NIF In The News
Agricultural firm Katif Venture and Development Ltd. may grow environmentally friendly produce, but when it comes to their treatment of workers, their practices, it appears, are anything but friendly. Last week, the company and two of its managers were charged with severe maltreatment of 12 foreign workers from Thailand that they employed.
The indictment, filed in the Beersheba Magistrate's Court against Katif Ventures work site manager Amir Ben-Shlomo and fieldwork manager Ronen Cohen, says that the company, which specializes in growing pesticide-free vegetables, employed the workers in degrading and inhumane conditions, did not provide them with reasonable housing or food and applied pressure against them in the form of punishments and threats.
The indictment added that the defendants exploited the mental and financial distress of the foreign workers, who feared losing their jobs in Israel, restricted their freedom and disregarded their equal rights as human beings.
According to the indictment, the Thai laborers were forced to work between 15-20 hours a day, seven days a week on a farm in Kfar Maimon, near the Gaza Strip.They were paid NIS 13-15 an hour, well under the legally mandated minimum wage of NIS 20.70 per hour, and without overtime.
The workers were allegedly housed in overcrowded, temporary sheds that left them exposed to the weather and were told to work with dangerous chemicals without the company providing proper protection.
The indictment also stated that the workers were under constant threats of job-termination and deportation by their supervisors, who constantly urged them to work faster.
The case, which has been characterized in the Israeli media and by workers' rights organization as an example of modern day slavery, was brought to the authorities' attention by Kav Laoved (Workers Hot line), a nonprofit, non-governmental organization committed to protecting the rights of disadvantaged workers.
"We visited Kfar Maimon following complaints we received from the workers. There we were told about the difficult conditions and decided to file a complaint with the police," said Tom Mehager, a Kav Laoved caseworker. "We participated in the investigation and as a result the charges were filed and the workers were taken to a shelter before being dispersed to new employers."
According to Mehager, Kav Laoved receives around 15 complaints a month from foreign workers who feel they are being abused. He said the number would probably be higher if the workers were aware of their rights. He also said that the government does not do enough to notify the workers of their rights or to address their complaints.
"Unfortunately, we have more contact with the foreign workers than the government agencies who are charged with protecting them, simply because we have people who speak their language," he said.
Mehager said that most of the complaints they receive are about unfair wages or excessive work hours. He said that in extreme situations, like the one that took place in Kfar Maimon, Kav Laoved files a complaint with the police, but that in most cases they refer the complaints to the agency in charge of enforcing foreign migrant employment regulation in the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor.
Kessie Gonen, who works as a translator and caseworker for Kav Laoved, moved to Israel from Thailand four years ago. With a background in NGO work, she came here prepared to help enforce humane working conditions for Thai laborers. She said that situations like the one in Kfar Maimon arise because the workers have no one to look out for them.
"Most of the Thai workers don't understand or don't know their rights here in Israel," said Gonen. "From my understanding, I don't think the government does anything to raise awareness among the workers."
According to Gonen, the Thai Embassy in Herzliya also receives complaints from workers, but she said that the embassy is limited to dealing with matters on a diplomatic level and cannot get involved in particular cases.
"They [the Thai workers] are in constant fear that if they cause problems they will be sent home," said Gonen, explaining that the average Thai worker pays between $10,000-14,000 in mediation fees to employment agencies in Thailand to come work in Israel. "They are fearful of having to go home before they have managed to pay off this fee."
Gonen said that she has also heard of cases where in order to have workers' visas taken away from them, employment agencies have transfered the workers from one employer to another without proper documentation, thus causing them to be illegal and subject to deportation.
According to the Foreign Workers' Rights Handbook issued by the Interior Ministry, "A foreign worker in Israel is entitled to the same working conditions as an Israeli employee." These rights include things like mandatory health insurance and social security, specific requirements for housing (with particulars on salary deductions in exchange), a guarantee of minimum wage and overtime payments, weekly rest periods and vacation pay and legally mandated severance pay.
"The maximum recruitment fee which may be legally charged to foreign workers recruited abroad is 3,276.52 NIS, in addition to airfare to Israel. The above sum includes sums paid to agents abroad as well as the sum paid to the Israeli agency," says the handbook.
Katif Venture and development Ltd., through their communications firm Naor Tikshoret, declined to respond to the details of the indictment.
Many-voiced Jewish Community: Israeli Dispute Shows Diversity
The Israeli government yesterday resolved its dispute with New England Consul General Nadav Tamir, clearing the way for him to resume his work in Boston. But he will return to a community still grappling with the lessons of the weeklong controversy surrounding him.
Tamir met yesterday in Jerusalem with Director General Yossi Gal, after being summoned to explain his leaked memo criticizing his own government for its rocky relations with the Obama administration. Gal chided Tamir for distributing the memo too widely, making a leak likely, and Tamir said he regretted his handling of the matter, said Yigal Palmor, Israel Foreign Ministry spokesman.
Tamir did not receive a formal censure, Palmor said, and the meeting did not involve “anything like being scolded or reprimanded,’’ contrary to reports in some Israeli media that Tamir had been censured.
While the Israeli government clearly wanted to lay the matter to rest - Palmor said “the page is turned, the case is closed, we all want to put this behind us’’ - the debate persisted, in part over Deputy Foreign Minister Daniel Ayalon’s characterization of Boston as a liberal bubble, out of touch with the rest of America.
Amid much division over Tamir, one point of agreement was that many diverse voices, from right to left, have found ways to be heard within Boston’s Jewish community. That is a departure from the days when the community’s leaders spoke with a uniform voice, especially on matters affecting Israel.
Many leaders of mainstream Boston organizations such as the American Jewish Committee had stood with progressive groups in firmly backing Tamir, saying he had done outstanding work in his three years here. Many defended him for reporting back to his government on criticism he was hearing of Israeli actions, especially over the refusal to halt construction of settlements in the West Bank, as the Obama administration has demanded.
But some Boston Jews who see the Obama administration’s actions as threatening to Israel sided with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman in chastising Tamir, and they said he should be recalled or fired. Among them were Boston’s Russian Jewish organizations, grouped in the Russian Jewish Community Foundation of Massachusetts.
Although nearly 80 percent of Jews nationally voted for Obama, Jews who had fled the former Soviet Union opposed the Democratic candidate by as big a margin, noted Greg Margolin, editor and publisher of the Jewish Russian Telegraph. He said Russian Jews account for more than 50,000 of the Boston area’s population of more than 220,000 Jews, yet they often weren’t able to be heard on major issues.
“Today, there are two opinions in Boston where there used to be only one,’’ Margolin said. “The left-wing monopoly on public opinion in Boston is broken.’’
Orthodox Jews, too, said they hadn’t been sufficiently heard - and they were part of a segment that was unhappy with Tamir. Rabbi Abraham Halbfinger, head of the Rabbinical Council of New England, said, “there is no unanimity in the defense of the consul.’’ Halbfinger said he had not met Tamir, and “I don’t think he has created a bridge with the Orthodox community.’’
Those on the left concur that there are now more voices among Boston’s Jews - and see that as evidence that Ayalon is wrong in dismissing Boston as a liberal bubble.
“I actually think that it’s the opposite,’’ said Beth Wasserman of the Boston chapter of Brit Tzedek v’Shalom, or Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace. “National organizations that are not leftist, like the David Project and CAMERA, are Boston-based.’’
The David Project, a conservative Jewish leadership program, and CAMERA, the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting, both have deep ties with Charles Jacobs, a veteran conservative activist who argued this week that Obama is taking steps that endanger Israel’s security.
In the Tamir case, Jacobs said in an interview, “what you’ve got here could be emblematic of the Jewish community’s increasingly conflicted view of Obama.’’ He added: “I like Nadav, he’s smart, he’s pretty good at making Israel’s case in a liberal Boston, to liberal audiences. He does that very well. But his fear, the way he stated it, is that [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu’s spat with Obama is going to threaten Jewish life in America. Many people here fear the opposite is true.’’
That Jacobs and his groups are being heard on these points is evidence to Monica Brettler, of the liberal New Israel Fund, that the Boston community reflects the larger Jewish community.
“What might be unique is that Boston is more open to dialogue and receptive to a variety of voices,’’ she said. One reason for that, Brettler added, is because the Jewish Community Relations Council, the organization for Jewish groups in Boston, “has been successful in making itself a real umbrella organization. The breadth of views when there are discussions there is very wide.’’
Nancy Kaufman, the longtime executive director of the community relations council, counts 42 member organizations, from Zionists to Jewish war veterans, Hadassah, and CAMERA.
Calling herself “truly a centrist,’’ she urged caution in categorizing Jews in Boston: “When it comes to Israel, you have to be careful. I know many left-wingers on Israel who are right-wingers on domestic policy issues. Labels are very dangerous.’’
Jonathan Sarna, a Brandeis professor and renowned Jewish historian, said the controversy over Tamir’s memo also shows how the traditional discipline among Jewish groups has faded.
“By design, the Jewish community was supposed to come together,’’ he said. It’s enormously important that that form of discipline has disappeared.’’
Recalling that from the 1950s onward Jews had lined up behind the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, he said “there was a real agreement that on matters of international Jewish interest the community would try to speak with a single voice. . . . That is really what has come to an end.
“Even the supporters of Israel are more reluctant than they once were to simply follow the dictates of the Israeli government,’’ Sarna said.
Rabbi William Hamilton of the Conservative Kehillath Israel Synagogue in Brookline said that with groups from Brit Tzedek to CAMERA thriving, “there is a decided intensity on both wings, if you will, which makes Boston a very dynamic community for Israel activism and advocacy. You don’t have a hard time looking for panelists on both sides of the aisle when you are looking for a hardy debate on what is in Israel’s best interests.’’
Native-born Children of Foreign Workers Pose Dilemma for Israel
TEL AVIV (JTA) – The round-faced boy given the unusual first name of Rabbi by his Filipino parents was born 11 years ago in Israel and has never known another home.
He speaks only Hebrew and has never traveled to the Philippines, but along with some 1,100 other children of foreign workers without work permits in Israel, the boy faces possible deportation along with his family.
"I feel Israeli in my heart and in my soul," said the boy, Rabbi Eliazar Cruz.
His parents initially came to Israel legally, as caretakers for elderly clients, but overstayed their visas.
"The Land of Israel is my land,” Rabbi said. “But these days I stay mostly at home, inside. I don't want to be caught outside and asked by the police where my parents are and deported."
