November 17, 2018

The David Myers debacle

David Myers

With disturbing regularity, Jews hate on Jews.

The most recent example is the jaw-dropping case of professor David Myers.

Last June, the UCLA professor of history — and Jewish Journal columnist — was appointed president and CEO of the Center for Jewish History (CJH), a collection of five New York museums that is the nation’s foremost repository and educational center for American Jewish history.

[MORE: Right-wing activists target David Myers]

The news initially was greeted with unanimous praise. The pre-eminent historian of American Jewish history, Brandeis University’s Jonathan D. Sarna, said Myers was “the very embodiment of what the center should be.”

But last week, an unsigned “expose” on Myers popped up on numerous Jewish websites. It accused him of being a radical anti-Israel leftist. Myers, the piece concluded, was “unsuitable to head a Jewish institution with the long-term and widespread influence of The Center for Jewish History.”

Such nastiness is not unique to this moment in Jewish history. The comforting myth of “all Jews are friends” is belied by the many times in history when Jews fought viciously against fellow Jews: Maccabees murdering “Hellenized” Jews, Zealots stabbing “collaborationist” priests before the fall of the Second Temple, the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. All this violence was the last stop on a long road of verbal assaults.

What’s different now is slandering has never been so fast and easy. The internet has made it so that we can spread our slurs in seconds, under the guise of “breaking news.” Jews are mud wrestling in the same pigpen as the larger culture, where someone with a working email account can slop around gossip, half-truths and lies — which, astonishingly, otherwise sophisticated people accept as fact.

Few people in the world know how to do this better than Ronn Torossian.

The Brooklyn-born founder of a multimillion-dollar New York public relations agency freelances as a one-man, self-appointed defender of Israel against whatever and whomever he determines is “anti-Israel.”

Torossian decided, some four months after Myers’ appointment was announced, that it was time to get dirty. Together with associates Hank Sheinkopf and George Birnbaum, he wrote an attack piece that accused Myers of supporting the boycott of Israel and undermining the Israel Defense Forces.

For Torossian and the current Israeli leadership he is a flack for, any opposition to Israel’s occupation of Judea and Samaria and the settlement movement is hyped as a national threat. Myers — and the New Israel Fund (NIF), where he serves on the board — categorically oppose the global Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement. But both Myers and NIF oppose continued Israeli settlement building, seeing it as a threat to Israel as a Jewish democratic state, and they leave open the possibility that boycotting goods originating from the West Bank could be a legitimate form of nonviolent protest.

I happen to disagree with the latter stand — that’s another column. The bigger problem is that over the past decade this particular Israeli government and its American cheerleaders have moved the goalposts of what is “pro-Israel.” Now, anything short of a warm embrace of a settlement movement and Israel’s 50-year occupation of Judea and Samaria is considered not just anti-Zionist, but anti-Israel.

A week ago, Torossian inserted the Myers hit piece into the ecosystem of right-wing Jewish news sites and, voila, clickbait for well-meaning pro-Israel readers. Arutz Sheva, the Jewish Press and Algemeiner ran the piece as a news article or op-ed. From there, like-minded pro-Israel activists reposted the piece or sent it through email blasts.

Immediately, American-Jewish and Israeli historians, as well as many Los Angeles Jewish leaders, came to Myers’ defense. Even those who sometimes disagree with Myers said there shouldn’t be a litmus test of political correctness for Jewish organizational leaders.

The CJH itself quickly issued a statement backing its president and CEO.

“Various allegations have been made about David Myers,” the statement said. “Professor Myers is an eminent historian. The Board of the Center for Jewish History has full confidence in his ability to lead the Center in the fulfillment of its mission to preserve the treasured sources of the Jewish past and advance public knowledge of the Jewish historical experience.”

But 36 hours after a handful of “news” websites ran Torossian’s hit piece without vetting, fact checking or publishing opposing viewpoints, the echo had entered the chamber.

Some supporters of the American Sephardi Federation, one of the five institutions that make up the CJH, got sucked into the one-sided “news” and sided with Torossian. A couple of far-right Israeli Knesset members demanded Myers’ head — because, you know, Israel has no more pressing problems than a Zionist historian taking over an American Jewish museum.

