What is the issue with the New Israel Fund?

politics | Mar 01, 2015 | By Juda Engelmayer

There has been a lot written about the actions of a controversial tax-exempt group named The New Israel Fund (NIF). It claims to be very much a pro-Israel group; what that means, however is up to selective interpretation at best. It is, for sure, far to the left of mainstream pro-Israel groups, which is why it often finds itself a strange bedfellow amid groups that are decidedly anti-Israel, and perhaps anti-Semitic, as well. It is this proclivity that is at the heart of a current controversy.
 
Each year in the spring, the New York Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC-NY) stewards the annual Celebrate Israel Parade along Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. This year’s parade will be held on May 31, and the JCRC-NY has granted the New Israel Fund permission to join with other marchers from all around the tri-state area.
 
That is the problem for many. This parade historically has been comprised of schools, synagogues representing every Jewish stream, associations, and groups that are proud of their support for Israel. Standing at curbside are hundreds of thousands of revelers who also attend in unabashed support for the only democracy in the Middle East.
 
The New Israel Fund, however, because of the alliances it has made in its efforts to further its own ideals, stands outside these groups. Its work runs vastly contrary to the commonly accepted notions of how to keep Israel strong, vibrant, democratic, and Jewish.
 
There are real issues here that need to be addressed. Sadly, those issues are being buried by mountains of words filled with anger, confused arguments, and even subterfuge. This has allowed the JCRC-NY and its major benefactor, UJA-Federation of New York, to stick to a position many believe is contemptible.
 
The air needs to be cleared so that no doubt must remain about the harm being done by the NIF by pursuing their version of a “pro-Israel agenda” that in practical terms is anything but. If we were to give it the benefit of the doubt, then indeed, the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and the NIF is proof of that.
 
The Celebrate Israel Parade itself seems like a silly issue on which to focus. It is a parade, after all, nothing more, and in theory hardly distinguishable from the Saint Patrick’s Day Parade, or the Puerto Rican Day Parade, or the West Indian Day Parade. Participants in these other parades, however, rarely face the challenges that pro-Israel groups do. Seldom do we see controversy over groups who want to participate in those, with exception of the St. Patrick's Day Parade and its now abandoned LGBT ban. In the grand scheme of it all, most of these parades have genuine supporters participating and wanting to participate.
 
The Israel parade is markedly different. It is perhaps the largest worldwide public display of support for Israel, and yet every year there are groups who would see Israel degraded and even destroyed who clamor to march in it, so as to rub their agendas in the faces of the hopeful champions cheering for Israel. The JCRC-NY does not allow such people and groups to flaunt their ideals along the route.
 
The Neturei Karta, a radically right-wing religious group, is one such; its supporters make no secret of their belief that Israel must not exist right now. They stand with Iran as it calls for Israel’s annihilation; they are staunch supporters of Palestinian goals to control every inch of the land from the Mediterranean to the Jordan, and from the Gulf of Aqaba to the Lebanese border. They protest at every pro-Israel venue worldwide.
 
There are also the overt anti-Semitic leftists who pretty much want the same as the Neturei Karta, but they just hate Jews and use Israel as a cover. The JCRC-NY does not give them a forum, either.
 
Strangely, the NIF supports groups that have the same agendas. For example, it spends some $30 million annually to fund efforts that have the effect of undermining Israel’s military, that seek to bring Israel’s leaders before war crimes tribunals, and who defend terrorists’ interests over the Jewish victims and the families of those who have died. JCRC feels that NIF is the exception to the rule of haters and they will march with full reverence for their work displayed.
 
JCRC-NY denies that NIF fails to meet its marching criteria. It draws the line, it says, at Boycott, Divest and Sanction groups (BDS); it will not allow groups that support BDS to participate. The NIF officially rejects BDS, and therefore it qualifies for a place on Fifth Avenue.
 
This is where the picture becomes muddy. While NIF on its website asserts that it does not support BDS, it also says so on its website that it makes a distinction between West Bank areas and pre-June 1967 Israel, and that it endorses and encourages BDS efforts in the areas beyond the 1967 borders.
 