In late July, a government order to deport the children and their families as part of a larger expulsion of migrants was delayed for three months by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the last minute under pressure from the public, local human rights groups and even President Shimon Peres.
Still, the question of government policy on the issue of the Israeli-born children of foreign workers, most of whose parents entered the country legally but stayed after their work permits expired, remains unresolved.
Like other countries in the industrial world, Israel faces the dilemma of how to deal with the families created on its soil by the foreign workers it invites in. But Israel, which has no immigration policy for non-Jews, finds itself in uncharted territory.
"On the one hand, Israel encouraged foreign workers to come for short-term stays and participate in the labor market in fields where there were not enough workers,” said John Gal, a professor of social work at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
“But there was no contingency for them staying and raising families here,” he said. "So Israel is now faced with a situation where we have children of workers born here but who lack citizenship or clear status.”
Sabine Hadad, a spokeswoman for the Interior Ministry, said deporting illegal residents is a matter of law enforcement.
"These people have broken the law and they know that,” she said of foreigners who overstayed their visas. “The law needs to be applied."
Instituting a policy that allows the parents of children born in Israel to stay in the country permanently also would open a route for illegal immigrants to stay in Israel forever: simply have a child here.
In the meantime, some 2,000 children of foreigners have come of age in Israel. They speak fluent Hebrew, attend Israeli schools and have joined youth movements. Some have even served in the military.
In 2006, a one-time government ruling gave 900 of the children permanent residency status. Those whose futures are now in question are the 1,100 others.
"I'm not Jewish, but I am Israeli," said a teenager whose parents came to Israel from Turkey.
The boy was speaking at a meeting of such children Tuesday at the offices of the Hotline for Migrant Workers, which is one of the main organizations lobbying against deportation.
Israeli rights groups also take issue with what they call the government's revolving-door policy of forcing foreign workers out of the country and then bringing in new workers instead of just keeping those who are here and want to stay.
Most of the country's foreign workers are from the Philippines, Thailand, Colombia, China and Africa. The vast majority work as caregivers for the elderly or physically impaired.
After the second intifada began in 2000, large numbers of permits were issued to bring in foreign workers in agriculture and construction to replace Palestinian workers.
In announcing the decision to halt the deportation orders for the children and their parents, Netanyahu’s office released a statement explaining the administration’s stance on illegal residents generally.
"The never-ending flow of illegal residents into Israel during the last few years has led to a situation whereby the percentage of illegal residents in the country is one of the highest in the world, relative to the local population and the number of employees in the job market,” the statement said. “This fact increases unemployment among Israelis and significantly alters Israel's internal demographics.”
Harel Kohen, an aide to Yaakov Katz, the lawmaker who heads the Knesset's committee on foreign workers, said that taking a firm line on foreign workers illegally in Israel is about preserving the Jewish character of Israel.
"We need to ensure they do not stay in Israel, otherwise Israel is at risk of having its own people assimilated," he said. "We could lose our Jewish identity."
The Interior Ministry says there are some 300,000 illegal migrants and approximately 70,700 legal foreign workers in Israel.
Education Minister Gidon Sa'ar is drafting legislation that would prevent the deportation and imprisonment of minors aged 3 to 18, along with their parents and siblings. Sa’ar also proposes outlining conditions in which permanent-resident status can be granted to children integrated into Israeli life.
Israel’s daily Ha’aretz endorsed such a bill in a recent editorial.
"A nation that has experienced expulsion orders and refugee status is not allowed to expel the children of refugees and turn its back on the distress of children who want to become part of the country," the editorial said.
Bittersweet Secular Wedding Ceremony on Jewish Day of Love
TEL AVIV, Israel, Aug. 4 (Xinhua) -- It was a hot summer night, yet about one hundred people gathered at Tel Aviv's Dizengoff Square for a young couple's unofficial secular Jewish wedding ceremony.
Tu Be'Av, the Jewish day of love which falls on Tuesday, is a traditional Jewish date from biblical times when single men and women would meet during the grape harvest.
To the accompaniment of loud, brisk music, people drinking beer and wine cheered and danced, congratulating the young couple -- 29-year-old Olga Samosvatov and her long-time boyfriend, 34-year-old Nico Tarosyan -- on their marriage.
It was, doubtlessly, a happy scene. However, for the young couple who have been in love for five years, it was a bittersweet wedding ceremony.
Samosvatov immigrated to Israel from Ukraine in 1995 with her Jewish mother. A secretary in a Tel Aviv law firm, she is able to prove that she is Jewish and would be entitled to marry in an Orthodox ceremony.
Nevertheless, Tarosyan, who immigrated to Israel from Russia in1995 and currently works as a computer technician after serving in the Israeli army, does not have sufficient proof that he is Jewish and is not entitled to marry in an Orthodox ceremony.
Tarosyan is one of more than 300,000 Israelis, mostly immigrants from the former Soviet Union, who can not get married here because the Orthodox Rabbinate has the final say in such matters, allowing only those considered halachically Jewish to marry other Jews.
"We knew the Rabbinate would make problems for us, so we never even approached them," said short-haired Samosvatov, dressed in a light blue skirt and wearing glasses.
"In any case we are secular, not religious, and we just did not want to go through the battle of trying to get married here. Planning a wedding is supposed to be a happy process, and fighting for recognition from the Rabbinate is too stressful," she said.
However, thanks to the efforts of non-profit New Israel Fund and the secular Jewish organization Havaya, which represents several other movements fighting the Orthodox Jewish monopoly on marriage, Samosvatov and Tarosyan tied the knot on Tuesday evening in the square, though the wedding will not change their legal status.
"I'm so excited to finally get married," said Samosvatov. "It is just a shame that the marriage will not really be recognized bythe state and that we will still have to go abroad to get properly married."
The two are planning to honeymoon in the fall in Prague, where they will have a non-religious civil ceremony that will allow them to be registered here as married by Israeli Interior Ministry.
"Whether our marriage here is recognized by the state or not is not that important. The important thing is that we are married," said curly-haired Tarosyan, who also wears glasses.
"I did not know I was Jewish until I was 12," he added. "I immigrated to Israel as soon as I finished college and feel at home here. But this need to prove I am Jewish to the rabbis is humiliating."
According to Diti Degani-Peleg, director of Havaya, it's a very "hurtful" situation.
"We meet so many couples, immigrants from Russian-speaking countries, who have made aliya, served in the army, but get this slap in the face when they try to get married here," the director was quoted by local daily The Jerusalem Post as saying.
Havaya's aim is to provide a suitable spiritual and Jewish alternative to those who are unable to get married here under current Orthodox directives, said Degani-Peleg.
"The situation needs to be changed and we want to encourage as many couples as possible to utilize our alternative experience so that the government can not go on ignoring this problem any more," she said, estimating that 50 percent of those who turn to Havaya are prevented from marrying here because they are not considered Jewish enough, while the other half simply prefer to have a secular Jewish wedding.
While Havaya's main focus is reaching out to those who can not get married here, it is also involved in lobbying the authorities for a real change.
Israel's Ministerial Committee for Legislation approved in Julya government proposal for a bill allowing Israelis classified as having no religion to be registered as a couple, but Degani-Peleg said this change did not go far enough and would only affect a very small number of people.
"We need a different law that will allow any Israeli to marry any other Israeli," she asserted.
Human Rights Groups: Deporting Children Inhumane
The deportation of workers and refugees who are staying in Israel illegally, along with their children, is scheduled to begin soon, unless the government decides otherwise.
A number of human rights groups sent a letter to the government ministers Wednesday urging them to take action to prevent the deportation.
In the letter, the organizations asked the ministers to support Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar's proposal that until an arrangement regulating the children's status is reached, no actions will be taken to deport them or their families.
"The ministers should heed the public's call and protect the children," a representative of the groups told Ynet.
According to the letter, the children in question are part of a small group of children of immigrant workers and asylum seekers who have integrated into the Israeli education system and Israeli society.
"The planned enforcement operations will tear the children, whose language is Hebrew and whose culture is our culture, from the only country most of them have ever known. Children will be taken from their homes and placed in detention facilities," the letter read.
'The public has spoken'
The Hotline for Immigrant Workers told Ynet that since the possibility children will be deported was published, they have received hundreds of calls from people from across the political spectrum who oppose the plan. "The public has spoken loud and clear – people do not want to see Israeli children being arrested."
Eilsheva Minekovsky of ASSAF, the Israeli Organization for Aid to Refugees and Asylum Seekers, said: "We are appalled by the planned move to arrest refugee families with children and leave them in prison. These are refugees that have gone through horrors before they arrived in Israel, and it is unacceptable that the State of Israel should treat them this way."
Attorney Oded Feller of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel added, "Deporting children is inhumane. The government ignores the fact that most of these children were born in Israel, go to school in Israel and speak Hebrew.
"The government of Israel must refrain from arresting these children, who did nothing wrong, and regulate their status in the only country they consider home as soon as possible."
The Israeli Children organization announced it will be holding a rally against the deportation on Saturday, August 1, the same date that the deportation operation is scheduled to commence.
Yishai to try and resolve issue
Meanwhile, Interior Minister Eli Yishai said he plans to convene a meeting on Sunday, immediately following the cabinet meeting in the morning, to address the issue.
Representatives of the government's legal bureau, the Immigration Administration and the Oz Unit, as well as the ministry's director general have been invited to attend the meeting.
"I decided to try and find out whether there are alternatives that do not require legislation and long-term steps to resolve the problem of the refugees' children," said Yishai.
The minister added that he has instructed his ministry officials and the Immigration Administration to be extra sensitive when handling the issue of children. "A child should not suffer because of his parents' illegal actions," he explained.
Fund Decries Violent IDF Public Radio Comments
WASHINGTON (JTA) -- The New Israel Fund demanded that disciplinary action be taken against two Israel Defense Forces' Radio hosts for inciting violence against fund grantees.
NIF Israel Executive Director Eliezer Yaari demanded the action in an open letter sent to Israel Defense Forces' Radio Commander Yitzchak Tunik.
The letter says the hosts targeted current and former IDF members involved with Breaking the Silence, an organization that documents human rights abuses in the territories, discussing their desire to "break their bones and send them home with scars."
“I am certain that you will find a way to express your reservations publicly about this dangerous incitement and put the presenters in their place," Yaari said in the letter. "Otherwise you will be a party to a dangerous phenomenon and even a crime.”