Myers has yet to speak out, other than to say he appreciates the many people who have come to his defense. In an email to me, he said he refused Torossian’s offer to “answer questions” before the piece went out, because he was unwilling to place his words in the hands of a nonjournalist who by reputation he simply didn’t trust.

The lessons? Just as in the larger media world, there is responsible and irresponsible Jewish media. The good ones don’t print opinion as news articles and don’t allow op-ed writers to create their own facts. The more you believe a story, the more you must seek out the other side to it.

Remember: At the end of a long road of verbal assault, nothing but division awaits. Any great Jewish historian can tell you that. Just ask David Myers.


ROB ESHMAN is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. Email
him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter @foodaism
and @RobEshman.

Right-wing activists target David Myers

David Myers

Historian David Myers’ honeymoon period as president and CEO of the Center for Jewish History (CJH) has not lasted long.

Three months after his appointment, several right-wing Jewish activists are now publicly demanding his removal from the New York-based institution over his ties to organizations critical of Israel.

[Rob Eshman: The David Myers Debacle]

But amid the right-wing criticism, a growing number of supporters have come to Myers’ defense. Among the supporters is former Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who collected 100 signatures on a letter to CJH, calling the attacks against Myers, a professor of Jewish history at UCLA, “scurrilous.”

Leading the campaign against Myers are two New York public relations specialists, Ronn Torossian and Hank Sheinkopf, and political campaign consultant George Birnbaum. They penned a blistering opinion piece calling for Myers  to be fired that was posted on like-minded, right-leaning Jewish websites, including The Jewish Press, The Algemeiner and the Israeli network Arutz Sheva.

Torossian has an eclectic list of clients that includes rapper Lil’ Kim and former mayors of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Sheinkopf does PR for companies such as Home Depot and runs political campaigns. Birnbaum is a former chief of staff for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and served as an adviser for Ben Carson’s presidential campaign.

The opinion piece contends that CJH, a coalition of five partnership organizations that houses the largest archive of the modern Jewish experience outside of Israel, “has made an unfit choice” in Myers, due to his being on the board of the New Israel Fund (NIF), a U.S.-based organization dedicated to advancing liberal democracy in Israel; his fundraising efforts on behalf of If Not Now, an organization that vehemently opposes Israel’s occupation of the West Bank; and his adviser role with J Street, an organization proposing a two-state solution in the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

The opinion piece also condemns Myers for being a “fierce critic” of Netanyahu and his policies.

“Individuals who hold views such as Myers’ should not hold positions of leadership in the Jewish community,” the piece concludes.

The opinion piece has won support from right-wing figures in Israeli politics such as the Knesset’s Bezezel Smotrich, a member of the Orthodox far-right Tkuma party. Smotrich reposted a link to the piece on his Facebook page, adding in his own words, “Naming him as CEO of the Center for Jewish History is gross malfeasance.”

The piece also refers to Myers’ support for “some forms” of boycotts against Israel but doesn’t give specifics. It links to an essay written by Myers in 2014 titled “Why I Oppose a Boycott Mostly.” Myers wrote, “I can’t support a global boycott against Israel,” and also chided Israeli academic boycotts. Later in that article, Myers wrote that, if necessary steps weren’t taken toward Palestinian sovereignty by the end of 2015, “then a boycott of Israel’s settlements and commercial activity in the West Bank may have to be the necessary next step.”

In an email to the Journal, Torossian said, “The purpose of our op-eds was to ensure that his viewpoints are widely exposed and known. … We do not disqualify his academic credentials in the least.”

Myers has contributed to various academic journals and is a Jewish Journal columnist. He has written numerous well-reviewed books on Israel and Jewish history.

Myers is no longer involved with J Street but does remain on the NIF board.

In an email to the Journal regarding the controversy, he wrote, “I’m deeply gratified by the breadth and depth of support demonstrated so far from colleagues, students, and friends in the United States and Israel, especially the Historical Society of Israel.”

Yaroslavsky’s letter includes the signatures of UCLA administrators, heads of Jewish organizations, academics, current and former elected officials, and numerous local rabbis, including David Wolpe of Sinai Temple, Sharon Brous of IKAR and Ken Chasen of Leo Baeck Temple.

The letter calls the attack on Myers “scurrilous,” and compares it to “the worst kind of McCarthyism” and a bullying campaign.