I am among the myriad Israel supporters who do not make that distinction. To me and hundreds of thousands of others, BDS is BDS period. It does not matter which Israeli company or educator is targeted, or where that company or educator is situated. BDS is damaging and delegitimizing, and NIF’s distinction is no more an excuse than Neturei Karta’s claim that it loves all Jews. Putting Jews in harm’s way, hurting the nation that protects those Jews, is problematic no matter what the rationale given.
 
Clearly, JCRC-NY is hiding behind words, but why? That is an easy one to answer. JCRC-NY’s chief benefactor, UJA-Federation, is presided over by Alisa Doctoroff, a major NIF donor; and a JCRC-NY board member, Karen Adler, is also a major NIF supporter. These two are the primary promoters of NIF, and they are holding JCRC-NY’s funding and operational expenses over the head of the man who runs the JCRC-NY, Michael Miller.
 
This is why JCRC-NY hides behind the BDS smokescreen to endorse NIF, and it is the reason JCRC-NY ignores just about all of the other objective criteria for parade participation. In fact, NIF enjoys charitable contributions from many Americans, most of good will, who believe NIF is a positive and supportive way to help Israeli society. They just do not know the extent of NIF’s work.  Mimi and Peter Haas, Irving Harris, Ruth B. Ziegler, Joel and Julia Greenblatt, and such groups as Repair the World are a few examples of those who seem to truly love Israel, but give to this troublesome fund.
 
To them and the JCRC-NY I pose this question; why is the yardstick for support just BDS? Assume, for the sake of argument only, that NIF does not support BDS in any shape or form. What about those anti-Israel organizations and causes it does support?
 
NIF supports Breaking the Silence (BtS), which provides selected and harmful data to the United Nations and the International Criminal Court in The Hague, and was part of the team that provided erroneous and damaging information to the drafters of the now infamous Goldstone Report. Judge Goldstone later recanted his position, citing the biased information and poor investigation of just a single side of the 2008 Gaza incursion. BtS and other NIF grantees handed over 90 percent of the data Goldstone’s panel relied on. BtS and company are now working on a new report on the 2014 Gaza war.
 
NIF supports Adalla, a group that trains people around the world on how to use legal maneuvers to bring Israel and Israelis to court in many jurisdictions around the world. The effort is called Lawfare, and it ties up valuable resources because Israel is forced to fight what amounts to a slew of silly lawsuits.
 
NIF supports B’Tselem, which sets up weekly protest sessions on borders, humiliating IDF solders standing guard, while the group films the interactions, hoping to capture a soldier’s irritated response so that the edited clip can be sent to news teams, who then highlight the one-sided reaction.
 
Then there is the recent case in a United States District Court, in which a jury found that the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Palestinian Authority are liable for terrorism, and must pay $650 million in damages. Testifying as an expert witness for the PLO was a New Israel Fund attorney, Michael Sfard. Sfard represents several NIF groups—including Yesh Din, Breaking the Silence, and Al-Haq, a leading anti-Israel “lawfare” group—in a lawsuit filed in Canada against Israel that seeks a judicial determination that Israel’s is guilty of “war crimes” and that the security barrier that has successfully limited terrorism inside Israel is illegal.
 
The NIF has its own idea of what Israel should be and pushes its agenda, to the tune of scores of millions of dollars a year. It is not an agenda with which most of Israel’s legion of supporters would agree.
 
If we accept the BDS argument—which, again, we should not because it is not true—then why does the JCRC-NY put blinders on when it comes to all the other things the NIF supports that harm Israel?
 
Come to think of it, why is an organization that exists in part to support a strong, vibrant Israel, and depends on the money we donate to do so—UJA-Federation of New York—being led by people who support NIF? The parade controversy pales in the face of that question.
 
Juda Engelmayer is a Senior Vice President at the New York PR firm 5W Public Relations.

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