For NIF, is controversy good for business?


While J Street may have been the liberal Jewish organization that made the most news in 2009, less than two months into this year it’s the New Israel Fund taking center stage.

The organization was thrust into the spotlight last week when a grass-roots student group, Im Tirtzu, published a report stating that 16 NIF-supported groups comprised 92 percent of the negative reporting from Israel-based organizations contained in the Goldstone report.

In conjunction with the release of the report, Im Tirtzu took out several ads in Israeli newspapers depicting the NIF’s president, former Meretz Knesset member Naomi Chazan, with a horn on her head.

Some Knesset members started pressing for the creation of a parliamentary commission of inquiry to investigate NIF’s funding and activities.

More headlines followed when The Jerusalem Post dropped Chazan as a regular columnist. (The newspaper eventually posted a statement denying that it dumped Chazan for political reasons, saying the issue was that she and NIF had threatened possible legal action regarding the Post’s decision to run the ad.)

It was quite a way to start off the new year for the NIF and its new executive director, Daniel Sokatch, who took over after a short stint as CEO of the San Francisco-area Jewish federation.

Fundermentalist‘s take: The attack on NIF may actually play right into the organization’s hands. At least that’s what Sokatch seems to think.

He told us that the recent attention proved to be a boon for NIF.

"This has not only mobilized our base, but there are people hearing about us for the fist time and saying, ‘This is what I want to support,’ " Sokatch said. "That is the irony of this. This has put us in the limelight."

The NIF says its number of Facebook fans has tripled, and its number of Twitter followers has jumped 50 percent over the past two weeks. And more than 50 Tweeters have put a horn on their profile pictures in a show of solidarity with Chazan.

According to this all-news-is-good-news line of thinking, Im Tirtzu’s attacks against the organization came at a great time for NIF — when many of its top donors were gathered in New York for the organization’s annual board meetings, held Feb. 6-7.

Is there a better way to rally your biggest donors than to show them that you are under attack, and then to rally against that attack right in front of them while they are all gathered together?

These also were no ordinary board meetings. The 30-year-old organization used the gathering to begin forming a new strategic plan.

"Over the past 30 years, NIF has helped to transform Israel into a vibrant civil society, and there is virtually no corner of civil society not touched by NIF," Sokatch told The Fundermentalist Wednesday. "We really seeded the ground for what has flourished over the past 30 years."

He went to say, however, that NIF has "to reassess the toolbox."

"It’s time to look and say, ‘How have our strategies worked? And what tools should we add and take away?’ "

Even before the meetings and the full outbreak of the Im Tirtzu controversy, NIF was positioning itself as the protector of a free and open society in Israel.

The day before the board meetings, Chazan met with a group of bloggers at the organization’s New York offices. Her message: Free speech and open expression is clearly at risk in Israel — and NIF is going to lead the charge to keep Israel a democratic state.

Though the NIF claims that it hit its slightly decreased budget expectations last year, the organization has struggled to energize a young base of donors, despite its liberal slant. The NIF is hoping that will change as a result of its turn in the spotlight.

"We will do everything we can" to monetize the new interest, Sokatch said.

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