On April 29, 2014, it rained in Manhattan. Beneath a tortoise shell of congregated umbrellas, several dozen American Jewish protestors kept their word, despite the drizzle and despite the criticism. On cue, at 5:30 in the afternoon — they did promise “rain or shine,” — all those assembled raised their curved rams’ horns, long and short, organic and plastic, personal and borrowed, and wailed to the heavens in visceral unison. Their cacophonous alarums continued until the shofar blowers felt they had made their point.
Who were they protesting? This outcry was staged not in front of the Iranian consulate or the United Nations but in front of the 59th Street headquarters of the UJA-Federation of New York.
The Federation’s beneficiary, the Jewish Community Relations Council, was the chief organizer of the June 1st “Celebrate Israel” Parade. The upbeat procession of floats, runners, and marchers is normally a public show of Jewish unity in support of Israel. But this year, the parade became a maelstrom of disunity over the repeat participation of the controversial New Israel Fund (NIF) and other groups which recent revelations now vibrantly link to the Boycott, Sanctions and Divestment (BDS) movement and the campaign to delegitimize Israel internationally.
The outrage in some American, Jewish, and Israeli circles over the NIF’s inclusion in the highly visible parade, formerly known as the Israel Day Parade, may be more than just a passing horn blast. The discontent may be energizing a historic decision among American Jews. Just what constitutes the Jewish mainstream? Is American Jewry about to set limits on its open tent of inclusion, a precept the community wears as a badge of honor?
More than a few American Jews feel their community has been hijacked from within by such groups as the J Street lobby, the New Israel Fund, and other organizations that, critics say, constitute a powerful, well-funded minority, able to wage war against Israel seemingly in the name of the Jewish people. “These groups are anti-Jewish,” says Judith Freedman Kadish, special project director of Americans for a Safe Israel, “and they are funding groups that are anti-Semitic. They just veil their actions by saying they are trying to influence public policy and an occupation.” The accused organizations, and their defenders in the legacy Jewish media and within the Jewish activist community, vigorously insist that the contentious activities are simply democratic dissent aimed at solving Israel’s problems.
At first, the parade protest’s was spearheaded mainly by JCC Watch, headed up by Richard Allen, a private individual. Allen is a nobody — just one man working out of his pocket. JCC Watch and its hand-sewn circle of grassroots protest groups were easily dismissed as a “fringe.” New York’s Jewish Week ran an NIF-written op-ed blasting the protestors as a “tiny extremist group.” Ardent Israel supporter Alan Dershowitz decried the exclusion effort. The Anti-Defamation League in a statement and New York’s Jewish Week in an editorial, denounced JCC Watch for a protest flyer featuring a photo of the iconic “April First” 1933 Nazi boycott of Jews in Germany.
In his flyer, Allen of JCC Watch correctly referenced the historical verity that the organized international Arab boycott against Jews began on April 1, 1933, after the Mufti of Jerusalem imported Hitler’s April First boycott into the Arab and Islamic world. Few remember that the infamous April First Nazi boycott was launched by Hitler after a million-man, anti-Nazi protest in Madison Square Garden and elsewhere across America a few days earlier on March 27, 1933. Even fewer recall that the March 27th Madison Square Garden rally was preceded and provoked earlier that month by a scraggly, rag-tag assemblage of Jewish War Veterans, who marched in New York City and rambunctiously called for a pre-emptive boycott of Nazi Germany. As they marched, those JWV were vociferously denounced, disowned, and marginalized by the top leaders of organized Jewry. Jewish communal leadership labeled the vets as “nobodies” and “extremists,” saying they “speak for no one.” History immutably records that the JWV actually spoke for many — and spoke long before others were willing to speak … and ultimately long before it was too late to speak at all except through the ashen fog.
JCC Watch and its anti-NIF coalition might have been easily dismissed as a fringe. It offered an unpolished website, inelegant rhetoric, and few dollar resources. But its message struck a chord. Other groups joined the campaign to stop the NIF, including the Zionist Organization of America, the National Conference on Jewish Affairs, Rabbi Elie Abadie and his architectonic Edmond de Safra Congregation in Manhattan as well as like-minded Sephardic organizations. All championed the same grievance. The NIF, in their view, is more than just a Jewish group embracing a dissident view. By virtue of the NIF’s deep veins in the BDS movement, the critics outspokenly believe the NIF, despite its protestations, is actually an enemy of Israel. JCC Watch’s anti-NIF campaign quickly jumped the pond where it found a biosphere of sympathetic support in Israel.