Illegals in Limbo, Now Cast Out of Israel
Tel Aviv, Israel — They are the inhabitants of Israel who live in limbo. Since 2005, an estimated 12,500 people have arrived in Israel, seeking asylum from Sudan and Eritrea.
One group, the Sudanese, are suffering because their native country is Israel’s enemy; the Eritreans, because their country is Israel’s friend. Israel refuses to give residency to people from enemy states, and therefore will not consider Sudanese for refugee status. The only exception was in 2008 when Israel gave temporary residency to 450 arrivals from the war-torn Sudanese region of Darfur as a one-time humanitarian gesture, though without granting them official refugee status.
Israel also refuses to offend Eritrea, with which it has trade ties, by deeming its citizens in need of a haven from persecution, meaning that their status is also not up for consideration. Israel’s only concession here has been to grant temporary work permits to 2,000 people in 2008 in a one-time decision, while again assiduously avoiding granting them offical status as refugees.
“These two groups are in limbo because the government does not consider their requests,” said Sigal Rozen, public activities coordinator for the Hotline for Migrant Workers, an advocacy and support organization. Yet, based on reports of horrific human rights conditions in their native countries, few deny that many, if not most of them, have fled their homes out of a legitimate fear of persecution for religious, ethnic or political reasons.
The limbo surrounding the status of most Sudanese and Eritrean asylum seekers has translated, until now, into a laissez-faire approach on the ground. Israel has taken almost no action except for imposing a stint of administrative detention on them when they arrive, as most do, through illegally crossing in from Egypt. In the absence of a deportation policy, almost all are eventually released into an uncertain life in Israel.
But now, the government is getting tough, keeping them, along with anybody else who lives in Israel illegally, from the city of Tel Aviv. Plans are being pushed to give prison time to Israelis who help illegal entrants.
At the start of July, a newly created Interior Ministry task force began enforcing a previously ignored official directive. It tells authorities to carry on what they have been doing for years — namely, to turn a blind eye to the fact that people are residing and working illegally, but on one condition: that they are not in the center of the country.
This directive was introduced in February 2008, before which asylum seekers could move about freely. It came into being after the Tel Aviv municipality complained that while it was doing its best to provide services to all residents, it was having difficulty coping with the concentration of almost all the asylum seekers in its area.
Since July 1, the task force, known as Oz (Hebrew for “strength”), has sent its inspectors to conduct regular raids in Tel Aviv, detaining around 400 people breaking this restriction. Oz does possess the power to jail illegal immigrants administratively without formal judicial charge but, for the most part, has subsequently released them outside the center of the country.
Following the directive, authorities have accepted their residence north of Hadrea or south of Gedera (with the exception of Eilat) and turned a blind eye to their employment in these areasDespite being illegal, they are protected by employment law and entitled to social security as long as they register with tax and National Insurance authorities, which they are able to do.
But asylum seekers and groups that advocate on their behalf say that enforcing the so-called Hadera-Gedera restriction amounts to condemning them to poverty and isolation.
“People come to Tel Aviv because they know someone and will be able to eat and then find a job,” Oscar Olivier, an asylum seeker from Congo, told the Forward. “Taking them to Haifa or Jerusalem, where they know nobody and don’t know the language, will mean they have no choice but to steal.”
Avital Banai, refugee program coordinator at the nongovernmental organization Brit Olam, said: “It is far more difficult to find work outside the center of the country. As well as that, the services and support networks they need are concentrated here in the center, and here it’s possible to rent somewhere to live without papers and collateral; this is far rarer in the north or south.”
In addition to the hotline for migrant workers, the services concentrated in Israel’s central region include medical care. There, Physicians for Human Rights offers the only health care available for those not paying National Insurance, which includes many of the immigrants.
In early July, Oz arrested an asylum seeker from Sudan on his way to receive medical treatment at the Physicians for Human Rights-Israel open clinic in Jaffa. “I know that I am forbidden to be in Tel Aviv, and I live in Or Akiva [just north of Hadera],” said the asylum seeker to a Ministry of Justice review tribunal, “but I had an appointment with Physicians for Human Rights.”
Following the incident, Physicians for Human Rights released a statement condemning the Hadera-Gedera restriction as a “draconian” hurdle to obtaining medical treatment for refugees and asylum seekers.
The Ministry of Interior rejects such claims. Interior officials say they are doing what they can to accommodate asylum seekers, but argue that the only way Israel can cope with the large numbers is if they spread out.
The ministry also claims that the directive is its way of making the best out of a challenging situation. “It’s not instead of them being legal, but rather instead of them being in jail,” ministry spokeswoman Sabine Hadad told the Forward.
Whatever hardships enforcement of the Hadera-Gedera restriction causes for asylum seekers, the situation is freer than it will be if the Knesset passes the new Prevention of Infiltration Law, which is due to go to the chamber’s Interior Committee at the end of July. The proposed legislation passed a first reading in May 2008, and on June 3 it passed a further Knesset vote — a re-endorsement needed for all legislation after a general election. The vote was 59-1.
The law, which is being promoted by Defense Minister and Labor leader Ehud Barak and supported by the coalition, would increase the maximum sentence for illegal residence in Israel to seven years from five for “enemy nationals,” a category that includes the Sudanese.
No less important, the law would make Israelis assisting such illegal residents in virtually any way subject to a similar sentence. This has provoked a major outcry among Israeli human rights groups.
“At Yad Vashem, we give honor to people who helped Jews escape the Nazis, yet we are apparently willing to punish people escaping genocide,” Rozen said. “I can’t think of anything more absurd.” In Banai’s view, “It’s as if we, as Jews, have learned nothing from history.”
The Forward contacted Barak’s office several times for comment, but received no response.
Lawmakers who have voiced support for the law have cited mostly economic grounds. “Israel is acting in a few directions to halt the massive infiltration of job seekers,” Tzipi Hotovely of Likud told Haaretz. “The state is morally obligated to take care of war refugees, but at the same time, it must stop migrant workers, and that is the intent of the bill.”
Another section of the proposed law would protect, by statute, the controversial military practice known as “Hot Return,” currently only an army directive.
“Hot Return” is a practice by which army officers return illegal entrants crossing in from the Sinai back to Egypt immediately upon their entry. It is currently in force along about a quarter of the Israel-Egypt border, over which virtually all illegal entrants enter Israel.
Critics say that returning infiltrators to Egypt is akin to condemning them to death. “We know that Egypt has been returning hundreds of Eritreans to their country, putting their lives at risk, making ‘Hot Return’ a completely unacceptable practice,” said Anat Ben-Dor, who heads the pro bono Refugee Rights Clinic at Tel Aviv University. She claims that it contravenes the non-refoulement principle of international law, which prohibits sending asylum seekers back to their countries if they could face persecution there.
Bar-Ilan University international law expert Avi Bell disagreed, saying that despite his moral objections to the policy, given that asylum seekers subject to “Hot Return” have not left the border, it is “legally gray but probably legal.”
Privately Run Checkpoint Stops Palestinians with 'too much food'
A West Bank checkpoint managed by a private security company is not allowing Palestinians to pass through with large water bottles and some food items, Haaretz has learned.
MachsomWatch discovered the policy, which Palestinian workers confirmed to Haaretz.
The Defense Ministry stated in response that non-commercial quantities of food were not being limited. It made no reference to the issue of water. The checkpoint, Sha'ar Efraim, is south of Tul Karm, and is managed for the Defense Ministry by the private security company Modi'in Ezrahi. The company stops Palestinian workers from passing through the checkpoint with the following items: Large bottles of frozen water, large bottles of soft drinks, home-cooked food, coffee, tea and the spice zaatar. The security company also dictates the quantity of items allowed: Five pitas, one container of hummus and canned tuna, one small bottle or can of beverage, one or two slices of cheese, a few spoonfuls of sugar, and 5 to 10 olives. Workers are also not allowed to carry cooking utensils and work tools.
MachsomWatch told Haaretz that Sunday, a 32-year-old construction worker from Tul Karm, who is employed in Hadera, was not allowed to carry his lunch bag through the checkpoint. The bag contained six pitas, 2 cans of cream cheese, one kilogram of sugar in a plastic bag, and a salad, also in a plastic bag.
The typical Palestinian laborer in Israel has a 12-hour workday, including travel time and checkpoint delays. Many leave home as early as 2 A.M. in order to wait in line at the checkpoint; tardiness to work often results in immediate dismissal. Workers return home around 5 P.M. The wait at the checkpoint can take one to two hours in each direction, if not longer.
The food quantities allowed by Modi'in Ezrahi do not meet the daily dietary needs of the workers, and they prefer not to buy food at the considerably more expensive Israeli stores.
MachsomWatch informed the Israel Defense Forces about the new bans but received no response, the organization said. Modi'in Ezrahi issued a statement saying questions should be directed to the Defense Ministry's crossings administration.
MachsomWatch activists said a security guard on duty told them the food restrictions were imposed due to "security and health risks." However, at the nearby Qalqilyah checkpoint, which is still run directly by the IDF, workers have been allowed to carry through all the food items banned at Sha'ar Efraim.
However, responsibility for the Qalqilyah checkpoint is supposed to be transferred to a private company this week, and workers voiced concerns that similar restrictions might be imposed there.
The IDF Spokesman's office said in a statement: "There are no limits on food quantities. They may take through food necessary for personal consumption during a day's work. When a worker arrives with a large quantity of goods intended for sale rather than for personal use, he is asked to pass through the goods crossing instead, where the goods are handled appropriately and with the appropriate customs checks. This crossing is intended for pedestrians and not for goods."
Israeli Arab advocates take their case to D.C. area
by Richard Greenberg, Associate Editor
Think of them as the other Palestinians.
They do not live in the West Bank or Gaza. Their home is Israel proper, where they constitute about 20 percent of the population.
They are full Israeli citizens - but because they are Arabs, they do not enjoy full equality, according to a delegation of Israeli Arab advocates that swept through the Washington area last week as part of a two-city, consciousness-raising tour.
The three visitors represent the Mossawa Center (Mossawa is Arabic for equality), a Haifa-based organization that promotes the rights of Israel's 1.4 million Arab citizens through political advocacy, media outreach, research and analysis, and public information campaigns.
Last week's six-day whirlwind tour of the Washington area included stops at Arab and Jewish advocacy organizations; synagogues; and congressional as well as senatorial offices.