“This is a test for the CJH and the Jewish community,” Yaroslavsky said in an email to the Journal. “Can a small, fringe group of right-wing extremists succeed in intimidating a communal institution into firing a respected and more-than-qualified scholar based on ad hominem and fundamentally false attacks? This is not only about Professor Myers, a lover of Zion and the Jewish people. If this fringe succeeds in its insidious effort, it will undermine the independence of every institution in our community. We must put a stop to this here and now.”

Many others have come forward in Myers’ defense. Some 500 Jewish historians signed a letter of support, and other similar letters have circulated among academics, rabbis and Jewish leaders.

The board of the Historical Society of Israel, the profressional organization of historians teaching history in Israel, issued a statement saying it plans to publish a defense of Myers on various media, with renowned Israeli scholars signing it.

“The Board of the Historical Society of Israel thus calls for an immediate end to the defamation campaign, which presents all critical opinion as ‘anti-Zionist’ and as ‘treason,’ ” it said.

Jonathan Sarna, perhaps the pre-eminent American Jewish historian and a professor at Brandeis University, wrote a letter of support to CJH, now posted on the American Jewish Historical Society’s Facebook page. While Sarna acknowledged that he sometimes strongly disagreed with Myers’ political views on Israel, he said those views should have no bearing on whether Myers is fit to lead CJH.

“It is unthinkable that the Center’s president should be obligated to espouse a particular view, or that there should be any ideological litmus test whatsoever beyond an ability to articulate and celebrate the ideals of the Center itself,” Sarna wrote.

The CJH also released a statement, reiterating its support for Myers: “The Board of the Center for Jewish History has full confidence in his ability to lead the Center in the fulfillment of its mission.”

Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman undermine peace for Palestine

Ayelet Waldman and Michael Chabon. Photo courtesy of ActiveStills

One of the reasons I like superhero movies is because it’s always obvious whom to root for.

Let’s take Wonder Woman, because she’s killing it at the box office, and she has the added cachet of minority status, which makes her even more appealing: It’s a no-brainer to cheer for the beautiful woman with superhuman strength and unassailable moral clarity over the treacherous Ares, God of War, who seeks the destruction of humankind.

Simple plots with uncomplicated characters work just fine in fiction. In nonfiction, not so much.

So perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us that two famous fiction writers, Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman, are failing to grasp the intricacies of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The best-selling novelists, husband and wife, currently are on a press tour for a new book they edited, “Kingdom of Olives and Ash: Writers Confront the Occupation,” which, given the world-class pedigree of the contributors, would appear to be a marvelous book.

The problem is not the work itself but the way Waldman and Chabon are promoting it. In interviews, they have turned their brief tour of the West Bank into undeniable evidence that they’ve discovered the absolute truth of the conflict: It’s Israel’s fault. And they describe the situation in such shallow and simple terms, I half-wondered if “Kingdom” was a children’s book. (It’s not.)

The book is, in fact, a compilation of stories from assorted contributors, including Pulitzer Prize winners and a Nobel Laureate, that seeks to illuminate the lives of long-suffering Palestinians who have toiled under Israeli occupation for the last 50 years. It’s a noble endeavor. And the pair deserves credit for their good intentions. But the way these two seasoned storytellers are discussing their “findings” is so one-sided, bereft of nuance and oblivious to history, it made this pro-Palestinian American Jew cringe.

The story of the Waldman-Chabon book begins in 2014, when Waldman returned to Jerusalem, the place of her birth, after a long absence. “We couldn’t deal, like so many American Jews, with what it meant to go back,” she said last week during a live internet broadcast sponsored by the New Israel Fund. “We didn’t want to engage.”

But then Waldman was invited to attend the Jerusalem Writer’s Festival. Afterward, members of Breaking the Silence, an organization of former Israel Defense Forces soldiers seeking to expose and end the occupation, offered to show her around Hebron. There, she saw the impact of Israel’s occupation for the first time — poverty, oppression, injustice. Then she went to Tel Aviv, where she “had an amazing time, [and] got drunk every night.” She decided to do something about this unfair contrast.