Israel’s Government Coalition Knesset Chairman MK Yariv Levin prominently wrote: "I am deeply moved ... by the courageous stance of friends of Israel involved in the parade, calling to delegitimize those who delegitimize Israel. It is not logical or reasonable for Israel supporters to condone, overlook, or indirectly cooperate with BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel) groups." MK Nissim Ze-ev, traveling in Manhattan, personally joined flag-waving protestors in a JCC Watch sidewalk demonstration against the JCRC. MK Ze-ev declared, “Any Jewish organization which supports the BDS [movement] has no place among supporters of Israel. The UJA and JCRC, as leading organizations of American Jewry, must adhere to this policy if they are to be considered supporters of Israel.”
Elsewhere in Israel, numerous other opponents of the NIF found solidarity with efforts to exclude the NIF. Colonel Benny Yanay fought at the front line as an ordinary officer. “The New Israel Fund,” insisted Yanay, “acts against Israel—against the soldiers of our country. It is important to me that people recognize the New Israel Fund for what it is. It is supported by foreign governments and organizations so that Israeli soldiers will be weakened.”
Yanay speaks for Consensus, an organization of three hundred senior Israeli army officers who, among other things, are deeply concerned about what they see as efforts to destabilize the IDF by the NIF and its grantees. The three hundred military officers of Consensus are unified in their belief that the NIF and its grantees, in spite of their public policy programs, are now a leading threat to the battle effectiveness of the Israeli Army, Air Force, and Navy. Consensus and its Hebrew-language website try to muster meager electronic resources to defend themselves. “But their budget,” complains Yanay, “is more than anything we have—so it is not a fair fight. We are not a political organization. They are political.”
An article in The Algemeiner likened the NIF’s parade inclusion to “appeasement.”
Even StandWithUs, America’s premier pro-Israel advocacy group, embraced the Celebrate Israel parade protest. Just two weeks before the parade, StandWithUs announced, “We are not taking a float this year because of the controversy. We feel the NIF undermines the state of Israel because of the groups it funds.” Several other organizations also loudly announced limitations on their participation — even as their rank and file marched to show support. The so-called fringe had become a solid front.
In a public statement, NIF CEO Daniel Sokatch denigrated all the protestors and even castigated the Knesset members. “Sadly,” wrote Sokatch, “the shofar blowers are getting support from Israeli extremists, including those in positions of real influence. Just yesterday Knesset Member Yariv Levin -- chairman of Prime Minister Netanyahu's coalition and the author of anti-democratic legislation — wrote them a letter of support.”
Ironically, only two reader comments, both signed with first and last names, were posted below the article which appeared on the NIF’s own organizational website. The remarks serve somewhat as a barometric indicator of just how the divisive the NIF’s presence is. The first reader stated: “Sokatch never goes into specifics about the groups NIF funds that are clearly anti-Zionist and want to destroy Israel. He just goes on about progressive values. What he never discusses is why the progressive groups he funds couldn't elect a dog catcher in Israel and spend most of their time campaigning against Israel in Europe and the U.S.”
The second poster admonished Sokatch directly. “Let's go easy on appellations,” the reader wrote, “Not every right-of-center politician/activist is an extremist (by the way, who do you consider a non-extremist?). Usually, an extremist calls another an extremist because they are so far away from each other. Secondly, in my experience, while money does a lot, the best way to keep Israel democratic is to actually be here and vote. And remember, a lot of nice people don't think highly of money being used to subvert democracy in Israel, i.e., turn around the elections through financial influence. Third, following on that, funding groups that are quite extreme, who, in too many instances, have been shown to be anti- or non-Zionist, preferring a universal progressive and radical liberal agenda, is, well, extreme in itself and seen not to be friendly. Oh, and fourth, the more Jews here, the more a Jewish state we are.”
Ultimately, the NIF was not blocked from the parade and murmurs of protest did not materialize in favor of not further dilluting the fun aspects of the event. However, undeterred anti-NIF protestors are already planning to renew their agitation later this year hoping to block the NIF from the 2015 parade.
No one was happy about the searing public divisiveness, least of all parade coordinators at the JCRC. "While it is certainly acceptable for our community to have a conversation with differing views about these issues,” Parade executive Hindy Poupko, managing director for the JCRC, stated in an email, “we believe that Parade Day is the one day on the calendar when those differences should be set aside for the purpose of demonstrating collective support for the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state."
But the parade controversy is just emblematic of American Jewry’s larger and growing concern over the NIF and its robust connections to the BDS movement.
At a time when boycott, divestment and sanctions are seen as a viable threat to Israel, many are asking where the oxygen for the BDS movement is coming from. A growing list of critics point to the prestigious New Israel Fund as an organization whose financing has been inseparable from the roiling boycott movement as we know it.
The NIF vociferously asserts that it does not currently fund any organizations which advocate for a boycott of Israel. But until 2011, generous NIF grants to the boycott vanguard were indispensable to establishing and fortifying the budding international boycott movement. For example, a leading recipient of NIF money was the Coalition of Women for Peace, which even now boldly demands a boycott of all things Israeli, and has established a well-oiled database called “Who Profits” that targets Israeli enterprises, large and small. According to NIF financial records, in 2008 alone, the NIF bestowed $93,457 upon the Coalition of Women for Peace. Over a period of years, NIF financing of this organization reached a strong six-figure sum, including both direct grants and those where the NIF acted as a “go-between” for other donors—a technique called “donor advised” funding.
