On June 1, tens of thousands of New Yorkers will gather for the annual Celebrate Israel Parade. As in previous years, we at the New Israel Fund (NIF) will be there, leading a group of progressive, pro-Israel activists. We will take our rightful place alongside the many others dedicated to the Israel that is, as well as the Israel that ought to be.
Our presence, however, seems to be infuriating some groups who are prepared to rain on the parade. In recent weeks, certain rabbis and others have protested our inclusion in the parade and have exerted significant pressure on parade organizers to ban us. These protesters claim that the New Israel Fund supports the global Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel. These allegations are false, and the UJA-Federation of New York and Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) staunchly support our inclusion. Nonetheless, wouldn't it be easier for the larger community were we to just sit this one out?
No. Sitting it out is simply not an option for us and should not be an option tolerated by the larger New York community of Israel supporters. For the past 35 years the New Israel Fund has taken on the most challenging struggles facing Israel: we support Israelis on the ground who work tirelessly to advance civil rights, social justice and religious pluralism in a country they love and feel deep responsibility to protect. Our entire strategy has been based on investing in Israel, not divesting from it. In fact, our investment of $30 million a year in Israel has actually made us the target of the BDS movement, though we enforce a clear policy against making grants to organizations that participate in the global BDS movement. Groups that allege that we support BDS are blatantly wrong and as a newcomer to NIF, I can only hope that these inaccuracies are a function of poor research rather than malicious slander.
Our detractors argue that we are still beyond the pale of Israel supporters because we do not prohibit our Israeli grantees from boycotting products and services that come from the settlements. Although we don’t take a specific position on the advisability of such a boycott, we don’t prohibit our grantees from doing so. Why?
For one thing, we oppose the occupation and the settlement enterprise. This week the settler attack on the army reservists at Yitzhar is yet another demonstration of the divisive and deeply damaging impact of those settlements on Israeli society and unity.
But even more important, many Israelis oppose the settlements with their wallets, and that is their right. Despite an actual and profoundly anti-democratic law that passed the Knesset (and is now in front of the High Court) prohibiting Israelis from calling for boycott of settlements on pain of civil penalty, thousands of Israelis continue to avoid economic support for the settlements. And they are not alone. We believe that Israelis have a right to boycott dairy producers who raise prices on cottage cheese; we believe that ultra-Orthodox individuals have a right to boycott stores that are open on Shabbat; and we believe that a group of prominent Israeli artists who oppose the occupation have a right to refuse to perform in the territories. We support the rights of each of these groups because we believe in a democratic Israel and, like our Israeli partners, we believe we have an obligation to protect it.
But let's be honest, this attack on NIF's participation, which has been spearheaded for years now by the same tiny extremist group, is not really about false accusations of support for BDS. What this is actually about is the real work that the New Israel Fund does: our support of Israeli organizations that provide social services to African asylum seekers; who advocate for the right of Jewish women to pray at the Western Wall as they wish; who protect Bedouin citizens of Israel against being evicted from their villages; and who litigate in the Supreme Court to ensure that Israel's Arab, Ethiopian and other minorities are not further discriminated against in matters of housing, employment and education. We and our family of organizations often have to expose difficult realities in our efforts to safeguard Israel as a Jewish homeland that lives up to the promise of its founders, a place of equality and social justice.
These difficult realities are at the heart of the issue -- the desire to sweep them under the rug by delegitimizing the very people who devote their lives to correcting them. The work of our heroic Israeli colleagues and partners deserves to be celebrated publicly; it should not be relegated to the sidelines.
So, we will not sit this one out, and you should not either. Do not allow people around you to perpetuate the lie that the New Israel Fund supports BDS. Recognize and explain the difference between the global BDS movement and the right that Israeli citizens of Israel have to protest with their pockets. And come June 1st, make your way to Fifth Avenue for the Celebrate Israel Parade and march with our group in celebrating the sometimes unpopular but always inspiring work of the hundreds of organizations and thousands of social change activists working for the Israel we believe to be possible.
This article was originally published as an op-ed in the NY Jewish Week.