She returned home to Berkeley and suggested to her husband that they take up the Palestinian cause through a writing project. “I thought he wouldn’t want to alienate his Jewish audience,” she said, somehow unaware that a majority of American Jews support a two-state solution. “To his credit, without hesitation, he said instantly, ‘Of course, yes, we’ll do this.’ ”

In the spring of 2016, they brought 29 of the world’s most eminent writers to visit — exclusively — the West Bank, East Jerusalem and even Gaza, if they pleased. Afterward, Chabon declared to the Forward that Israeli military occupation is “the most grievous injustice I have seen in my life.”

He should get out more.

Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us that two famous fiction writers, Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman, are failing to grasp the intricacies of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

It’s disappointing when you discover that your literary heroes sometimes are myopic and obtuse. That they would spend far more time immersing themselves in the lives of one of their characters than they spent zipping through one of the most complex regions in the world is perplexing. But that hasn’t stopped Waldman and Chabon from casting themselves as daring literati, shining a light in Israel’s dark corners.

“As soon as you start asking questions,” Chabon said, “everything comes back to this massive bureaucracy that …  exists only to remind Palestinian people that they are utterly subject to Israeli power. And the way that power demonstrates itself most effectively, demoralizingly, is not by dropping bombs, bulldozing houses, it’s the everyday tiny indignities to which Palestinians are subjected: What it takes for a Palestinian who needs dialysis to get dialysis, what it takes a Palestinian businessman … to arrange a meeting. The way the rules get changed so whimsically, [it’s] so clear it’s being done on purpose to demoralize, to dehumanize.”

Not everything Chabon says is untrue. I trust he saw “indignities.” But he fails to mention the indignity of total Arab-Palestinian rejection of a Jewish state since the Balfour Declaration, in 1917, and at least half a dozen times since then. For someone who’d be short a few novels without Jewish history, how conveniently he chooses to ignore it.

For “Kingdom” Chabon wrote about Sam Bahour, a Palestinian businessman he admires for persevering despite the odds, for “building this glass palace while missile strikes are occurring all around him.” That Israel experiences much the same thing is an irony apparently lost on him.

The conflict that has mystified and humbled generations of experts and world leaders is, for these two writers, superhero simple: Palestinians, good; Israeli government, evil.

But this is what happens when serious writers engage in conflict tourism. And it is unworthy of their gifts. What a shame to marry such weighty voices to a shortsighted conclusion. It gives their experience, and their book, a gravitas it hasn’t earned.

“This conflict is not a morality play where one side is all right and the other is all wrong,” American diplomat Dennis Ross said when I reached him by phone. Ross has worked on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as an envoy, expert and direct negotiator serving the Reagan, Bush, Clinton and Obama administrations.

“When you demonize one side, you don’t make it easier for two sides to reconcile,” he said. “You make it harder.”

ZOA endorses Israel’s anti-BDS law

An Israeli flag is seen near the minaret of a Mosque in Jerusalem's Old City. Nov. 30, 2016. Photo by Ammar Awad/REUTERS.

The Zionist Organization of America endorsed a new Israel law that would ban entry to supporters of boycotting Israel or its settlements, setting it apart from an array of Jewish groups who oppose the law.

“The ‘boycott, divestment and sanctions’ (‘BDS’) movement against Israel is unjustified, discriminatory, harmful economic terrorism, powered by virulent Jew hatred,” the ZOA said Friday in a statement.

“Israel thus has every right to protect herself with this law, which bans entry of persons who are not Israeli citizens or permanent residents if they, or the organization in which they are active, knowingly issued a public call to boycott Israel or pledged to boycott Israel or areas controlled by Israel,” the group said.

The law, adopted Monday by the Knesset, bans entry to foreigners who publicly call for boycotting the Jewish state or its settlements. It has drawn mounting criticism from American Jewish groups, including the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee, as well as the Reform and Reconstructionist movements. First to condemn the law were an array of left-wing Jewish groups, including J Street and the New Israel Fund.

On Friday, the Association for Israel Studies condemned the law, saying it would turn Israel into an “isolated entity open only to those who ascribe to official policy.”

The Trump administration has said that border crossings are a sovereign matter, but added that it favors free expression.

 

AJC joins US Jewish groups criticizing Israel’s anti-BDS entry law

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting. March 5. Photo by Abir Sultan/REUTERS.

The American Jewish Committee said it was “troubled” by a new Israeli law banning entry to foreigners who publicly call for boycotting the Jewish state or its settlements.