Go-between financing to create a tax deductible transaction is a key feature of the global boycott movement. In the 2009 annual report of the Coalition of Women for Peace, p.34 contains a prominent appeal: “To our American friends: For a US tax deduction, make out a check to the New Israel Fund, write on the memo line (or separately) that it is For the Coalition of Women for Peace, and mail it to New Israel Fund, 1101 14th Street NW, Sixth Floor, Washington, DC 20005-5639. (Minimum they will accept – $100.) To our British friends: For a UK tax deduction, make out a check to the New Israel Fund, write on the memo line (or separately) that it is for the Coalition of Women for Peace, and mail it to New Israel Fund, 25-26 Enford Street, London W1H 1DW. (Minimum they will accept – 70 GBP.)”
At Australia’s Limmud Oz Festival in 2011, NIF board member Naomi Chazan asserted before a large crowd that the NIF no longer funded the Coalition of Women for Peace. When, then and there, a copy of a recently deposited donation check payable to the Coalition of Women for Peace was produced showing monies were still transiting NIF accounts, Chazan fidgeted and explained that the transfer of that money was “a clerical error.”
The boycott financing was no unknowing process. The Coalition itself always kept the NIF informed about how its money was being used and the robust boycott activities it was undertaking. A May 23, 2011 letter to the NIF’s Israeli executive director, Rachel Liel, from Coalition coordinator Eilat Moaz confirmed, “For the past two years, CWP staff members readily answered numerous questions posed to us by NIF regarding our projects, campaigns, and positions. We have ensured our full cooperation to NIF and extended our assistance in explaining the legitimacy, the legality and the importance of our activities.”
The NIF no longer provides money to the Coalition. Now, the Coalition is strong enough to gather its monies from other sources.
However, the BDS movement is now fortified by an indispensable conveyor belt of brutality and oppression accounts—some legitimate, some exaggerated, some invented — force-fed to the world by agitation NGOs, including many financed by the New Israel Fund. The NIF’s financial records for 2012 indicates that it granted $109,615 to Breaking the Silence, which tours campuses accusing Israel of war crimes; $255,477 to B’Tselem, which provides cameras to groups which harass Israeli soldiers hoping to videotape the reaction; and $209,161 to Adalah, which energetically works to get Israel prosecuted in foreign jurisdictions and erase Israel’s Jewish identity. These three groups are among many NIF grantees that operate at the front line of anti-Israel agitation and information.
The NIF vigorously insists its grants to hundreds of Israeli NGOs advances democracy and social improvement — which is true for a number of the recipients which are actually engaged in charitable and betterment programs that benefit women, children, and disadvantaged groups. But beyond good works, scores of the NIF’s recipients have caused leading critics, such as Deputy Speaker of the Knesset Yoni Chetboun, to assert, “The main goal of the NIF is to undermine the Israeli Army, by knowingly financing left-wing Israeli groups that try to get young Israeli soldiers prosecuted for war crimes.” Other prominent MK’s have gone on the record to second Chetboun’s comment and to accuse the NIF of destabilizing the Israel Defense Forces. The NIF energetically rebuts such charges and dismisses them as purely political attacks.
Ironically, earlier this year NIF’s spokesman Naomi Paiss published an article in the Jewish Telegraphic Agency news service headlined, “Boycotting settlements is not anti-Israel.” Paiss wrote, “Boycotting goods and services coming from the settlements, although sometimes difficult to implement in practice, means putting one’s money where one’s mouth is, if one has been saying that the settlements are an impediment to the two-state solution and to peace.”
The NIF’s long-time board member and former leader, Naomi Chazan, has gone further. Chazan has signed international anti-Israel boycott calls. NIF’s Israeli executive director Rachel Liel, in an interview conducted last spring at the David Citadel hotel in Jerusalem, dismissed an example of Palestinians working peaceably and in harmony in Israeli factories as “an illusion.”
One can only imagine where the BDS movement would be today if the NIF had not spent so much money a few years ago to help erect the budding BDS infrastructure, and if today’s debates were not fueled by well-financed NGO campaigns that portray Israel as a cruel, undemocratic, and oppressive apartheid nation that must be boycotted and sanctioned into either submission or oblivion. To that point, NIF-funded groups, in their zeal to delegitimize and sanction, consistently misportray Israel’s so-called violation of international law.
