Letters to the editor: No Iran Deal; NIF and Torossian battle; David Stern

What About Considering Both Sides?

First, let me commend Rob Eshman for his courageous stand (“What If There’s No Deal?” Aug. 7) and for being willing to open himself to all kinds of vicious attacks. 

I wish I were as optimistic about the future. After reading “How Would You Vote If Your Children’s Lives Were at Stake?” by Michael Oren (Sept. 4, Times of  Israel); “Iran’s ‘Frozen’ Assets: Exaggeration on Both Sides of the Debate” by Patrick Clawson (Sept. 1, Washington Institute for Near East Policy); Secretary Jacob Lew’s op-ed in The New York Times (“The High Price of rejecting the Iran Deal,” Aug. 13); “Did AIPAC Just Waste Tens of Millions Fighting the Iran Deal? Not Really. Here’s What  It Got,” by Lee Drutman and Heather Hurlburt (Sept. 4, at vox.com); and a whole slew of other such visions of bias and immovable preconceived positions, I can only anticipate continued bitterness and the pursuit of payback.

One thing puzzles me greatly. I picture a key fact being that the day after the agreement was announced, the furious opposition erupted. I deem that to mean that no matter what the agreement was to be like, it had already been fully decided by the antis to fight it — at any cost. Thus, why didn’t you make full use of the material various nuclear experts have presented at sites like that of the Arms Control Association and the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, and articles by people like Tariq Rauf (such as on why the Associated Press report on Iranian self- inspection is based on a forged document)?

The Jewish people are impossibly ignorant in this present case, and it is as if they got all their information from Fox News. Briefly put, the talmudic model we use involves examining fully both sides and then tearing them apart to find their weaknesses. Here, that model was not just ignored but totally trampled upon. Worse yet, the resulting misrepresentations and perversions of the truth introduce the principle that when such is imposed upon the people, not even repentance or forgiveness is applicable.

Ben Lebovits, via email 

Quoting Emails

Regarding the story “NIF, Torossian Battle of Words Over Israel Escalates to Legal Threats — Against Jerusalem Post” (Sept. 4), I find it highly objectionable that the reporter used quotes made by me in confidential emails with the parties. Let me say for the record that this is unprofessional and unethical. I do not think Mr. Ronn Torossian is “nuts,” and we never said we wouldn’t run another op-ed by him. On the contrary, The Jerusalem Post is open to hearing both sides of the story, just as I’m sure you are.

Steve Linde, Editor-in-Chief, the Jerusalem Post

The editors respond:

We stand by Debra Nussbaum Cohen’s reporting. Using emails to report stories in the public interest is established journalistic practice supported by case law and engaged in by all responsible media, including The Jerusalem Post. That said, in an email dated Aug. 20, 2015, Mr. Linde wrote to Naomi Paiss of the New Israel Fund regarding Mr. Torossian, “Will you help me when they sue us? (Which you know they’re going to do, because they’re nuts).” In an email dated April 21, 2015, to Naomi Paiss and cc’d to a Jerusalem Post editor, Mr. Linde wrote, “We have already taken a decision never to run a Ronn Torossian op-ed in the paper again. My apologies.”

A Question of Morality

Why do we treat animals more humanely than we do people? David Stern is being forced to suffer in an intolerable state of nonbeing because his family adheres to Jewish law (“Legal Dispute Pits Jewish Law Against Medical Director,” Aug. 21). Because he can raise his eyebrows and blink means that he is not suffering? He signed an advance directive because he didn’t want to end up in this state. He signed an advance directive, and now his family is contesting it. Jewish law supposedly disputes that he’s not suffering enough to “pull the plug.”

Does Mr. Stein’s daughter want her father to prolong his nonlife because she loves him, or because her God demands that he suffer?

Bettina Gantsweg, via email


A credit was not included with the photos illustrating recipes from Amelia Saltsman’s new book, “The Seasonal Jewish Kitchen: A New Take on Tradition” (“Falling for the Flavors of Autumn,” Sept. 4). The photographer is Staci Valentine.

The byline included on the opinion piece “In Defense of Portman” (Sept. 4) was incorrect. The writer is Gregory J. Wallance.