"We didn't expect such interest," Jafar Farah, founder of the Mossawa Center, said in an interview earlier this week as he and his colleagues prepared to leave for New York, the second stop on the tour.
"I never really paid much attention to these people before," remarked Lew Franke, 71, of Bethesda, one of about 50 attendees at Mossawa's public program for the Jewish community presented a week ago Wednesday at Reform Temple Emanuel in Kensington. "When I think about Palestinians, I usually think about Israel and the peace issue."
The campaign was prompted in part by "changing realities" ushered in by the U.S. and Israeli elections, events that produced polar-opposite results in the eyes of Mossawa, which is encouraged, it says, by the arrival of the Obama administration and discouraged by the formation of Israel's "new extreme right government" headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and symbolized philosophically by Israeli Minister of Foreign Affairs Avigdor Lieberman, who has said Israel's citizens should be required to sign a loyalty oath.
The delegation's Washington-area tour, which ended Sunday, also highlighted the tension inherent in Israel's unique status as both the Jewish state and a democracy.
The internal conflict stemming from that dichotomy was reflected in comments made by Franke and other proudly Zionistic Jews who heard the remarks at Temple Emanuel made by Jafar, a former journalist, and his two colleagues, Mossawa board members Mary Totry, who chairs the civic studies department at Oranim College in Israel, and Khaled Furani, a member of the faculty in Tel Aviv University's department of sociology and anthropology.
(The terms used by Mossawa to refer to the population it represents include Palestinian citizens of Israel, Israel's Arab citizens and Palestinian Arab citizens.)
"It's a dilemma to want a strong Jewish state that will also be respectful of all the people there," said Judy Beltz, 74, of Potomac, a member of several congregations, including the Am Kolel Sanctuary and Renewal Center in Beallsville, which sponsored the Temple Emanuel event.
Beltz said it was a "revelation" to her that there are Palestinians, such as the members of the Mossawa contingent, who live in places like Haifa - rather than strictly in the territories - and have Jewish friends. "It represents a different orientation of the concept of Israeli Arabs," she added.
Am Kolel attendee Theo Stone, a 54-year-old Ellicott City resident, said that as a Zionist, he believes in "the ideal of the Jewish state as [part of] the national liberation movement of the Jewish people." On the other hand, he added, "when I see injustice occurring, it's a hateful thing to me."
Some have questioned whether the Israeli Arab population is a "fifth column" that poses an internal threat to the Jewish state because its allegiances lie mainly with the Palestinians.
"That's a sad question that shows an isolation mentality, not an inclusive mentality," Farah said in an interview, maintaining that the same "unfair question" could just as easily be asked about American Jews. Moreover, he added, there is no evidence that Israeli Arabs have been anything other than loyal citizens.
Nevertheless, according to Mossawa, this population has been subjected to many injustices, including racist "incitement" by Israeli press outlets and politicians, physical violence and funding inequities that demonstrate conclusively that Israeli Arabs are at best second-class citizens. (A spokesperson for the Embassy of Israel declined comment.)
Although Beltz said she empathizes with the plight of Israel's Arabs, several relevant issues were not discussed in detail at the Temple Emanuel event, including whether Mossawa endorses a one- or two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian impasse.
Asked about that issue in an interview, Jafar said his organization endorses a two-state solution that recognizes the rights of Israel's Arab citizens, but "we can live with one or two states."
The Mossawa delegation's trip was subsidized in part by the Ford Israel Fund, a partnership of the New Israel Fund and the Ford Foundation. Capitol Hill sit-downs on the group's itinerary included a visit with Rep. Lois Capps (D-23rd-Calif.), who said in a prepared statement: "Israel is the shining light of Democracy in the Middle East .... But as someone who has always been a steadfast supporter of Israel, I worry that failure to address lingering inequalities for all its citizens - or worse, enacting discriminatory laws - would tarnish its standing as a free and democratic nation."
NGO Works To Empower Ethiopian Israeli Community
TORONTO — Yuvi Tashome can’t say with absolute certainty that the organization she co-founded to help the Ethiopian community is solely responsible, but she has been told that four years ago Magen David Adom used to receive two calls a day to send ambulances to Gedera because of violence, including stabbings – and today that number is down to zero.
“We were amazed,” Tashome told The CJN in a Passover interview, when she was here at the invitation of the New Israel Fund of Canada (NIFC), which funds her organization, to speak to 125 people at a “liberation seder” at Beth Tzedec Congregation (co-sponsored by NIFC) about her journey to Israel and the work she does today.
The 32-year-old director of Friends by Nature – a non-governmental organization she started with eight people – left Ethiopia at age 6 and immigrated to Israel with her family as part of Operation Moses after walking through the Sudanese desert.
Friends by Nature is committed to long-term work that empowers Ethiopian youth at risk and their families in Gedera, which has an Ethiopian Jewish population of 1,700.
“We wanted to do deep work with the Ethiopian community,” said Tashome, who has a degree in education and Israeli studies from Ashkelon College, a satellite of Bar-Ilan University. “We knew something was wrong with the way the [existing] programs were helping them. We thought that one of the problems was that everything is a project for one, two or three years, and then it’s over.”
As well, she added, programs she was familiar with had originated outside the Ethiopian community and had no Ethiopians in managerial positions.
Before co-founding the new group four years ago, Tashome ran a program that facilitated hikes for young people from grades 7 through 12, and opened dialogue about Ethiopia and Israel. “It was good, but not good enough,” she said.
Among the issues facing the Ethiopian Israeli community are poor school attendance, drug and alcohol abuse, and run-ins with police among youth, who make up more than half the Ethiopian population in Gedera.
Tashome believes a major problem is that many Ethiopian Israeli young people “haven’t found themselves” as Ethiopians or Israelis.
“They don’t belong anywhere.” Those born in Israel “don’t know anything about their parents being powerful. They only know the weakness of their parents.”
Tashome’s story is different. Her mother, who was widowed in Ethiopia and remarried another Ethiopian in Israel, “did a lot of things that were the exception,” Tashome said. She ran an NGO for children in Ashkelon, told Ethiopian stories to kindergarten students as a volunteer, and is now studying for a degree.
As a child growing up in Ashkelon and other cities, Tashome did her homework at programs that were run for Ethiopian youth.
“Nothing really happened in the house, and the message of that was that your family is not good enough,” she said.
But when youngsters feel comfortable bringing their friends home, it keeps them off the streets, she explained.
One of the programs she runs now is called Homework at Home. “It’s a funny name, because homework is supposed to be at home,” Tashome said. “Other programs take them out of the house.”
Ethiopian youngsters may find it difficult to do homework at home because of the number of siblings in the house, lack of quiet, and lack of a computer and proper table, Tashome said.
As part of the program, teachers visit the home on a weekly basis to work with small groups of children. “After a while you see the mother and father have their motivation. They turn off the TV, take the [younger] kids to another room.”
Some families, after time in the program, have decided to buy computers or change the lighting to make it more conducive to doing homework.
Friends by Nature has also run hiking programs for young people and their parents. “During the trip, [young people] see that the parents know so much about things that grow in Israel and what you can do with them. It’s the first time they know that their parents know something that is relevant to Israeli life.” Often it is a springboard for further parent-child discussion, she explained.
As well, Friends by Nature has a volunteer program for young adults who have finished their army service. Participants identify needs in the community, plan and implement solutions, and are also taken to tour Israeli universities with an eye to their own future plans.
They become role models for younger Ethiopians, Tashome said. “It’s about empowerment.”
The changes Tashome’s group is working toward seem to help Ethiopian youth integrate better into the larger Israeli society, she notes.
“We noticed that if you know more about your Ethiopian culture, Ethiopian masoret [tradition], and have experience of your parents with knowledge and power, then… that gives the kids self-confidence to have friends who are not Ethiopian.”
For Tashome – whose husband, a seventh-generation Israeli, is also a co-founder of Friends by Nature – her work has become even more personally motivated in the last few years.
As the mother of a three-year-old, who is expecting her second child in September, Tashome said, “What we’re trying to do is to live in the neighbourhood for a lifetime, raising our kids there. The motivation is very personal. It’s for my kids, so I’m working hard.”
Ethiopian made her own Exodus
When Yuvi Tashome was a little girl in Ethiopia, Jerusalem was a mystical place known to her only through the Torah and the tales children tell one another.
"I grew up with stories about how, in Jerusalem, everybody takes care of one another and keeps the Shabbat," Tashome, 32, says in a phone interview from Gedera, Israel. She will be telling her story next week in Toronto as part of Passover,
"I thought there is no death in Jerusalem. It was like heaven. There was candy on the trees."
That it could be real, and that she could go there, seemed impossible.
The story of how she and more than 120,000 other Ethiopian Jews eventually made it to Jerusalem will be told by Tashome Monday evening at Beth Tzedec Synagogue at the New Israel Fund's Liberation Seder for Passover, which begins today and celebrates the escape of Jewish slaves from ancient Egypt.
"The parallels (in Tashome's story) to the Exodus story are just amazing," says Rabbi Lawrence Englander of Mississauga's Solel Synagogue.
Englander will give the Seder address Monday, calling all worshippers to consider themselves to have escaped Egypt and found freedom.
"The idea is to connect with people like Tashome still going through that journey," he says.
As civil war ravaged her homeland in the mid-1980s, Tashome's widowed mother decided the family (which included Yuvi's little brother and grandmother) had to leave for Jerusalem, part of a massive migration of Ethiopia's Jewish minority to Israel in what came to be known as Operation Moses.
Just like Moses, Tashome and her family wandered the desert in search of refuge, which they found after about two months in a refugee camp in Sudan.
"I don't remember a lot about Sudan, just the deaths and that everybody was hungry," Tashome says. "I was hungry all the time."
At age 5, she had also been separated from her mother and brother, and travelled with her grandmother instead. They were eventually airlifted out of the camps. Tashome's most vivid memory was the flight crew.
"We were up in the sky, and they were all wearing white. I thought they were angels," she says, the sight seeming to prove that Jerusalem was heaven. "When we arrived, I remember the grown-ups all getting down on the floor and praying."
Cut off from European Judaism for almost 2,000 years, the Jews of Ethiopia shared little with others of their faith in terms of tradition or ceremony. Tashome's mystical ideas about Jerusalem are a reflection of that disconnect.
But the idyllic image of Jerusalem – which, for Ethiopian Jews in the 1980s, meant all of Israel – soon started to tarnish as unemployment, limited acceptance by Israeli society and the accompanying crime among the Ethiopian community began to take its toll.