While the claim is shouted everywhere that Israel’s occupation and policies violate international law and Israel engages in apartheid, when challenged, the accusers cannot identify what international law is being breached. The birthplace of international law is the 1920 Treaty of San Remo, which was adopted by the League of Nations after World War I, then incorporated into Article 12 of the UN Charter in 1945, and ultimately became part of the territorial underpinning for the Oslo Accords. Article 6 of San Remo states: “The Administration of Palestine, while ensuring that the rights and position of other sections of the population are not prejudiced, shall facilitate Jewish immigration under suitable conditions and shall encourage, in co-operation with the Jewish agency referred to in Article 4, close settlement by Jews on the land, including State lands and waste lands not required for public purposes.”
Likewise, BDS proponents who invoke international law are fond of citing Article 49 of the 1948 Fourth Geneva Convention to condemn Israel’s transferring its population into West Bank land. But anyone with an Internet connection can see the article actually states: “Individual or mass forcible transfers, as well as deportations of protected persons from occupied territory to the territory of the Occupying Power or to that of any other country, occupied or not, are prohibited, regardless of their motive.” This section was created by Nuremberg Trial experts to prevent wholesale kidnapping and slave labor transports of Jews as the Nazis commonly engaged in. Hence, the Geneva Convention framers, meeting in Tokyo the year before in 1947, insisted on the pivotal word “forcible.”
While BDS-ers commonly cite Article 49 against the likes of Sodastream, in fact, there is no international prohibition against opening a factory on land with equal and better payment for all workers, and doing so on land obtained under established, decades-old international law. That body of international law begins with Article 6 of the Treaty of San Remo, which later became integral to the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine, and then pivots on the actual prevailing land law, the Ottoman Land Registration Act of 1858. Among the governing laws, the Ottoman Land Registration Act openly permitted settlement on state-controlled lands, generally the unworked and abandoned hilltops, which became available for the right price. Because the West Bank comprises an almost unique “sovereignty vacuum,” which has been energetically kept in a limbo by the Arab world, the topic of land ownership is quite unsettled under international law.
The point here is not to digress into a treatise about treaties. But it is precisely because the international law has been misrepresented and discombobulated with such thunderous success by NIF grantees that critics feel the NIF is a vital font of funding for the movement to boycott, divest, and sanction Israel. The critics reason no BDS movement could be successful without the specious 24/7 clarion that Israel is a war criminal state prospering on stolen land to create an apartheid state. This defamatory campaign needs money. Over the years, the NIF has granted or conveyed a quarter of billion dollars to some 800 organizations. Many of them operate at the tip of the spear stigmatizing Israel as a pariah nation.
NIF leadership is skilled at portraying the organization as tasked with the hard and often unrequited work of making Israel a more democratic state. But the record show that the NIF has sorely undermined Israel’s democracy. It audaciously boasts about its unique ability to convince Knesset members not to vote in their own Knesset when the NIF feels such a vote would work against the organization.
Representative voting in a legislature is the bedrock of any democracy. But, brags the NIF on its website about one example: “Our goal was to recruit the entire Opposition to be present for the vote, and ensure that as many government Coalition members as possible would either vote against the measure or not show up.” While acting as a charitable organization qualifying for millions in tax-exempt American monies and effectively corresponding taxpayer subsidies, the NIF is, in the assessment of many Knesset members, the greatest lobby force in the building. This oft-flexed muscle, MKs charge, is achieved through a pumped and ready NIF legislative arm called Shatil. The NIF denies that Shatil is lobbying—just providing useful information and education. Many MKs aver otherwise.
When asked why so many Israeli leaders in the IDF, Knesset, and the establishment insist the NIF is indeed devoted solely to politics, Naomi Paiss dismissed the attacks as “just politics.”
Those who dare criticize the NIF are often subjected to withering attacks by an organization that has mastered that art. Asked why so many Israeli leaders were afraid to mention the New Israel Fund by name, fearing the NIF’s retaliation, Sokatch replied, “It is funny. This is clear to me. It is a symptom of where we are. The NIF does not go after anyone like that. I do think some of these folks are saying that the NIF is now synonymous with the boogie man. But it bears very little relation to reality. If we had the power that so many on the left and right attribute to us, I ask why we are struggling against so many attacks? We get blamed for everything. It is patently absurd. It bears no relation to reality. It would be laughable if wasn’t so sort of sad.”
Nonetheless, critics of the NIF and its grantees are frequently attacked by the NIF through its substantial media apparatus. Although, the NIF extols dissent and demands to be heard in whatever voice and tremolo it chooses, it strikes out at those who exercise the same principle when disagreeing with NIF activities. Asked just how often the NIF attacks its critics, Paiss replied, “Anyone attacking us because of a different world view, we point that out. Most of the attacks are from right of center, from ultra-nationals, and ultra-extremists. We ignore the gnat until the factual inaccuracies become too much to ignore.”
Gnats such as JCC Watch are now swarming together. It remains to be seen whether the New Israel Fund will swat them or be swatted.