An article about a vegan perspective on honey (“Cruelty-Free Rosh Hashanah,” Sept. 4) misstated the name of an advocacy group. It is the Jewish Vegetarians of North America.

Will dueling op-eds turn into dueling lawsuits?

A war of words between one of the country’s leading Israel-related organizations, the New Israel Fund (NIF), and Ronn Torossian, a scrappy public relations man who has been campaigning against the organization for the better part of a year, is now on the cusp of becoming a legal battle that will drag in the Jerusalem Post, as well.

Since last November, Torossian has penned — sometimes alone, other times with co-authors — a steady stream of opinion articles alleging that the NIF is “an enemy of the State of Israel,” “systematically encourages boycotts of Israel” and “a partner of Fatah and Hamas,” publishing them in Orthodox and right-wing publications including the Algemeiner Journal, The Jewish Press and Arutz Sheva. In some, Torossian has named top NIF donors, among whom are leaders of prominent mainstream Jewish organizations, including UJA-Federation of New York and the Jewish Communal Fund.

The NIF says that his articles are “outrageously false” and “defamatory.”

Now the battle that had been going on for months in a variety of online and print venues has escalated into threats of lawsuits. The latest chapter began on Aug.18 when Torossian, with two co-authors, published an opinion piece attacking the NIF in the Jerusalem Post. 

“NIF raises $30 million annually from American Jews – to pursue an agenda which involves advocating and working on a boycott against Israel, weakening the Israel Defense Forces, both on the ground and via ‘lawfare,’ and through various other mechanisms, including advocating for terrorists’ families and collaborating with the United Nations to attack Israel. If it harms Israel, count on the NIF to be part of it,” Torossian wrote in August, in the op-ed co-authored with Hank Sheinkopf, another New York public relations professional, and George Birnbaum, a political consultant who was previously Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s chief of staff and has since helped Israeli politicians Nir Barkat and Avigdor Lieberman get elected. 

The New Israel Fund objected, pointing out in emails with Jerusalem Post Editor-in-Chief Steve Linde and Opinions Editor Seth Frantzman that they had promised not to publish another article by Torossian about the organization after running one in April. NIF VP for Public Affairs Naomi Paiss asked the editors to pull Torossian’s new piece. The editors refused, but offered to let the NIF respond with an op-ed of its own.

“Will you help me when they sue us?” Linde wrote in an email to Paiss. “Which they’re going to do, because they’re nuts.”

NIF’s response article, written by Paiss and published on Aug. 20, was titled “Scraping the bottom of the barrel.” 

“Frequently teamed up with Pamela Geller, an Islamophobe so extreme that she has been described as something of a one woman hate group by the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center, Torossian and his cronies purvey outright falsehoods on extremist websites and blogs. Now, although the editors assure us they will not run such screeds again, we must respond to the recent attack.

“The motives of those who attack us aren’t hard to discern. The NIF opposes the occupation and West Bank settlements and favors the two­state solution. The human rights groups we support hold a mirror up to that occupation, and the results are not positive PR for the settlement enterprise.”

Torossian’s lawyer immediately sent a letter to the Jerusalem Post demanding that it delete Paiss’ article and warning it to “cease and desist all defamation of Ronn Torossian’s character and reputation.” 

Torossian wrote in one email that the claim that he had “teamed up” with Pamela Geller was false, and damaging to his reputation.

Linde then wrote to Torossian and his lawyer, “Ronn, you are so quick to threaten legal action. Please stop bullying and threatening us.
You bashed the NIF, so I gave them the right of response. That’s called freedom of speech in a democratic country.

If you sue us, we’ll never use your op-eds again. Why spoil a good friendship?”

A few minutes later, in an apparent shift, Linde wrote in another email to Torossian regarding the NIF’s op-ed, “I only deleted it out of deference to you. Don’t expect me to be so polite in the future.”

The Jerusalem Post published an “apology” to Torossian, under duress of the threatened lawsuit, as the emails shared by the NIF with the Jewish Journal show. 

It said: “On Friday, August 21, The Jerusalem Post published an op-ed by the New Israel Fund which was factually inaccurate and slanderous. The said article has been removed from our archives. We apologize to Ronn Torossian for the factual errors, as well as for the hurtful tone. Mr. Torossian has asked to clarify that he stands behind his claim that the New Israel Fund remains a proponent of a boycott of Israel. The Jerusalem Post apologizes to our readers.”