The AJC’s statement, released a day after the law’s passage, was the first signal from the American Jewish establishment that it was unhappy with the law. An array of American groups on the left — including J Street, Americans for Peace Now, Ameinu, the New Israel Fund, and T’ruah, a rabbinical human rights group — condemned the law as soon as it passed.

“Every nation, of course, is entitled to regulate who can enter, and AJC, a longtime, staunch friend of Israel and opponent of the BDS movement fully sympathizes with the underlying desire to defend the legitimacy of the State of Israel,” AJC CEO David Harris, said Tuesday.

“Nevertheless, as history has amply shown throughout the democratic world, barring entry to otherwise qualified visitors on the basis of their political views will not by itself defeat BDS, nor will it help Israel’s image as the beacon of democracy in the Middle East it is, or offer opportunities to expose them to the exciting and pulsating reality of Israel,” Harris said.

According to the final wording of the boycott bill, the ban applies to any foreigner “who knowingly issues a public call for boycotting Israel that, given the content of the call and the circumstances in which it was issued, has a reasonable possibility of leading to the imposition of a boycott – if the issuer was aware of this possibility.” It includes those who urge limiting boycotts to areas under Israeli control, such as the West Bank settlements.

Backers of the bill say it would be used only against those active in organizations that support BDS, and would not block an individual for something she or he might once have said.

Incitement and hate – The loss of civil public discourse

Recently, Israelis have witnessed the exchange of ever more serious accusations between left wing and right wing NGOs (non-governmental organizations). This mutual name-calling has poisoned public discourse in Israel by diverting public discussion away from reasoned analysis of key issues and by transforming it into shallow and hostile ad hominem attacks. The hysteria that has gripped Israel only strengthens political polarization therein, without contributing constructively to a conversation about core challenges: freedom of speech and sovereignty, which are so critical to the future and vibrancy of Israeli democracy.

On the right, Im Tirzu renewed its highly controversial “Shtulim” – translated as ‘moles’ or ‘agents’ – campaign, in which it accuses groups and individuals supported by foreign governments to be working for those states. This time, the group has singled out individual artists from the left, including authors Amoz Oz, David Grossman, and A. B. Yehuoshua.

Im Tirzu’s campaign was renewed only days after Israel’s Deputy Attorney-General decided not to prosecute the group for its initial campaign video, which targeted leftist political activists. The deputy AG said that the clip might not have been a call for violence, but stressed it was “ugly and very problematic and that it would have been better if it had not been posted.”

Not to be outdone, certain groups on the Israeli Left have responded with their own mudslinging. In its campaign, the New Israel Fund (NIF) is fanning the flames of hate and political tribalism, no less so than those on the Right. In September 2014, the organization announced a strategic shift. Under the banner of “New Initiatives for Democracy,” NIF stated that it intended to dedicate energy and resources to strengthen the liberal-progressive camp in Israel and thus promote an explicitly political agenda. In explaining the move, the announcement stressed the need for change in Israeli public discourse. Looking back over a year later, it would appear that it has adopted the worst parts of this discourse.

[READ: RESPONSE FROM NOAM SHELEF OF NIF]

With a video released two weeks ago, NIF launched its “Inciters” campaign vilifying the entire right wing in Israel through the use of clumsy generalizations, making no distinction between the various parties or the nuances regarding different supporters of the Right. In an attempt to demonize its political opponents, the short YouTube clip incorporates footage from the Rabin assassination, hinting that NIF’s political rivals are responsible for his murder. NIF took this far-fetched assertion to other media, such as posting extremely controversial posters throughout major cities in Israel, with Rabin’s face and the message “They have already dealt with this foreign agent.”

NIF also tries to make hay by showing portions of the horrific video of a wedding attended by right-wing extremists – dubbed the “hate wedding” because of the celebration of violence against Palestinians.

Does anyone believe that the participants of the “hate wedding” and their despicable behavior represent the entire Israeli right wing, or that right wing voters in 2015 were responsible for the political violence of 20 years ago? Is this not just a mirror of blaming Oslo or “the Left” for Palestinian terror? Those who reject Im Tirzu’s rhetoric should do the same towards the NIF’s stereotypes.

