Recently, the New Israel Fund became the latest target of what appears to be a coordinated effort to stifle dissent and shut down the human rights community in Israel. Although the crisis began with a smear campaign devised by a new right-wing group, the most significant threat to NIF and its work was a proposed 'commission of inquiry' in the Israeli Knesset, a proposal that was at least temporarily shelved when the Kadima party refused to endorse it in early February.
On Friday, January 29, Israeli daily Maariv published a front-page article in the weekend magazine called "The Materials Goldstone is Made Of", with a sub-heading reading "The New [Israel] Fund and the Falsehood Industry". In the article, NIF and its grantees were accused by a new right-wing group, in a long "research" study, of being "active partners in the formation of the Goldstone Report, which slandered the IDF and the State"; without NIF, claimed the study, there would be no Goldstone Report.
Im Tirtzu ("if you will it"), the organization behind the study, presents itself as a centrist Zionist movement, but in reality is a radical right-wing movement whose funders include the John Hagee Ministries and the New York Central Fund, both of which fund settler groups. Im Tirtzu also launched a harsh billboard campaign against the New Israel Fund and its president, former MK Prof. Naomi Chazan. Other elements of the campaign have included a demonstration against Naomi Chazan by her home in Jerusalem.
On Tuesday, February 2nd, Member of Knesset Otniel Shneller (Kadima) demanded that the government appoint a parliamentary commission of inquiry into the testimonies given to Judge Richard Goldstone by Israeli organizations financed by the New Israel Fund. After worldwide support for NIF and its mission was voiced to Israeli leaders, the parliamentary inquiry did not go forward. Israeli leaders across the political spectrum voiced opposition to the idea of a political witch-hunt against progressive civil society, although the original sponsor and right-wing political allies have publicly vowed to continue his attempts in the Knesset.
The Jewish community in the U.S. was quick to come to NIF's defense. Rabbi David Saperstein, Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism issued a statement saying, "In their twisted attribution of blame for the Goldstone Report to the NIF, these attackers are trying to de-legitimize the New Israel Fund in much the same way that the Goldstone Report is being used to de-legitimize Israel in the eyes of the world." And Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, called the Im Tirtzu charges "an outrageous broadside" and told the New York Jewish Week that "it is absurd to blame Goldstone on NIF."
NIF hastened to make the case against the report, responding to press, analyzing the report for its many inaccuracies and sharing talking points on the issue (see appendix). Allies have leapt to defend NIF in both Israel and the US, including the Reform Movement, J Street, Meretz USA, Americans for Peace Now, and respected writers in both countries. To quote the Jerusalem Post, "Im Tirtzu has sparked outrage – both in Israel and the US" with its campaign.
Press coverage of the crisis has largely been positive in the U.S. and mixed in Israel. Even organizations and community leaders not generally supportive of the New Israel Fund have spoken out against a transparent attempt to shut down the legitimate work of Israel's human rights community, and against a political witch-hunt in the Knesset. Important sources include:
- "One of the first things I did when I took office is meet with New Israel Fund…They were in my office. I want to be as inclusive as possible." Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren
- "So the fight here isn't over funding. It's about free speech. For several decades, the brightest spot in Israeli democracy has been the growth of groups independent of the government and political parties that promote civil rights and social equality…The New Israel Fund has helped these and many other groups financially. In the process, it has given liberal Diaspora Jews a way to contribute to Israel's future -- without schizophrenically acting as liberals at home and jingoists in Israel." - Gershom Gorenberg
- The Forward reported that the IDF has been working with Israel's human rights community for internal investigations: "Israel's January 29 report to the United Nations revealed that the military cooperated with an Israeli human rights group, [NIF grantee] B'Tselem, for the same purpose. The report stated that the army had interviewed more than 100 Palestinian witnesses as part of its ongoing Cast Lead-related investigations…The Forward has also confirmed that other human rights groups, including [NIF grantee] Adalah and Al Mezan Center for Human Rights, based in Gaza, have been cooperating with the IDF."
- Israel's leading columnist, Nahum Barnea wrote, "An investigation in Israel could harm other Jewish organizations. Questions will be raised about political involvement in a foreign country, dual loyalty and tax offenses….[an Israeli MK] received a phone call from a leader of one of the Jewish organizations. "Have you gone mad?" the man lashed out at Rivlin. "You're going to investigate us for funds we send to you? You're out of your minds."
- "The witch-hunt against Chazan and the New Israel Fund is reminiscent of the darkest days of McCarthyism in the United States and similar to the atmosphere of states with secret police forces and dark dungeons." - Gershon Baskin, Jerusalem Post
- Two senior Maariv reporters have criticized their own newspaper and the anti-NIF campaign and article.
- "There are nongovernmental organizations that want Israel to be a better, more just state, and that the New Israel Fund dares to underwrite." - Gideon Levy, Haaretz
- Per the Jerusalem Post, "The American Jewish blogosphere was also alive with comment and criticism on Monday, with well-known writers such as J.J. Goldberg, editorial director of The Forward, Richard Silverstein and Michael Plitnick, director of education and policy for the Jewish Voice for Peace, chiming in on the Im Tirtzu report and coming to the NIF's defense."
- Haaretz reported: "Chazan herself says there is no direct correlation between the positions of the fund and those of the grantees. "We really don't support every single thing these organizations say, but we support their right to say it. Some organization's only sin was signing a call to set up an independent committee of inquiry," she said. "This is an attack against organizations that actually differ in their opinions about Goldstone. The only thing that unites them is a demand for an independent investigation, and this is totally mainstream. Even Dan Meridor called for such an investigation."
- Ron Kampeas of the JTA blogged on the campaign, calling the ads "grotesque" and anti-Semitic, and challenging the findings of the investigation.
- John Hagee's CUFI itself has objected to the ad and officially dissociated itself from it.