On Aug. 23, Linde wrote in an email to Paiss, “I issued the apology in response to the threat of a lawsuit.”

That action prompted a threat of a lawsuit from NIF.

“We certainly could accept an ‘apology’ that would short-circuit the crowing going on in right-wing circles,” NIF’s Paiss e-mailed to Linde on Aug. 23, “but it would mean that you would have to say that our op-ed was NOT slanderous or factually inaccurate and that, in fact, the NIF does NOT support boycott of Israel. That would be fine by us.”

On August 24, the Jerusalem Post published and tweeted a “clarification,” this to assuage the NIF. 

“The Jerusalem Post wishes to clarify to its readers that it is not taking sides in the ongoing dispute between Ron [sic] Torossian and the New Israel Fund. 

As a newspaper, we are open to publishing both points of view, whether we agree or not. Our apology on Sunday, August 23, regarding the publication of “Scraping the bottom of the barrel” (Observations, August 21) by Naomi Paiss, vice president of public affairs for the NIF, was issued in response to an immediate legal threat over the weekend. We have no evidence that the op-ed was slanderous or inaccurate, and the NIF has clarified to us that its policy is to oppose a boycott of Israel. The Jerusalem Post apologizes to the NIF for any offense caused.”

Not long after publishing this, Linde wrote to Paiss, along with Torossian’s lawyer, that he had been advised by higher-ups that he needed to take down the clarification. 

“I cannot tell you how sorry I am,” Linde wrote Paiss. “I really tried to do this by myself, but my attorney says I did the wrong thing. Don’t think this hasn’t stopped Torossian from suing us. So now you can both sue us.”

Indeed, Torossian fired an email off to Linde in response to the clarification. “Am tempted to sue you folks with [NIF].”

On Aug. 28, NIF’s attorney sent the Jerusalem Post a letter by both email and Federal Express, saying that the paper has published “outrageously false and defamatory statements” about the organization and its spokesperson, Naomi Paiss, demanding that the apologies and links to the relevant Torossian article be removed from its website and Twitter feed.

If they are not, then the NIF may pursue lawsuits against the Jerusalem Post, in the United States, Israel and elsewhere, the lawyer’s letter says.

“The behavior of the Jerusalem Post in this matter has been both bizarre and outrageous from the get-go,” NIF CEO Daniel Sokatch said in an interview with the Jewish Journal. “For a newspaper to publish what it knew to be wrong because of threatened legal pressure crosses the line, and we felt we had no choice but to respond in this manner.”

Jerusalem Post Editor-in-Chief Linde responded to a request for an interview with an email saying, “no comment.”

Torossian asked that questions be sent to him by email. Over the next three days, the 50 emails he sent to this reporter started out with a professional tone, but turned threatening. On Sunday, he said he was writing articles about the reporter for the Algemeiner and Jewish Press, in which he said he had been seeking comments about her from members of her synagogue. “Will mention your progressive synagogue and quote two members from there,” Torossian wrote.

Torossian initially ignored a question, which was asked three times, about who his client on the anti-NIF campaign is, though he later wrote that he “is not being paid.”

When asked again if he was working on behalf of a client against NIF, he responded, “My client is Israel’s High Court of Justice, who denied NIF petition to allow them to boycott Israel a few months ago. My client is the ruling Likud Party, who refused to stand with NIF at an event, calling them an Anti-Zionist organization. We stand with Republican Sheldon Adelson and Democrat Haim Saban, who said that all must stand united against boycotts of Israel. We stand with Birthright, who will not work with the NIF. This is not a personal issue, and NIF attacks on me will not stop the fact that a boycott of Israel, and slandering of the IDF must be stopped.”