Growing up, Tashome tried to be a "good Israeli girl," in her words, going to a kibbutz for high school and serving in the army. But when it came time to get a civilian job, she found prospects dried up.
"All they could see was an Ethiopian girl," she says.
Tashome turned her attention, instead, to working with troubled Ethiopian youth. Four years ago, she founded Friends by Nature, a grass-roots organization that helps young people stay in school and out of trouble. Her group is partly funded by the New Israel Fund, which supports such community-based organizations in hopes of building a civic society within Israel, says Jay Brodbar, executive director of the New Israel Fund of Canada.
Such efforts, Tashome says, help Ethiopian youths stay in school and even go to university. And along the way, she says, they are building the next generation of Ethiopian Jewish leaders.
Op-Ed: Critical Currents: New faces, old ways
The second Netanyahu government sworn in this week is retrogressive in its size, composition and declared priorities. It is justifiably causing grave concerns throughout the Middle East and in the international arena. For many here and abroad, the religious-nationalistic aura it exudes is nothing short of alarming.
On closer scrutiny, however, the new administration is not all that different than its immediate predecessors. Ehud Olmert, like Ariel Sharon before him, adopted the language of accommodation while pursuing policies that intensified confrontation on a variety of fronts. The second Netanyahu incumbency may differ from them in tone and quantity, but hardly in substance or quality.
If any change is to occur under these conditions, it cannot build on the flailing domestic opposition (the Left has been thoroughly thrashed electorally and has now been effectively emasculated by the Labor decision to join the government; the liberal Kadima party has yet to define its identity outside decision-making circles). A much more assertive international involvement is therefore necessary. Without a concerted effort to alter current trends, the sporadic and lethal conflagrations of recent years are likely to escalate, rendering Palestinians with no hope and Israel with precious few prospects for a viable future.
The new government was patched together to convey a modicum of respectability around a thick layer of ultranationalist and sectarian interests. In the 18th Knesset, fully 65 of the 120 members represent the Likud and parties to its right. Even without the avowedly extremist National Union (which includes a disciple of Meir Kahane), the coalition is, at its very core, hostile to any serious negotiations with Palestinians externally and to full integration of Arab citizens internally. The addition of the Labor Party does little to mitigate this thrust. It proves, once again, that under Ehud Barak's tutelage, the party's purported ideology is constantly sacrificed to the opportunism of its leaders.
THE INITIAL DAYS of this Netanyahu tenure will be devoted, in all likelihood, primarily to pressing domestic economic matters. These will be accompanied by mollifying gestures aimed at assuaging the discomfort that it arouses internationally. Such overtures, however, will not be able to obscure three key emerging strategic directions contained in the coalition agreements and prominent in initial policy statements.
The first relates to the Palestinian front. The incoming prime minister stands fast in his refusal to embrace the two-state solution, proclaiming a preference for an "economic peace" whose contours remain unknown and whose partners are similarly elusive. With little hope for the resumption of the (however fruitless) post-Annapolis negotiations, prospects for movement are grim. When everything is seemingly on hold, lots of counterproductive things can happen. Thus, a further crackdown on Hamas - if promises to Israel Beiteinu are kept - is highly likely. In these circumstances, more violence between Israel and non-state actors looms on the horizon.
This is why many eyes are now directed to the second, Syrian, path. Here Israeli interests may dovetail more closely with those of Washington, enabling stepped-up talks via channels already opened by Ehud Olmert. It would, however, be a mistake to pin too many hopes on these discussions: They will not reach fruition without an explicit commitment to withdraw from the Golan Heights (something Binyamin Netanyahu refuses to do), and they cannot be neatly divorced from the regional context. Unless such negotiations are carried out within the framework of the Arab Peace Initiative, they will complicate rather than alter dynamics in the area.
The third - and clearly the most important - priority on the new government's agenda is the Iranian challenge. But the confrontational nature of Netanyahu's approach to the Iranian nuclear program is at odds, at least for the time being, with that being pursued by the Obama administration. It also fails to adopt a truly regional perspective which brings into account the interests which prompted and still - albeit barely - sustain the Arab League's overtures toward Israel.
THESE ANTICIPATED moves therefore set the country on a collision course not only with its neighbors, but also with some of its most persistent friends. Although in many respects a continuation - albeit in highly magnified form - of policies pursued by the outgoing government, Binyamin Netanyahu (with Avigdor Lieberman as foreign minister) cannot expect to be indulged in the same way that Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni were until recently. Yet the threat of isolation verging on ostracism may be precisely the kind of jolt that has been needed for some time.
The Palestinian-Israel imbroglio has gone far beyond the confines of a bilateral dispute. It was first injected with strong religious overtones and has, since the Second Lebanon War, assumed regional proportions. It is well-nigh impossible to address the one without dealing with the other. The solution consequently requires a distinctly regional outlook which addresses the Palestinian, Syrian and Lebanese components of the Arab-Israel conflict within a more comprehensive framework. Such a multifaceted approach requires broad international involvement if any progress is to be made.
This long-overdue internationalization may center, initially, on brokering a series of localized understandings that will relieve the disastrous situation in Gaza and guarantee some measure of security. But such mini-detentes - widely discussed in policy-making quarters and think tanks in Europe and North America - will be limited in time and space if not linked purposefully to a broader process aimed at bringing an end to the increasingly acrimonious Arab-Israel confrontation. It is now patently evident that to achieve long-term security for all the peoples in the area, the bilateral trajectory laid down in Oslo and so ineffectively perpetuated in a variety of forms until recently must be definitively jettisoned.
The new government may yet provide the immediate trigger for such a thorough revision, leading to a reorientation of approaches to the resolution of the conflict and to the revival of hope in what is now a particularly barren landscape. Such an externally-driven impetus can also revitalize domestic politics, presenting viable alternatives which no political faction can offer at the moment. If it does set this dynamic in motion, Netanyahu's current tenure will have served a purpose (even if it does not carry out its own self-defined mission) for the benefit of all involved.
Leftists march in Umm al-Fahm
Marchers, mostly National-Religious, aim to counter Baruch Marzel's procession through Arab city
Left-wing activists, most of them National Religious Jews, marched through the Arab city of Umm al-Fahm Sunday in a move aimed at countering a rightist march that took place there two weeks ago.
The activists were received by the mayor and a number of residents who handed them flowers. "The city of Umm al-Fahm accepts all visitors, gives them flowers and doesn't hand out stones," said Mayor Sheikh Khaled Hamdan.
Marchers, brought together by the movements Yud Bet B'Heshvan, (The 12th of Heshvan) and the New Israel Fund, carried signs contradicting extreme rightist Baruch Marzel and his followers saying: 'The Jewish majority living in the State is different'.
Yud Bet B'Heshvan director Gadi Gvaryahu told Ynet, "We are the countering response to the Kahane followers' march of racism and hatred. In our opinion they are desecrators of God, and we've come here to say that for every march by Kahane's followers, we will come here to plant harmony and friendship."
The city's municipality expressed satisfaction. MK Afu Aghbaria (Hadash) told Ynet, "We are a city of peace, a city that accepts visitors with the greatest warmth, but not those who arrive with police escorts. This initiative is wonderful. It comes at the right time and proves that not all residents of Israel are racist and extremist, but just the opposite."
After the march the mayor spoke before those who participated and said, "I want to take advantage of this opportunity to warn against the rise to power of rightists and the spread of racism, especially at this time when racists are receiving senior positions in government."
He added, "We must work together against such phenomena. Your visit is an important message to Jewish society, Arab society, and the whole of Israel's society."
Israeli-Arab Group Sounds Alarm on Gov't
An Israeli-Arab advocacy center is going on the offensive against what it sees as potentially harmful policies that the new government may espouse.
Jafar Farah, director of the Haifa-based Mossawa Center, said he and former Labor MK Nadia Hilou had met with six German MPs on Thursday to discuss the Arab community's concerns vis-a-vis the government.
In recent weeks, Farah has met with 13 ambassadors, including those from Britain, Belgium, Poland and Sweden, to discuss the same issues.
And on April 19, he will leave for a 10-day trip to the United States, where he hopes to meet with members of US President Barack Obama's administration, Congressmen and representatives of Jewish and Arab-American organizations.
"We don't have big hopes for this government. We feel that this new government will - at least, part of it - be targeting the Arab community and will... complicate the Middle East conflict with confrontations between Jews and Arabs," Farah said.
He fears that the new right-wing government might try to infringe on the rights of the Arab minority, and engage in incitement as well as in "house demolitions and other policies that may affect badly the relationship between Arabs and Jews."
Some Israeli Arabs consider remarks by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman of Israel Beiteinu as well as members of the National Union (which is in the opposition) as "incitement."
Lieberman has proposed that all citizens, including Arabs, pledge loyalty to Israel as a Jewish state, and supports exchanging Arab towns for West Bank settlements in the event of a peace deal with the Palestinians. He has also referred to the "enemy within," apparently meaning Israeli Arabs.
Farah said he was particularly concerned that a former member of the now outlawed Kach party, Michael Ben-Ari, has become an MK.
"You have people who clearly say that they want to undermine the status of the [Arab] community," Farah said.
During his trip to the US, he hopes to raise awareness "about the risks we may face in the near future," and to build contacts in the new administration and with NGOs.
However, a US official said Thursday that while "we're concerned about coexistence and we're concerned about peace and mutual understanding, I can't envision us getting publicly involved in an internal [Israeli] political issue."
The State Department, did, however, issue an annual rights report that examines perceived rights violations in every country of the world, he said.
Lieberman denies that he is either racist or fascist.
"I stand at the head of the most diverse political party in the Knesset... I find it a bit rich to be called a bigot," he wrote in a February piece in the New York Jewish Week.
He also wrote that while Israel Beiteinu had no objection to the nonviolent expression of opinion by Israeli Arabs, "it is violent speech that forms a clear and present danger that we refuse to tolerate."
Deputy Minister for the Development of the Negev and the Galilee Ayoub Kara, a Druse from the Likud, also defended the new government's position regarding minorities.
"Mossawa is a political organization, political people stand behind it, with all due respect, they have learned to damage the Right... [Prime Minister Binyamin] Netanyahu said unequivocally that he continues the same line as the previous government when it comes to peace."
