|Written by Ruby Ong|
28 April 2011
A Message From Daniel Sokatch
Regular readers of this column are well aware of the great challenges to the work of the NIF in Israel today. Over the past year, there has been a lot of focus on our support for Israel’s civil and human rights organizations. This is fine: we are incredibly proud of the role these groups are playing in upholding basic tenets of Israel’s democratic culture. And, let’s face it, these are the groups that are most under fire from those in Israel who would see this culture derailed.
But that work is only one part of the NIF story, and so I deeply appreciated the opportunity extended to me and my partner Rachel Liel, our Israel Executive Director, to write about some of the other work of the NIF.
Recently, in Ha’aretz, columnist Bradley Burston issued a poignant call to progressive American Jews to support Israelis living under fire near the Gaza border. As you will read below in an op-ed that Rachel Liel and I wrote in response to Brad’s piece, we couldn’t agree more. That is precisely what NIF does every day. Not simply because of the circumstances that Israel’s southern communities find themselves in today, but because of the host of issues that they are facing, and the amazing work that thousands of Israelis in those communities are doing to build a better Israel.
Read for yourself about our work in the areas of Israel under threat. I couldn’t be more proud of our work, and of the work that our organizations are doing, in these communities.
Standing by every citizen
The NIF's work of social change and social justice in Israel is important precisely because we don't treat the towns within rocket range as crisis zones.By Rachel Liel, Daniel Sokatch
In a heartfelt column published online on April 10, Ha'aretz blogger Bradley Burston called on the New Israel Fund and other progressive groups to demonstrate concern for Israelis trapped under bombardment from Gaza.
This directive concerns us. And we want to set the record straight, because the New Israel Fund and its action arm Shatil have been working with and for residents in the underprivileged areas south of Tel Aviv and in the Negev for almost as long as we have been in business.
Many of Ashkelon's residents are immigrants from the Former Soviet Union. In solidly Russian-speaking neighborhoods, with parents working long hours, children need special assistance with their homework and help in learning about Judaism, a subject often lacking from their parents' education. Sometimes as many as 100 children at a time get this support from the Meitar after-school program funded by NIF.
The too many Jewish and Arab residents of Be'er Sheva who suffer from food insecurity are helped by the Shatil-backed Food Security Center to work to influence policy both in their community and at the national level. At our urging and in conjunction with the center, the Knesset Education Committee held hearings about strengthening the existing School Lunch Law this past year, successfully compelling the National Insurance Institute to track food insecurity.
In Kiryat Gat, Ethiopian women immigrants are using their handicraft skills to earn income and build stronger families and communities, with support from the feminist Mizrahi group Achoti. Orthodox women in the south of Israel are hearing an empowering feminist message from the Hallelei Project. The organization Kitar is establishing a holistic, group-oriented community that promotes Judaism as culture for Russian-speaking immigrants in Ashdod. A group in Be'er Sheva called HETZ continues to fight for access to dental care for those in need. Shatil leads the Ramat Hovav Coalition, a group of local environmental and social organizations as well as local government bodies to advance solutions to the issue of toxic waste management in one of Israel's most dangerous industrial zones.
We train young activists to become leaders of environmental protection efforts in our Negev Fellows for the Environment program. Citizen groups in Sderot, representing the many immigrants who live there, are keeping careful track of the millions of dollars received by that community from generous international sources, and of the transparency and funding of municipal government services. All these and more have been supported by the NIF and/ or strengthened by their work with Shatil.
Of course, our support for organizations working for civil rights and social justice for Israel's Arab citizens is well known; we are extremely proud of our role in seed-funding and supporting that sector. There is no group in Israel that faces more daily or more systemic discrimination. In the Negev in particular, this includes Bedouin, the country's most impoverished community, which faces the daily threat of home demolition and the persistent status of "unrecognized."
NIF does not believe in the strategy, too frequently used by Israeli politicians, of setting one underprivileged group against another so that the high-handed decisions made on behalf of the wealthy and powerful go unnoticed. Our most celebrated coalitions are those in which Mizrahi women teach Ethiopians about successful strategies for community organizing, or where liberal-Orthodox and Arab women sit together to think about sexism and empowerment. Our basic premise is that every Israeli is entitled to raise his or her voice to advance equality, fairness and justice.
Back in 2005, the summer of the controversial withdrawal from Gaza, NIF's Israeli and international board members and staff set off on a bus to Gaza to talk to the settlers who were about to lose their homes in Gush Katif. No, we did not support their preference to stay there then, and we consistently oppose the occupation and the settlement enterprise now. But we do not demonize those with whom we disagree. We believe that when Israel finally relinquishes its hold on the territories, and when many of those settlers come home to Israel, they will be entitled to the respect and justice that every Israeli citizen deserves.
There is one thing we will not do: We will not raise money for security measures. Not only is that not our area of expertise, but it is the task of the State of Israel - supported by billions in American taxpayer contributions - to protect its citizens. The billions of dollars that Israel spends on settlements would certainly better be spent on real security, in the broader sense, for citizens, whether that means Iron Dome in the south or basic fire equipment in the Carmel or decent schools in development towns. We think we are doing our best, and so are our progressive allies in Israel and overseas, to remind the Israeli and American governments of that fact.
There is no excuse for the disgusting targeting of civilians by the Hamas regime in Gaza. But our work of social change and social justice in Israel is important precisely because we don't treat the towns within rocket range as crisis zones, but rather like the vital communities they are, with the whole complex complement of issues they face as they build their future. We will not just be in Ashkelon and Be'er Sheva and the places in between when the bombs come down. As we have done for 33 years, and will continue to do until we are no longer needed, we stand with every citizen of Israel we have the means to help. Every day.
Rachel Liel is the executive director in Israel, and Daniel Sokatch the CEO, of the New Israel Fund.