Torossian, who has a reputation as aggressive, runs a $20 million public relations agency, 5WPR, with 120 employees and offices in multiple cities. Its roster of clients has included leading consumer brands ranging from Anheuser-Busch to U-Haul to L’Oreal and Lifestyle Condoms, according to his website. He has represented hip-hop artists Lil’ Kim and P-Diddy’s Bad Boy Worldwide Entertainment Group, as well as the Christian Coalition, Trinity Broadcasting Network and ardently pro-Israel, conservative Evangelical pastors Benny Hinn and John Hagee. His Israeli clients, past and present, tend to be on the right end of the political spectrum. He has represented Israel’s newly appointed ambassador to the United Nations Danny Danon, though Torossian refused to confirm whether he still represents Danon, or to characterize their relationship.

There is evidence that Torossian also, as the NIF asserts, works in some capacity with Geller. Geller, head of the American Freedom Defense Initiative and creator of anti-Islam campaigns on public transit systems around the U.S., in March embarked on a campaign designed to get the NIF thrown out of New York’s Celebrate Israel Parade. It included posters on New York City Transit buses naming individual NIF donors, including Alisa Doctoroff, the president of UJA-Federation of New York. The NIF marched in the parade as planned.

Torossian’s firm sent out a statement on Geller’s behalf on March 1, announcing Geller’s “new campaign to expose leaders who fund BDS.”

Now, however, Torossian ardently denies he has any relationship with Geller. He wrote, in an email to the Jerusalem Post’s Linde on Aug. 20 referring to Paiss’ article, “to link me to Ms. Geller is damaging to my business and reputation — and I demand said references be immediately removed or will take legal action both in the United States and Israel. As you are aware, I own 1 of the 20 largest PR firms in the United States.”

Asked why he has chosen to focus on the NIF, Torossian wrote in an email to the Journal, “An organization which boycotts israel, such as the new israel fund is a danger to the jewish people. An organization which funds breaking the silence, which works all over the world to harm the israel defense forces is an extremist organization. Its simple, as the right and left in israel agree. To boycott israel is to stand against israel. To harm the idf is to stand against israel.” 

NIF CEO Sokatch called Torossian’s attacks part of a disturbing tone in the Jewish community today.

“We see a ratcheting up of vituperativeness from the extreme nationalist hard right wing,” he told the Journal. “All kinds of really hate-filled, un-factual rhetoric has taken the place of any actual critique. That’s because these people feel threatened. Torossian’s vision of Israel is not shared by most American Jews, and probably not by most Israelis. They try to attack and smear the people who stand for the vision of Israel as an open, liberal democratic society,” Sokatch said.

Steven M. Cohen, a leading sociologist of American Jewish life, said Torossian’s attacks on NIF funders “come in the context of mounting and sharpening polarization of pro-Israel conservatives and pro-Israel liberals. Not too many years ago, the Zionist right would take issue with the positions of the Zionist left. But they never question the loyalty of left-wing Zionists or their right to participate in Israel-related discourse. All that has changed as Mr. Torossian — and some others — question the Israel credentials of some of the most committed and effective pro-Israel philanthropists, leaders, and practitioners,” Cohen wrote in an email from Jerusalem.

In fact, the NIF, which does advocacy work, as well as grant making, has had a policy for the last several years of opposing boycotts of Israel, while permitting a targeted boycott of products from the settlements.

Its policy states: “The NIF does oppose the global (or general) BDS movement, views the use of these tactics as counterproductive, and is concerned that segments of this movement seek to undermine the existence of the state of Israel as a Jewish homeland. NIF will not fund global BDS activities against Israel nor support organizations that have global BDS programs. However, NIF opposes the occupation and settlement activities. NIF will thus not exclude support for organizations that lawfully discourage the purchase of goods or use of services from settlements.”

“We will theoretically fund an organization that theoretically advocates boycotting settlement products,” Paiss told the Journal. Many Israelis, too, “won’t buy wine from the territories,” she noted.

The view that boycotting settlement products is the same as boycotting those made in Israel proper ironically aligns Torossian with proponents of the global Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions [BDS] movement, Paiss said.

“We think this erasure of the Green Line, saying that boycotting an orange from Ariel is the same as saying the State of Israel has no right to exist puts Torossian on the same page as the Global BDS people, because they also see no difference between Tel Aviv and Ariel, and we do.”