A Moral Failure
In the election held two weeks ago, the Israel Beiteinu (Israel is our Home) Party, led by Avigdor Lieberman, became the third largest in the country - just one of the results of an election which proved that the Israeli electorate has moved far to the right. Right-wing parties now constitute a clear majority in the Knesset.
For those of us who are Arab-Palestinian citizens in Israel, the results of the election highlighted even more sharply the precarious status of our community, today comprising one-fifth of the population of Israel.
Israel Beiteinu's vision statement contends that the "solution" to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is the "exchange of territory and populations, with the goal of the separation of the Jewish and Arab nations, respectively." The vision statement also advocates the proposal of a new citizenship law which would make citizenship contingent upon one's "declaration of loyalty to the State of Israel as a Jewish state," and that Israel is "a Jewish state, as opposed to a state for the Jewish people or for all its citizens."
In fact, Israel Beiteinu's campaign in the election was built primarily on these separatist principles, using the slogans, "No loyalty, no citizenship" and "Only Lieberman understands Arabic" - statements which portray the Arab population of Israel as inferior citizens and an alien fifth column.
Taken together, Israel Beiteinu's policies are clearly racist, anti-Arab, and include undertones of nascent fascism.
WHAT IS an Arab citizen of Israel to make of the fact that these positions actually aided Israel Beiteinu in notably expanding its base of support? According to Lieberman and his party's formulation, we have political obligations (to a country that specifically excludes us), but not rights (such as continuing to hold citizenship in the country in which we were born).
Under Lieberman's Plan, the city in which I live, Umm el-Fahm, would be "exchanged" for areas beyond the Green Line. Besides the fact that this plan would annex occupied territory in the West Bank to Israel, an act that in and of itself violates international law, it would also contravene numerous international laws protecting indigenous and national minorities.
The context of the plan is obvious: It is meant to weaken the collective existence of the Arab community in Israel. It would separate Arab citizens from our historical, social, and economic ties to our homeland, including the cities of Nazareth, Haifa and Jerusalem. Families would be torn apart. Arab-owned land would be confiscated.
PERHAPS EVEN more disturbing than Israel Beiteinu's rise in the polls, however, is the acceptance of its rise by the other major political parties and the public. For those now involved in the delicate dance of putting together a coalition, none have entertained the notion of not entering a government with Lieberman and his party. In fact, Lieberman is viewed as holding the key to forming a government, and therefore will in all likelihood receive one of the most important ministerial portfolios.
Thus the virulently anti-Arab and racist principles of Israel Beiteinu are moving into the mainstream of Israeli society. (Or, perhaps, it would be more accurate to say that the election is simply a reflection of a shift that has already occurred.)
In contrast, when Jorg Haider of Austria, whose party was largely recognized as ultra-nationalist and anti-Semitic, joined a coalition government in 2000, Austria faced international isolation, including by Israel, for months. No doubt, were the word "Arab" in Israel Beiteinu's platform replaced with "Jew," it would be immediately and widely condemned as anti-Semitic.
Unfortunately, both inside Israel and around the world, no similar condemnation of Lieberman and his party seems to be forthcoming.
LIEBERMAN'S PARTY builds its central platform around the disenfranchisement of the rights of the native population. Under the UN International Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, passed in 2007, as an indigenous community and as a national minority, the Arab citizens of Israel are entitled to certain specific rights, including protection against forced transfer or violation of any indigenous peoples' rights, forced assimilation or integration, or propaganda designed to promote racial or ethnic discrimination (Article 8.2), and states should cooperate in good faith with indigenous peoples and get prior consent prior to any project that affects their land or territories (Article 32.2).
Israel Beiteinu, and all the parties willing to enter a government with it, are clearly proposing policies against international law.
Yet, the rise of Lieberman's party is not merely a legal failure, but a moral one as well. The reality is that this phenomenon did not arise suddenly, out of nowhere. For decades, successive Israeli governments have implemented discriminatory legislation and policies regarding the Arab citizens, excluding them from the centers of power in government institutions and in the general public sphere alike. Systemic discrimination in allocation of public resource has ranked the Arab community in the lowest socioeconomic echelons of Israeli society.
However, in the last few years a new consciousness has emerged from within the Arab population, based on the universal notion that no one will accept second-class citizenship. A near-consensus among our community calls for creating a new legal and political framework in Israel based upon true equality, partnership and mutuality on an individual and collective level.
Any new government in Israel will face a stark choice. Will it continue down a path of ethnic discrimination and ultra-nationalism, or will it move toward substantive equality and full democracy? For the latter to be achieved, not only must the Arab minority citizens believe in equality and democracy, but Israel's Jewish citizens must do so as well.
In democracies, it's the state that must be loyal to its minority citizens.
The writer teaches minority rights at Haifa University and is the general director of Dirasat: Arab Center for Law and Policy, based in Nazareth.
Religious Women's Groups Ask Netanyahu to Limit Power of Country's Rabbinical Courts
The directors of two religious women's organizations sent a letter to Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu on Wednesday, ahead of the coalition talks with Shas and United Torah Judaism, asking him to restrict the jurisdiction of rabbinical courts to divorce cases only.
Attorney Batya Kahana-Dror, director of Mavoi Satum (Dead End), and attorney Ricki Shapira, director of Kolech (Your Voice), sent copies of the letter to Netanyahu, the heads of the Knesset factions, the coalition negotiators and every member of the new Knesset.
Kahana-Dror and Shapira wrote that expanding the rabbinical courts' authority as part of the negotiations to forge the next government would harm the status of women and increase the number of agunot - "chained women" - whose husbands refuse to grant them a divorce.
The two NGO heads also appealed to Netanyahu to appoint women to the committee responsible for choosing rabbinical judges.
"Some of the injustices suffered by women are a result of the rabbinical judges - their point of view, character and quality," they wrote. "Appointing women to the committee would increase the likelihood that responsible judges are chosen."
They further asked Netanyahu to make sure that the amendment to the Balance of Resources Law allowing for the distribution of property in divorce cases ahead of the completion of legal proceedings, which was approved by the 17th Knesset, will remain law during this Knesset's tenure.
They asked that Netanyahu not surrender to Shas and UTJ's demand to expand the rabbinical courts' authority "in exchange for [the haredi parties] agreeing to Yisrael Beiteinu's bill for civil unions [between people who are not recognized as Jews]."
The end result, they said, "would turn most of the public, who are interested in marrying in accordance with Jewish law, into hostages of the rabbinical courts system."
UTJ chairman Ya'acov Litzman, who heads his party's negotiations with the Likud, said UTJ was not trying to expand the rabbinical courts' power.
"When it comes to matters of state and religion, we ask that the status quo, which has been agreed upon for many years, be maintained. We only aim to undo the changes made by Israel's [civil] courts. This is the basis for our life in this country and there is no reason to ruin it," Litzman said.
When asked why women should not be appointed to the committee that selects rabbinical judges, Litzman said: "Because we need to maintain what has been customary and acceptable for many years, and not change anything."
Shas had this to say: "All matters of religion and state will be determined solely in accordance with Halacha. Anyone who asks that politics be introduced into matters of Halacha is better off saying it publicly and not covering himself in an inappropriate cloak."
With Avigdor Lieberman poised to play the role of coalition kingmaker after Tuesday’s Israeli electoral tangle, some Jewish groups here are readying a hasbara campaign aimed at convincing Americans that the Yisrael Beiteinu leader is not the racist and political extremist portrayed in the Israeli and international media.
But in private, several Jewish leaders said that if Lieberman does emerge from Tuesday’s inconclusive election with an important and visible role, Israel’s image will suffer yet another serious blow and the next government could be headed toward new clashes with an administration in Washington committed to restarting stalled negotiations.
Even after almost all the votes were counted, the outcome of the election remains in doubt as both Kadima leader Tzipi Livni and Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu claim victory — and as both scramble to assemble viable coalitions. The results almost guarantee a protracted period of political chaos that will effectively put the new Obama administration’s nascent peace efforts on hold.
The likeliest outcome may be a Likud-led coalition that includes Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu (“Israel is Our Home”) and other right-wing parties, said historian Michael Oren, who argued that Lieberman is “not an extremist, he’s just unconventional.”
But his potential role in the next Israeli government “doesn’t bode well for U.S.-Israel relations,” he said. “It will be very upsetting to people in Washington.”
The other possible outcome — a broad national-unity government under Livni that also includes Labor and Likud — would be so divided on critical issues involving negotiations with the Palestinians that it would be virtually paralyzed. That would also be a source of frustration, if not friction, with a new administration that has already appointed a top-level envoy to probe for peace openings.
A major role for Lieberman in a Likud-led government could “mean a greater chance for conflict with the Obama administration,” said Robert Lieber, a professor of government at Georgetown University, who stressed that he believes such an outcome is unlikely.
But other observers say a strong Lieberman role is all but assured. Atlantic blogger and veteran Mideast journalist Jeffrey Goldberg said on Wednesday it is not inconceivable Lieberman could end up as defense minister in a Likud-led government.
The potential for new strife along the Washington-Jerusalem axis may be heightened by the abject defeat of the Labor Party, which sank to fourth on the Knesset rolls, behind the upstart Yisrael Beiteinu, and by the virtual disappearance of the leftist Meretz Party.
“This election was a tremendous blow to the traditional Zionist left,” said a longtime Jewish peace activist who spoke anonymously because he is not authorized to speak for his organization. “Meretz was hoping to increase its presence; instead it was dwarfed. Labor is now the fourth largest party, which is a tremendous defeat. That changes the political dynamics in Israel a lot.”
Labor, several analysts suggested on Tuesday, is on the verge of extinction — yet it is the party most Americans, and in particular American Jews, have supported over decades.
By far, the most dramatic outcome of Tuesday’s election — predicted for weeks and borne out by Tuesday’s vote — was the rise of the predominantly Russian Yisrael Beiteinu faction as a major force in Israel politics and its leader, Avigdor Lieberman, as one of the most pivotal figures in Israeli politics.
That poses a big problem for American Jewish groups that have been working to counter worldwide condemnation of Israel’s recent Gaza operation.
Weeks before the election, Jewish groups began trying to recast Lieberman as moderate, though eccentric.
Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, founder and president of The Israel Project, a group that works with reporters around the world to promote a positive image of Israel, said Lieberman’s most controversial views — including his demand that Israeli Arabs leave the country or take loyalty oaths and serve in the military — are misunderstood here.
