When free speech and alternative arguments are inflammatory and virtually free of context, especially in the deadly Mideast conflict, at what point does it cross the line into propaganda? And does it fall short of fulfilling the “educational purpose” laid out by NIF?

Paiss contends that avoiding “ideological conformity” is preferable to any red lines that might establish boundaries of fair play.

If there’s the suggestion “that NIF should be compelling ideological obedience,” she said, “ we respectfully and completely disagree.”

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