But Torossian counters that Israel Supreme Court’s agrees with him. In April it upheld the country’s 2011 “Anti-Boycott Law,” making it a civil offense for people or groups to advocate boycotting Israeli institutions or individuals when the advocacy has a reasonable chance of succeeding. By a 5-4 vote, the justices deemed that the law also applied to the West Bank territories, a decision critics blasted as suppressing political dissent. 

Meanwhile, the Aug. 28 letter from Beverly Hills attorney Douglas Mirell to the Jerusalem Post  demanding remedy in the ongoing dispute between NIF and Torossian has yet to be answered.

Former S.F. federation head Brian Lurie becomes NIF chief

Rabbi Brian Lurie, the former CEO of the San Francisco-area Jewish federation, has become president of the New Israel Fund.

Lurie succeeds Naomi Chazan as head of NIF, a nonprofit that funds liberal Israeli groups as well as a few Israeli Arab organizations.

Chazan, a former left-wing member and deputy speaker of the Knesset, faced controversy during her four years leading the NIF, including a 2010 campaign that targeted her personally from Im Tirtzu, a right-wing Israeli nonprofit.

Lurie, who formerly served as NIF’s vice president of North America, was named to the position last year and will hold it for three years, according to San Francisco’s j. weekly. He served as the executive director of the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin and Sonoma Counties for 17 years.

New Israel Fund opening Australian branch

The New Israel Fund has opened a branch in Australia, sparking renewed debate about the pluralist, human rights organization.

NIF, which has raised in excess of $200 million for more than 800 NGOs in Israel since 1979, will be led by Sydney-based barrister Robin Margo, who was president of the Jewish community in New South Wales between 2008 and 2010.

Margo, who acted for the Executive Council of Australian Jewry in its long-running legal battle against Holocaust denier Fredrick Töben, said in a statement Monday announcing the formation of the organization: “NIF strives to promote the vision of Zionism that is contained, indeed promised, in Israel’s Declaration of Independence, namely ‘equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.’”

But critics have been quick to accuse the organization of supporting groups that seek to delegitimize Israel.

In a letter published in last week’s Australian Jewish News, Dr. Gerald Steinberg, of the Jerusalem-based NGO Monitor, wrote that NIF funds “political groups that promote BDS, demonization and the discredited Goldstone report.”

The advent of NIF in Australia comes a year after the last-minute cancellation of a visit here by NIF president Naomi Chazan, following a controversial campaign by the right-wing student organization Im Tirzu, which alleged that “without the New Israel Fund there could be no Goldstone report and Israel would not be facing international accusations of war crimes.”

NIF rebuffed the accusations as baseless.

“Attempts by some in Australia and overseas to denigrate the NIF have failed to dent the enthusiasm we are seeing for the establishment of NIF in this country,” Margo said.

The Australian branch will be officially launched in June by Chazan, who is also speaking at the Limmud conference in Sydney.

NIF also has branches in America, Canada, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.

Ford Foundation to end Israel funding

The Ford Foundation is denying that it is ending its Israel funding over criticism leveled at the foundation and some of the groups it helps to fund.

The Forward reported Thursday that the philanthropic foundation, which has contributed $40 million to civil society groups since 2003, will wind down its giving in two years.

Ford was sharply criticized for backing Israeli-Arab groups that helped steer what was to have been the 2001 United Nations conference on racism in Durban, South Africa, into an anti-Israel and anti-Jewish forum.

Subsequently, other groups that Ford helps fund—including the New Israel Fund, itself an umbrella fund for hundreds of progressive groups—have been targeted by some on Israel’s right wing for harsh criticism of Israel.

Ford and the NIF denied that these were factors in the decision to defund, instead noting that Israel’s civil society sector is capable of seeking funding from other sources.

Some on the left had criticized Ford and other outside philanthropies in recent years for steering money into a wealthy and Western democracy that had shown itself capable of tolerating dissent instead of spending money assisting groups in autocracies.

NIF changes funding guidelines, but what does it mean?

When Adalah, an Israeli Arab legal rights group, joined an initiative in 2007 to create an Israeli constitution that would dilute—if not remove—the state’s Jewish character, it unleashed a furor in pro-Israel circles.

Much of the anger was directed at the New Israel Fund, a fund-raiser for an array of progressive Israeli organizations that in the same year had sent or directed at least $70,000 to Adalah.