“We know that Israel is a democracy where Christians, Muslims, Jews and all other citizens have freedom of religions, speech, press and a right to vote,” she said in an e-mail interview earlier in the week. “But many voters in Israel feel that even in an open democracy, including in America, there are limits.”
She drew a comparison to the United States in the wake of the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
“If after 9/11 groups of Americans had protested in support of the 9/11 hijackers and it was found out that they had even helped those hijackers, America would have found that this was beyond a freedom of speech issue,” she said. “Additionally, new American citizens and all elected officials take an oath. Many Israelis ask if Israel should be different than America on this.”
Lieberman’s party, she said, is “diverse, and indeed, they will elect a Druse member of Knesset. One of the key platforms of Lieberman’s party is to open up civil marriages so that atheists have even more rights in Israel.”
And echoing a theme that has become popular in the Israeli press in recent days, she said, “Like President Obama, Lieberman has a dramatic personal story. An immigrant from humble beginnings, Lieberman is known for ‘outside-the-box’ thinking.”
Martin Raffel, associate director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA), said Lieberman “does support a two-state vision, which is the most fundamental question involving U.S. policy. He does have a strong ideology, but he also has a practical side, which in part explains his political success.”
And no matter who ends up in the prime minister’s chair, “many of the policies he has expressed over the years won’t necessarily become policies of the next government.”
Whatever his role in the next government, Lieberman’s impact on U.S. public opinion won’t be great “because he won’t be the prime minister,” Raffel said.
But Larry Garber, CEO of the New Israel Fund, rejected the mounting effort by pro-Israel leaders to portray Lieberman as a kind of quirky centrist, although he said he isn’t surprised by the PR makeover effort.
“We went through this before, when he was appointed as minister for strategic planning. That time, also, there was an effort by Jewish leaders here to make him out to be a political figure with strong views on certain issues, but not necessarily a radical.”
That characterization is wrong, Garber said.
“He is an extremist,” he said. “He may present issues like transferring the Israeli-Arab population in a more ‘liberal’ fashion, as if it would actually facilitate a two-state solution.”
But his proposals for land swaps and population transfers that would leave far fewer Arabs citizens in Israel “would de-naturalize the people, deprive them of the right of citizenship, which is a violation of international law.”
While Lieberman’s ascendancy may not dramatically affect U.S.-Israel relations, he said it will have a “much bigger impact on the American Jewish community,” Garber continued. “This goes to our core values as a community, and poses some serious challenges to Jewish leaders who have been at the forefront of speaking out against racist expressions all over the world. So why are they not doing the same for this man?”
Lieberman’s rise may be a particularly thorny hasbara, or public relations, problem for pro-Israel groups, but it’s just one of many new dilemmas facing a new administration in Washington that insists it wants Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking to be a top priority.
Increasingly, the likeliest options for creating a new government are a right-wing coalition led by Likud’s Netanyahu, which would be dominated by factions opposed to any new land concessions to the Palestinians and possibly by Lieberman’s controversial views on Israeli Arabs, or a broad Kadima-led coalition paralyzed by deep ideological divisions over fundamental questions of war and peace and politically unable to respond to U.S. or international initiatives.
And whoever wins, the results will likely include the same political instability that has thwarted U.S. peacemakers since the assassination of Yitzchak Rabin.
“It’s an inconclusive election, but it’s clear it will be very difficult to have an enduring coalition,” said Samuel Lewis, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel. “And it will not be an easy government. That doesn’t mean the Obama administration won’t try, but it will be frustrating for them.”
“Any prime minister is going to be very constrained by his coalition partners, and this is a recurring problem in Israelis politics,” said Haim Malka, assistant director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). “Israelis have become used to going to the polls every two years to elect a new government, and in the end they see that very little really changes.” If Netanyahu does end up in the prime minister’s chair as head of a right-of-center coalition, he said, the most immediate consequence might not involve broad peace process efforts.
“While the official political talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority have made little progress, Israel continues to negotiate indirectly with Hamas over the terms of a ceasefire,” he said. “The big question is whether a Netanyahu government will accept a temporary cease-fire in Gaza as a necessary evil in the short term, or seek to ratchet up the military pressure on Hamas. That strikes me as potentially more important than how the election will affect the ‘peace process.’”
Op-Ed: The erosion of democracy in Israel
WASHINGTON (JTA) -- The big story likely to emerge from this week’s Israeli elections is the success of Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel is our home) party. Public opinion surveys predict that the party may win as many as 20 seats, making Yisrael Beiteinu the third largest party in the Knesset and a power broker in the formation of a new government coalition.
Yet Lieberman’s success and his potential presence in a new Israeli government should be a cause of concern for those who care about Israel’s democratic future and who worry about Israel’s growing international isolation.
Lieberman has never disguised his belief that Israel’s Arab citizens are a potential fifth column threatening Israel’s security and well-being. He advocates a policy of “transfer,” whereby areas of Israel that are heavily populated by Arabs would eventually become part of a Palestinian state. Those Arabs living within the transferred areas would have the choice of moving to other parts of Israel or automatically forfeiting their Israeli citizenship.
Proposing such a policy sends an explicit message to 20 percent of Israel’s citizens that they are unwanted in the country in which they work, live, pay taxes and attempt to find some path to equality in the designated Jewish homeland.
Even more pernicious is the party’s slogan -- “Without loyalty there is no citizenship.” This notion, reminiscent of America’s dark days of McCarthyism, patently defies a central value of democracy: namely that human and civil rights are not dependent on how a government classifies the nonviolent expression of opinions.
Lieberman’s formulation presents a recipe for the legal disenfranchisement of any Israeli, Jew or Arab, who fails to meet some government standard of “loyalty.”
Unfortunately, the increase in Lieberman’s popularity is not the only indicator of the rise of anti-democratic sentiment in Israel. The Israeli Central Election Commission’s attempt to disqualify two Arab parties from participating in the Feb. 10 election was supported by a large majority of political parties represented on the commission, even as they knew that such disqualifications flew in the face of prevailing High Court decisions. Thankfully the High Court reversed the commission decision, but not before Lieberman and his allies sought to provoke further divisions between Jews and Arabs in Israel.
The situation was already tense. The Gaza conflict, like the 2006 Lebanon War and the outbreak of the second intifada, had placed particular pressures on Israel’s Arab minority. Watching their kith and kin suffer in Gaza, not surprisingly, triggered emotional reactions among large segments of this population.
Still, their advocacy against Israeli government actions for the most part was conducted within the norms of democratic societies: They relied on rallies, ads, letters to government officials and petitions to the High Court to place their concerns before the Israeli public and officialdom.
Yet most Israeli media coverage, and Jewish media coverage outside Israel, focused on the violence initiated by a few people in a few communities and some repugnant expressions of anti-Semitism by a few Arab leaders.
On one level, despite continuing security challenges, Israel remains a vibrant democracy with a multi-party parliament, an independent judiciary, a free media and an active social change movement. However, the degree to which dissent is permitted when least popular is the most accurate barometer of the strength of a democracy. Thus, recent trends toward repression of dissent, demonizing of the indigenous minority, and out-and-out racism on the part of a significantly popular party are deeply disturbing.
Lieberman’s likely political ascension will transform the question of the quality of Israeli democracy from an exclusively domestic concern to a subject of discussion among Western democracies.
Israel has long promoted international isolation for governments that include parties with views abhorrent to democratic discourse, whether in Austria or Palestine. The international community will not fail to ask about the potential inclusion in an Israeli government of a party that is deemed by many to fall outside the acceptable political pale. Likewise, the organized Jewish communities outside Israel, who appropriately view Israeli elections as domestic matters, must now confront the question of whether to declare a leading Israeli political actor persona non grata for his grotesque political views.
The Lieberman phenomenon provides a major test to the Israeli body politic, international advocates of democratic norms and Jewish communities outside Israel. Ignoring his presence or treating his views as just extreme is no longer acceptable. In this vein, the clear voice of Israeli human rights organizations condemning Lieberman’s provocations against the country’s Arab minority deserves recognition and support.
Yet at the end of the day, the international community, and particularly the United States, must focus on the broader goal of facilitating a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Taking the principled stand of not dealing with a government that includes individuals whose views are distasteful will not serve our broader national interests. The foreign policy challenge requires engaging all relevant actors without legitimizing their offensive perspectives.
(Larry Garber is the CEO of the New Israel Fund and is a leading expert on the right of political participation under international law.)
Storm Warning for NGOs
Yedid, a social and economic justice
advocacy organization that runs a national network of citizen rights centers in disadvantaged communities, has for several years been struggling for the installation of solar water heaters in public housing estates.
"We were alerted to this issue when we noticed that many of the individuals we were assisting in public housing were suffering from electricity cut-offs when they couldn't pay their electricity bills," relates Sari Revkin, Yedid's executive director. "It was absurd that the poorest populations were not given a basic tool, which most Israelis have, to cut down on electricity bills, and instead were expected to pay more. But we had to fight for years, until 2007, when a law was passed enabling solar heaters to be installed in public housing."
The passage of the law was only a first step. Budget allocations for the actual installation of new heaters has yet to be approved by the finance minister, and the matter requires a large measure of follow-up. But Yedid is now being forced to choose between its many projects, and may have to cut back or delay several of them - as a knock-on effect of poor investment decisions made thousands of miles away by American philanthropists on Wall Street.
Even in the best of circumstances, the months of November and December can be trying times for Revkin. As every local non-profit organization that depends on donations from the United States knows, the crunch time for charitable giving is most keenly felt as the tax year draws to a close. "If the money isn't here by January 10," says Revkin, referring to the U.S. Internal Revenue Service cut-off date for tax-deductible giving, "I know it won't be coming at all."
The 10th of January 2009 has come and gone, and the picture that is emerging in this calendar year for the estimated 18,000 active NGOs in Israel is not pretty. Yedid, which is dependent on American donors for 83 percent of its annual budget, has been forced to reduce its 2009 budget to $2.2 million, down from $3.1 million last year. With the United States sunk deeply in what may prove to be the longest economic recession since the end of World War II, and many Jewish philanthropic networks still reeling from the shock of the Madoff financial swindle, Israeli NGOs across the board are reporting drops of 25 to 30 percent in the donation lifeline they depend upon to survive.
