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Tough And Civil Discourse

Recently, the New Israel Fund completed its bi-annual board meeting in Israel. With our board leadership, our new CEO, Daniel Sokatch, and our new-to-the-position Executive Director in Israel, Rachel Liel, asking for a comprehensive review of our principles, policies and procedures, both staff and board knew that this meeting would represent a serious set of discussions and decisions.

In light of the dramatically polarized atmosphere in Israel, and the growing threats to democracy there, we set aside time for a careful consideration of our most basic issues, to review and refine our own role and positions in the ongoing debate. Over the course of two days, board members from Israel, the U.S. and the UK, representing extraordinarily diverse backgrounds and beliefs, discussed all aspects of NIF’s work in an atmosphere of civil discourse and mutual respect. Under the leadership of NIF President Naomi Chazan, near-unanimity was reached on our key principles and policies.

An organization that funds more than 100 partners, and works with hundreds more as a capacity-builder, is by nature a “big tent.” When those organizations – and we, as their funder -- are attacked and delegitimized, when honest dissent is characterized as disloyalty, and when well-funded and even official efforts are exerted to shut us down, the stakes are high. And all this when the work that we and our organizations do to build a better Israel is more important than ever. This, then, was the context in which we set out to discuss how best to actualize our values in a way that provides respect for a multiplicity of viewpoints; transparency to grantees, donors and the public at large; and compliance with the highest standards of accountability.

The issues were, in some ways, a microcosm of the extraordinarily difficult issues facing Israeli society. How can the New Israel Fund reconcile its support for Israel as the Jewish homeland, the vehicle for the Jewish people’s self-determination, with the necessity of a liberal, egalitarian and just democracy that respects minority rights? To what degree do we require adherence from organizations we support to our principles? Our policies? As an organization that has always embodied a cutting-edge approach to the most serious issues of social change, and whose vehicle for change is civil society, how do we approach the contentious political issues that define the atmosphere in which we operate?

Of course, this was not the first and will not be the last review of our most serious issues. These concerns have been inherent in our unique mission for 32 years. Our specific funding decisions have always been a matter of internal analysis, the application of our strategic vision and mutually respectful communication with the partner organizations we support. When we periodically review our funding guidelines, we think about the many people behind the names in the news. The liberal Orthodox groups attempting to bring pluralism to a community that is growing ever harsher and more fanatical in its attempts to completely control life-cycle issues and freedom of conscience. The immigrants from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia still seeking integration and equality, the Bedouin women working to free themselves from polygamy and poverty, the low-wage workers falling further and further behind in income, education and prospects. And perhaps most of all, the Palestinian Israelis, represented on both our board and senior staff, for whom the 62-year-old promise of basic equality still rings hollow.

Our basic values, and operating assumptions, are always in place. The New Israel Fund is dedicated to the vision of the State of Israel as the sovereign expression of the right of self-determination of the Jewish people, and as a democracy dedicated to the full equality of all its citizens and communities. We are committed to advancing the values of human dignity ensconced in Israel's Declaration of Independence, which we view as the key to its long-term security and survival. NIF operates in a complex landscape, and deals with complicated issues, and we will continue to take a nuanced, sophisticated and serious approach, occupying a progressive-mainstream position on key issues. In a black-and-white world, caught between those for whom Israel is always right, and those for whom it is always wrong, we will dare to be a multi-colored mosaic of ideas and ideologies.

We take our responsibilities as the leading funder of progressive Israeli civil society very seriously, and apply rigorous funding guidelines to our grant-making process. We are reworking a statement of NIF principles, and, while we expect our grantees to respect those principles, we understand that not all organizations will agree with each of them. Of course, there are some activities that an organization might engage in that would obviate the possibility of funding from NIF. But there are other cases, in which an organization engages in an activity with which NIF disagrees, that require a more nuanced analysis. In such cases, NIF will evaluate the organization in question in its totality, balancing the effectiveness and importance of the work that we do support with the intensity and impact of the problematic activity in question, the organization’s mission and the centrality of the activity to the organization’s work.

The civility and mutual respect that characterized our board meeting also characterizes you, our supporters, who understand our tremendously important mission and engage with us in addressing the most serious questions facing Israel. We would like our own community to serve as a model for Israeli society, in which differences and distinctions are discussed openly and with understanding of differing narratives and viewpoints, and in which the values of equality, justice and pluralism underlie a resilient, pluralist and liberal democracy.

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$250 million to Israeli social change groups since 1979.