The controversy was among others involving the New Israel Fund that helped spur the formulation of new guidelines for its grantees. Made public last week, the guidelines require that grantees commit to avoiding actively undermining Israel’s Jewish identity.

Daniel Sokatch, NIF’s director, says the Jewish identity issue will become integral to the group’s pitch to donors.

“We believe that Israel is the vehicle for the national sovereignty of the Jewish people and simultaneously an open society conferring equality on all its citizens,” he told JTA in an interview in the group’s Washington offices.

A participant in a conference call Sokatch held Monday with NIF board members and major donors said the new guidelines were intended to clarify NIF’s mission and did not represent a shift in philosophy.

Qualifications in the guidelines left NIF’s critics wondering exactly how applying the new guidelines would work.

The change at NIF follows a difficult year for the organization.

Decades of muted criticism for its support of a handful of groups that track alleged Israeli abuses and accommodate the non-Zionist outlook that prevails in Israel’s Arab sector—among hundreds of organizations backed by NIF—burst into a noisy campaign calling for NIF to change its ways. Some Israeli lawmakers wanted to impose legal controls on how NIF operates in Israel.

Critics, led by NGO Monitor, an organization set up to track nongovernmental groups it says undermine Israel, said that NIF, wittingly or not, was allowing itself to be sucked into a movement that seeks to delegitimize Israel as racist in the hopes of replacing it with a binational or Palestinian state.

Ultimately, the calls to censure NIF were rebuffed by top Israeli officials and the criticism of NIF abated. An array of public figures, including important leaders on the political right, defended the right of nongovernmental organizations to operate without excessive scrutiny.

In at least one case, the campaign against NIF backfired against the organization’s critics.

Im Tirtzu, a group that had distributed an illustration of NIF President Naomi Chazan as a horned creature, has lost the backing of Jewish and evangelical groups that had provided it with hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Sokatch, who became NIF director 11 months ago, still isn’t resting easy. He is an evangelist of the notion that NIF is honoring both adjectives—“Jewish” and “democratic”—that pro-Israel groups attach to virtually every mention of Israel.

During the interview with JTA, Sokatch repeatedly pointed to a copy of Israel’s Declaration of Independence gracing an otherwise bare wall, making the point that both elements appear in the founding document. It was the basis, he said, for item seven in the newly published guidelines, under a section beginning, “Organizations that engage in the following activities will not be eligible for NIF grants or support.”

The item bars funding for groups that work “to deny the right of the Jewish people to sovereign self-determination within Israel, or to deny the rights of Palestinian or other non-Jewish citizens to full equality within a democratic Israel.”

It was the first time that NIF cited Jewish self-determination as a factor in funding.

“Whenever anyone applies to the New Israel Fund for funding or when they apply for re-funding, that will be the lens through which we make that evaluation,” Sokatch said, referring to the entirety of the guidelines, including passages that promote equal rights.

The guidelines are not retroactive, which exempts Adalah and a number of Israeli-Arab groups that submitted contributions to the Arab-Israeli constitution project.

Going forward, Sokatch suggested that NIF would not be as sanguine as in the past about such activities. In the past, the NIF leadership has said it does not agree with all that its grantees say or do, but it would support their right to speak as they wish in a democratic society.

Sokatch said last week that now, “if we had an organization that made part of its project, part of its mission, an effort to really, genuinely organize on behalf of creating a constitution that denied Israel as a sovereign vehicle for self-determination for the Jewish people, a Jewish homeland, if that became the focus of one of our organizations’ work, we would not support that organization.”

After JTA published Sokatch’s remark last week, it raised a storm of controversy. Sokatch subsequently contacted JTA to clarify, saying that such a “mission” would have to be central to an organization’s activities in order to result in a suspension of funding, and that NIF would be the one to make the determination over whether or not that threshold had been reached.

Gerald Steinberg, who directs NGO Monitor, was among the NIF critics wondering how the new guidelines would be applied.

“The question is how is it going to be implemented—when and how—and how are the internal battles are going to be resolved,” said Steinberg.

New Israel Fund renews local presence after four-year hiatus

“People in Israel are so overloaded by big problems, mainly security but also corruption, that it’s easy to disconnect from dealing with social inequities,” said Ronit Heyd, a young Israeli activist.

