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But most members of the Israeli Knesset probably agree with Im Tirtzu more than they agree with you.
“I know that. I sat with Benny Begin, who is a man of great principle, and I told him that we have to train a new generation of Likudniks that are democrats, - with a small ‘d.’ It’s desperately necessary. I don’t have to tell you that the vast majority of the people who live in Israel did not grow up in a democratic society. [The late Jerusalem Mayor] Teddy Kollek used to tell me - way before the olim came from the Soviet Union - ‘You know, democracy is not rooted in this country at all.’”
In the same vein, some people say that the NIF is more concerned with foreign workers in Tel Aviv than you are with the poor Jews who live in the same neighborhoods.
“We are concerned about them as human beings, that they should be treated fairly. But there’s also a Jewish concern. We’ve always been strangers, and the question is how we treat strangers in our own land. It’s not an easy situation, but some of the statements made by political leaders in Israel are, if not racist, then very negative. And if you substitute the word ‘Jew’ for ‘the outsider’ or ‘the foreigner’ - we would have called it anti-Semitism. The NIF has a track record of fighting poverty and caring for poor Israelis, so it’s not an either/or situation. We understand how one groups pits itself against the other in this situation, so you have to try and lower that and try to get some light in this area that has great darkness.”
And how are you going to contend with the fact that for many Israelis, the NIF has become some sort of symbol which is larger than the NIF itself? Sort of evil incarnate, Jews gone wrong?
“It’s sort of one at a time. I often meet with Misha [former Defense and Foreign Minister Moshe] Arens, who is an old friend. And he wants to talk to me about the Bedouin because he really cares about the Bedouin. So I say, ‘Well, I’d like to bring [NIF director] Rachel Liel and [NIF CEO] Daniel Sokatch along with me.’ But he says ‘I don’t want to meet them.’ So I said, ‘Okay, but why not?’ And he said: ‘Because they are NIF.’
“But when we met I asked him: ‘Who do you think is one of your great allies in trying to upgrade the situation of the Bedouin in the Negev? It’s the NIF. How can you not meet with them?’ So then he agreed to meet Liel for lunch, and they had a good meeting. He doesn’t have to agree with everything that we do, I understand that. But we have to begin one by one, talking to people to make them understand that the way we were portrayed in the public is not the way we are. We are rooted in Jewish values. We support Israeli democracy. We believe that democracy is Israel’s great strength in the Middle East - and that the recession in democracy that exists in Israel today is a threat to its very existence.”