According to a survey of 220 NGOs conducted in December 2008, a majority of non-profit organizations report increased expenses, as their clients struggle in the face of an economic downturn, against the backdrop of decreasing incomes. One in five NGOs is in "grave financial danger" with perhaps one in seven contemplating suspending operations or closing entirely. The non-profit sector, which comprises 10 percent of the country's GDP in terms of its outlays and employs hundreds of thousands, is experiencing a wrenchingly difficult financial shock that is forcing it to adapt and adopt new strategies for survival, even as many predict the worst may not yet have been felt. "This storm is going to be long and hard," says Victor Lederfarb, financial manager of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI). "Peering into the future, we cannot even begin seeing the end of it."
To compound matters even further, 2009 is the second year in a row that the budgets of local NGOs have taken a major hit, although last year's troubles stemmed from a very different source: the strength of the Israeli economy, which caused the shekel to soar in value against virtually every other currency in the world. At one point, the shekel to dollar exchange rate plummeted in less than half a year from 4.20 shekels to the dollar all the way down to 3.20 - a drop of 25 percent (the rate has recently climbed again to around 3.90). While that was good news to many Israelis who benefited from lower prices on imported goods, it wreaked havoc in the balance sheets of the NGOs, who had based their shekel-nominated budget projections on a high exchange rate and suddenly found themselves poorer by a significant factor - and struggled to explain why to their benefactors.
"Many of our donors looked at us uncomprehendingly when we tried to explain this to them," reports Revkin. "From their perspective they were giving us as much in dollars as they had in the past, so why were we complaining that we had less? Some of them only understood what we were talking about when they came to visit Israel and noticed they were getting far fewer shekels for their dollars than they had in the past. Only three out of 95 major donors compensated us for the lost income due to the exchange rate."
The first signs of an absolute fall in
donations to non-profits followed so quickly on the heels of the exchange-rate crisis that NGOs had virtually no time to adjust. Charitable giving tends to be an accurate indicator of the overall wealth of an economy, because it is one of the first items corporations and households reduce when tightening belts, while the restoration of previous levels of benevolence often lags behind recovery from recessions. The farther and faster the NASDAQ and the Dow Jones Industrial average fell, the more organizations in Israel felt their donation base shrink.
"I haven't been to the States since May," says Revkin, "and that is saying a lot. Under normal circumstances I would have made two fund-raising trips there by now. But I got messages telling me there is no point in going - there is no one to talk to there. The federations are still giving generously - the Miami Federation just donated at the same level as they did last year - with foundations cutting back, and some closed down entirely as a result of the Madoff scandal.
Individual donors have, in the best cases, been reducing their gifts dramatically, and many have stopped donating entirely. But the federations [ultimately] depend on donors for the money they pass on, so they may also eventually cut back. The uncertainty is terrible - we are in uncharted waters, and givens are not givens anymore. We have already cut 30 percent of our budget for 2009."
Originally from Borough Park, New York, Revkin graduated with a degree in social work from the University of Maryland and moved to Israel in 1982 after working on issues related to welfare rights for several years in the U.S. She was a founder of Shatil, the New Israel Fund's empowerment and training center for social change organizations, and led it for 14 years. She left Shatil to found yet another social advocacy group, Yedid, which means "friend" in Hebrew. Yedid operates at several levels, from direct grass-roots assistance to people in need, to broader community programs, to working with the Knesset, the courts and the media in order to promote social change through changes in laws and regulations. Its legal department is often leaned upon by Knesset members to frame social legislation for them.
"Our main guiding idea is to work on issues that are common to different populations in Israel, be they Ethiopians, Arab, Russian new immigrants, veteran immigrants and so forth," explains Revkin. "For example, that could include reforming debt-collection laws, or assistance in finding alternative housing for people thrown out of their homes because they failed to meet their mortgage payments. All low-income people benefit from that."
With so much of her life's work and passion invested in the organizations she has founded, Revkin is understandably saddened by every cutback she is forced to implement.
"Our centers are staffed by volunteers, either ex-clients or professionals such as social workers, psychologists, doctors and businessmen," says Revkin. Sometimes the interactions between them are the most important aspect. When our programs started, I thought that the middle-class volunteers would pass on their values to our ex-clients. But we discovered that they had just as much to teach us - and this is especially true now, when laid-off high-tech workers can use lessons on how to survive on a minimal budget."
"If we cannot meet the rents that are due, we need to move our centers into less expensive locations," she continues. "We try hard to keep our centers from looking like institutions, because we've found it is much better for them to look like inviting places someone can walk into initially for a cup of coffee. People find it very difficult to ask for help, so having a warm and friendly place is conducive to them finding us for the assistance they need."
The shortage of cash has also led to a need to reduce staff. Says Revkin: "In a way we are running an experiment right now - can we cut down on personnel, but not on what we do? If our legal department handles 300 cases per month and we reduce the number of lawyers working in it, can we still handle those cases and not turn away people in need? Our legal department is now torn between how much time to give to individual clients and how much time to devote to working with the Knesset on legislation that could have far-reaching effects for all our clients."
Given the tough times NGOs can expect for
the foreseeable future, what can be done to minimize the damage done, until prosperous times return? Rachel Liel, who now occupies the position that Revkin filled for many years as executive director of Shatil, has been studying this issue in detail in order to provide advice to the 1,400 non-profit organizations that rely on Shatil for consulting, training and coalition-building assistance. Shatil organized what it called "town hall meetings" in each of its five branch offices - in Haifa, Jerusalem, Beersheba, Baka Al-Gharbiya and Rosh Pina - in November and December, in which it invited directors of organizations to discuss the impact of the financial crisis and brainstorm coping strategies. The meetings provided a safe forum for directors to air their concerns, and reports integrating the discussions and needs from each meeting formed the basis for an action plan.
Liel notes that in order to offer a wide variety of NGOs with the best advice, the different needs of the organizations have to be assessed. "First of all, there is a difference between organizations that are primarily service providers, and social advocacy groups," says Liel. "The service providers [who deal primarily with direct provision of assistance to the needy] often have local donors and state assistance. Advocacy groups [who concentrate on expanding social rights] often refuse in principle to accept state funding and are therefore suffering more."
A further distinction exists between those who depend on U.S. sources versus European benefactors. American donations have been reduced more than any other source, Liel points out. ACRI'S Lederfarb agrees. "Those hurting most are those dependent on the U.S. for donations," he says. "European donors in general are closer to governmental funding sources and less involved in stock market investments."
ACRI, the largest human rights and civil liberties organization in Israel, whose work encompasses litigation, legal advocacy, education and public outreach and employs 45 workers in three cities, is in slightly better shape than many other non-profit advocacy groups, as around 40 percent of its annual $2 million budget comes from European sources, in Britain, Germany, the European Union and the governments of some countries, such as Spain and Norway. But it, like other NGOs, has had to contend with shrinking American financial support
"We mostly depend on foundations, but we do approach individual Jewish donors in the U.S.," says Lederfarb, 57, who has a masters degree in business administration and came to Israel in the early 80s from Buenos Aires, initially working at the Jewish Agency before taking a position at ACRI. "Just yesterday, yet another foundation that has been supporting our work for years indicated it may sharply decrease or annul its grants."
ACRI in principle refuses to accept state funding, for fear of becoming beholden to a source it is sometimes called upon to criticize. Lederfarb insisted the organization build substantial financial reserves during years in which it received generous support, and those reserves are serving it well now as a source enabling it to maintain operations despite shrinking donations. "We are making use of those reserves to keep all three of our branch offices, in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa, staffed and operational," related Lederfarb. "Our expenses consist of 80 percent salaries and running expenditures. We have not fired anyone - the policy has been not to replace employees who have left of their own accord for other jobs."
Given the reserves it has saved up, ACRI is doing fairly well relative to most NGOs, which have been forced to consider painful cutbacks. "Some organizations are in denial," says Liel. "They don't want to admit they need to implement any changes. Others are moving into survival mode, but there are no magic formulas for surviving. We tell NGOs to think hard about what their core activities are, and to make the greatest efforts to stick to those activities as opposed to others. That is not as easy as it may sound, and may require difficult choices."
Liel's own organization, Shatil, is being forced to implement a 15 percent reduction in budgeting this year.
Extract from an article in Issue 22,
February 16, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report.
Third Sector Looks to Gov't For Financial Relief
Some 30 non-profit organizations called on the government Monday to immediately create an emergency plan to help keep hundreds of local charities and grass-roots organizations from closing down due to economic burdens, The Jerusalem Post has learned.
Slideshow: Pictures of the week "If something is not done soon to help these organizations, then we will likely see more than 20 thousand people joining the unemployment lines," representatives of the organizations wrote in a statement. The groups were set to meet with government representatives late on Monday to discuss the matter.
"Just like everyone else, we pay our taxes [and] social welfare packages, and support tens of thousands of families," continued the statement. "Firing workers will eventually cost the state much more in unemployment benefits than a comprehensive rescue package."
Eran Klein, project manager at Shatil, the New Israel Fund's empowerment and training center and one of the organizations belonging to the umbrella body, said it was not only a matter of employees losing their jobs.
"We are also talking about many charities being forced to close due to the economic crisis and that, in turn, means some of society's weakest segments not getting essential services," he said.
Klein, who was to be at Monday evening's meeting, said he was not optimistic that the government would agree to a relief package on the scale needed to protect the non-profit sector from the recession. His assumptions were based on the conclusions of previous meetings held between the Prime Minister's Office and the Treasury.
He said the charities were asking the government to address four central issues as part of an aid package: the cancellation of a seven percent tax on non-profit organizations; the establishment of a comprehensive program to slow down recession-induced layoffs; a drive to increase donor bases, including those for grassroots donors; and a new fund to provide emergency aid to organizations on the verge of closing down.
"If the government expects the third sector to continue in the same way it's been operating up until now, it will be extremely disappointed," Klein said.
He added that the situation had become dire for many non-profits over the past few months, and that even if the government refused to implement an immediate bail-out program similar to initiatives for the business sector, "we will continue to push them to tackle this problem."
Meanwhile, speaking at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center's annual conference on Monday, Minister of Welfare and Social Services Isaac Herzog addressed the challenges faced by the third sector during the economic crisis.
"The non-profit sector is falling apart, with many organizations closing down completely," Herzog said in his speech. "Due to the situation, we have to think twice about privatizing our social welfare activities."
Herzog's director-general, Nachum Itzkovitz, told a conference panel that 90% of the ministry's operations were currently being outsourced to non-profit organizations. He also warned that further increases in unemployment would most certainly put a strain on the entire social welfare system.
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