Heyd, joined by Ilana Litvak, who came to Israel from the former Soviet Union, and Nidal Abed El Gafer, a Palestinian lawyer, were in Los Angeles last week as three “connected” Israelis, working to empower their country’s underprivileged and raise the level of civic involvement.

Their presence at a roundtable was sponsored by the New Israel Fund (NIF), which has just raised its Los Angeles profile by reestablishing a local office, after a four-year hiatus.

Its director is Ellen Barrie Aaronson, long active in the Jewish community and the entertainment industry, most recently as vice president for development at Johnenelly Production, is in the process of setting up the office.

NIF was founded in 1979 to work toward “a more just, equitable and pluralistic state of Israel,” according to its mission statement. NIF helps grass-roots groups, through grants, training and coalition building, to move into the Israeli mainstream. These groups include new immigrants, especially Ethiopians, women’s rights activists, gays, Israeli Arabs and people with disabilities. Since its establishment, NIF has distributed more than $200 million in grants to 800 organizations in Israel.

Shatil (Hebrew for seedling), NIF’s action arm, mentors and trains civic groups to take their fates into their own hands and bring their needs to the attention of government, media and society at large.

In addressing some 80 people at the Beverly Hills Country Club (located in Cheviot Hills), three speakers representing Shatil illustrated their organization’s principles through concrete examples of their work.

Gafer, a graduate of the Tel Aviv University law school, has worked to prevent the demolition of “illegal” Arab homes through court appeals. In another case, he has sought to allow students from inferior Arab schools to attend better Jewish schools.

He has had some success in this “affirmative action” suit, but, he noted, Arab and Jewish students must use the common school playground at separate times.

Heyd worked in northern Israel, heavily shelled during the Lebanon War, when wealthier residents fled south, but the poor stayed behind.

“The Israel government failed to provide shelter and food for those left behind,” Heyd said. “We got grass-roots groups together to demand public hearings on why the government had fouled up.”

Litvak’s main concern is to find ways of boosting Ethiopian and Russian kids, who have great difficulties in keeping up in school.

In a conversation after the meeting, Aviva Sagalovitch Meyer, NIF’s national associate director, said that the Washington, D.C.-based organization has a $25 million annual budget and six branch offices in the United States, four in Israel, and one each in London and Toronto.

Meyer said that about 6 percent of NIF’s general support donors and revenue came from the L. A. area, and she hoped that the establishment of a local office would raise these figures.

Last month, the Ford Foundation renewed a $20 million grant to NIF.

The Los Angeles roundtable was marked by a harmonious atmosphere, in apparent contrast to a similar all-day seminar in New York.

There, according to a JTA report, an Arab speaker, whose organization is supported by NIF, regretted that his fellow Palestinians didn’t take up arms to fight the denial of their rights by “Israeli occupiers.”

Another Israeli Arab, a law professor at Hebrew University, called for a change in Israel’s flag and national anthem.

It is NIF’s support of Arab groups, such as those represented by the two speakers, that raise the hackles of critics. One opponent cited is Gerald Steinberg, director of NGO Monitor, a hawkish pro-Israel watchdog organization.

Referring to the remarks of the two speakers, Steinberg said, “This is not about making Israel a better society; it’s about denying the legitimacy of Israel to exist.”

In response, Larry Garber, NIF’s CEO, said that his organization would continue to fund Arab rights groups, even if they say or do things with which the NIF doesn’t quite agree.

Meyer, NIF’s associate director, added, “When you join a group, not everything is going to be something you like; you support the broad position. You don’t expect to agree with every position.”

Eliezer Ya’ari, who heads NIF’s operations in Israel, said that differences between NIF and its critics come down to a matter of ideology. On one side are those, in Israel and the Diaspora, who see Israel as a Middle Eastern country of all its citizens, as against those more interested in preserving the Jewish nature of the state, even at the expense of democratic principles.

“The challenge in the next 60 years,” he said, “is making Israel a part of the Middle East.”

For more information on the New Israel Fund, call (310) 566-6367. For more information on NIF, e-mail eaaronson@nif.org.

JTA associate editor Uriel Heilman contributed to this article.