New Israel Fund Considering Red Lines

Setting Limits: Daniel Sokatch, CEO of the New Israel Fund.
SAN FRANCISCO JEwISH FEdERATION
Setting Limits: Daniel Sokatch, CEO of the New Israel Fund.

By Nathan Guttman

Published August 18, 2010, issue of August 27, 2010.

The New Israel Fund, the target of attacks by right-wing organizations accusing it of supporting anti-Zionist groups, is discussing the possibility of specifying in its guidelines that grants will be given only to groups that accept the idea of Israel as a Jewish homeland.

The discussions have been taking place in recent months in Israel and in the United States, where NIF’s headquarters are located and most of the group’s donors reside.

Initially, the discussions were set as a regular review of funding practices as part of structural changes the fund has experienced this year, with the appointment of new executive directors in the United States and in Israel.

But according to three sources who have either seen the new proposed guidelines or were briefed on their content, the debate has also touched on the issue of defining the not-for-profit organizations that are eligible for receiving NIF grants. Board members and major donors are grappling with whether to require that grantees accept the idea of a two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, thus agreeing to the principle of Israel as a Jewish state.

The New Israel Fund would not comment on the proposed guidelines, stating that the process has not yet been completed. Staff and board members were also instructed not to discuss the issue publicly.

Currently, NIF is funding some groups that do not necessarily accept the two-state idea or the notion of Israel as a Jewish state. One such group that has been mentioned by Israeli critics is Mada al-Carmel, an Arab-Israeli social research center in Haifa that has published papers questioning the definition of Israel as a Jewish state.

NIF has yet to finalize the discussion on revised funding guidelines, or to adopt any resolution regarding the mention of accepting Israel as a Jewish state as a criteria for funding. According to individuals who are involved in the process, one formulation being discussed is recognizing Israel as the “homeland” of the Jewish people — a description that falls short of the definition of Israel as a “Jewish state” but would avoid alienating Israeli-Arab not-for-profits that are on NIF’s grant list.

Established in 1979, NIF is the largest contributor to civil society causes and progressive programs in Israel. It provides grants to Jewish and Arab human rights groups, as well as support for non-Orthodox religious denominations in Israel, battered women’s shelters, and absorption of Ethiopian Jews and many other not-for-profits.

Attacks against NIF began in late January, when an Israeli group, Im Tirtzu, issued a report claiming that most of the information used by the Goldstone Report, which examined Israel’s conduct during the Gaza military campaign, was obtained from nongovernmental organizations supported by NIF. A barrage of accusations against NIF’s grant-making policy followed, led by the Jerusalem-based group NGO Monitor and gaining wide coverage in the pages of Ma’ariv, one of Israel’s leading dailies.

The criticism also set off intense scrutiny by Israeli lawmakers from the right that led to the passage on August 16 of controversial legislation requiring not-for-profits to report donations from foreign governments. The bill was approved on its first reading, and its prospects are uncertain.

But attacks on NIF also resulted in a reported increase in the group’s donor base and did not have a negative impact on its fundraising. Still, some of NIF’S leadership felt that there was a need to clarify the group’s grant-making policy and to touch on the thorny issue of proving funds to non-Zionist groups.

Peter Edelman, a former president of the NIF board, said in a brief interview with the Forward that revising the guidelines was “not necessarily in response” to criticism. Edelman added, however, that “when there is unjust criticism, then you want to be as clear as possible about the issues.”

Contact Nathan Guttman at guttman@forward.com



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