Banking on Israel’s future — from Brentwood


New Israel Fund supporters lounge and laugh during a salon event hosted by Stanley and Betty Sheinbaum. Photo courtesy Irene Fertik

You might think one of Israel’s preeminent journalists, invited here to lecture wealthy and powerful American Jews would have squeezed a little hasbara (roughly translated: propaganda) into her speech. But there was none of that when investigative journalist Ilana Dayan addressed a group of New Israel Fund donors at Stanley and Betty Sheinbaum’s Brentwood estate on June 24.

Instead of boosting morale or reassuring guests that Israel has a bright and lengthy future, Dayan did what journalists do: She told a story.

“I believe that the story of Israel is to a great extent the story of a paradox,” Dayan said to the 70 guests lounging on couches in the Sheinbaum family’s cozy California-style living room. “I wish to tell you about the paradox of a nation struggling to accommodate its needs and its fantasies.”

For Dayan, the anchorwoman of Israel’s Channel 2 program “Uvda” (“Fact”), Israel represents an ideological paradox: It is a nation with ambitions as both a Jewish and democratic state; one whose security depends on military might, but is also committed to human rights; a nation born in the bonds of Jewish solidarity that now participates in a flourishing free-market economy; and a nation whose “activist” supreme court decisions flex and slacken in the ever-changing tide of Israel’s safety.

“Can you accommodate all those contradicting conceptions in a place smaller than New Jersey?” Dayan asked. “The simple answer is no; the Israeli answer is yes. We said it even before Barack Obama: ‘ Yes we can.'”

This of course, was music to donors’ ears — donors who write checks with lots of zeroes and want their hard-earned money to make a difference in a society riddled with challenges.

Israel is also where Dayan’s journalism coincides with the vision and purpose of the New Israel Fund. Both are committed to the further development of a democratic and civic society. They are both interested in issues of religious pluralism, social welfare, women’s rights and equal rights for all citizens. While Dayan addresses the dilemmas facing Israeli society, the New Israel Fund steps in as the change agent. Both are committed to strengthening the democratic process that is persistently challenged by the reality of life in Israel, that paradox of “splits” which begets what Dayan refers to as the “never-ending quarrel that is the defining ethos of the state of Israel.”

The earnest message was delivered in an opulent setting. First, the customary cocktails and hors d’oeuvres were served in the Sheinbaum’s plush backyard, where a clover-shaped pool, statues and sculptures seemed fixed into the landscape of the Brentwood Hills. Then came the provocative address — and from a keen audience, the pointed questions.

“Are Israelis doomed to live that tenuous balance forever?” a gentleman called out in the back.

“Is there any validity to peace talks going on now?” a woman wondered.

“Is Israel serious about attacking Iran?”

And the inevitable: “What do Israelis want to happen in the U.S. election?”

A confident Dayan, though more accustomed to asking questions than being asked to answer them, responded in full. Her doctorate in law from Yale University helped, as did her experience interning at the Israeli Supreme Court.

The Sheinbaums have famously hosted luminaries in government, politics and entertainment ever since Stanley took up political activism 60 years ago and Betty Sheinbaum’s Warner family fortune enabled their contribution to causes.

Now in their mid-80s, the Sheinbaums have spent the better part of their lives railing against world injustice. Neither tired nor retiring, they continue to use their station to prompt social and political change — just like the journalist, who is challenging the influential to heed her words and help build a better, more democratic Israel.