If the political loyalty of the protagonists had been reversed, NIF would have – justifiably –criticized attempts to portray left wing extremists as representing the entire Israeli Left. It is not difficult to imagine a video where scenes of the “hate wedding’s” dance floor are replaced with footage of radical left-wing activists partaking in violent riots alongside Palestinians in the West Bank. The picture of President Rivlin in a kaffiyeh could be replaced with a picture of Prime Minister Netanyahu in an SS uniform, and the footage from the Rabin assassination switched with a clip of Ezra Nawi bragging about turning Palestinian land dealers over for torture and death.

This antagonistic, over-generalized discourse, promoted on the Left by NIF and on the Right by Im Tirzu, might strengthen the resolve of activists on both sides of the political divide. However, these glaring faults guarantee that this propaganda will be incapable of creating real change in Israeli society.

Improving the public discourse in Israel and protecting free speech are essential for the health of Israeli democracy. But these vital goals cannot be achieved by smearing critics and tarring all of the supporters of a political camp.

During these last few weeks, public debate in Israel has been led by the extreme ends of the spectrum, at the expense of moderate, professional voices. Bringing this phenomenon to a halt should be the chief interest of all those who cherish democratic society.

Yona Schiffmiller heads the US desk at NGO Monitor, a Jerusalem-based research institute.

Arab-Israeli leader ends US trip with applause, but not from the Jews he hoped to reach

Ayman Odeh got the rapturous Jewish reception he had wanted. It just wasn’t from the Jews he had hoped to reach during his recent trip to America.

The Arab-Israeli lawmaker’s speech to a conference Sunday hosted by the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz and the New Israel Fund, a nonprofit that focuses on civil rights in Israel, earned a standing ovation, participants said. But his message of mutual support and solidarity between Arabs and Jews, catnip as it was for the liberal room at a Manhattan hotel, did not entirely erase the bad taste left last week when he refused to enter another room in New York filled with Jews of influence.

On Dec. 10, Odeh balked at the last minute at entering a meeting convened by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations because the umbrella group’s office shares space with the Jewish Agency for Israel, which facilitates Jewish immigration to Israel.

The resulting testy exchange with the Presidents Conference leadership set off a day or so of recriminations, each side accusing the other of bad faith, scuttling one of Odeh’s missions on his first tour as head of the Joint List, the third largest faction in the Knesset with 13 seats. Odeh had hoped to recruit U.S. Jews into a civil rights era-style bid to achieve equality for Israel’s Arab citizens.

While in the United States, Odeh visited Washington and New York, and met with members of Congress including Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., a civil rights activist, and Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., the first Muslim elected to Congress. He also met with senior Obama administration officials at the White House and State Department.

Odeh’s message of common destiny did come across loud and clear at the Haaretz-NIF conference.

“Arab citizens of Israel speak Arabic and Hebrew,” Odeh said, and listed three leading Israeli poets — one an Arab, one an Ashkenazi Jew and one a Sephardic Jew. “More than anyone else, we know both people’s stories. Because I know these stories, even though it is not my story, I deeply identify with the suffering of the Jewish people, who have known hatred and terrible pain.”

As heartened as he may have been by the applause, more telling was a joint message he issued late Sunday with Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism who had also attended the conference.

“The only future is a shared future,” the statement issued by aides to both men said. “We both understand the importance of honest, deep, difficult and necessary conversations. We were glad to meet today at the Haaretz conference to agree to work together for a better future.”

Contrast the “deep and difficult” in that statement with Jacobs’ rapturous description of his meeting Dec. 8 with Odeh at Temple Emanu-El in New York.

“MK Odeh has an inspiring vision for a brighter future for Israelis and Palestinians,” Jacobs said. “We were delighted to host MK Odeh in one of our leading houses of worship, to share with him the beauty, history, and activism of our Reform Movement, and to discuss together our shared commitment to a vision of Israel that draws from the prophets of justice and righteousness for all.”

Jacobs’ statement was issued just a day before the dust-up at the Presidents Conference.

“Representatives of a broad spectrum of organizations came to hear him and were rightly upset by his decision not to appear, although he was in the building lobby,” the Presidents Conference statement released after the incident said.

Odeh said he could not, as a representative of Israel’s Arab citizens, enter a Jewish Agency office.

“I cannot in good conscience participate in meetings in the offices of organizations whose work displaces Arab citizens, just as in the Knesset, we do not participate in the Ministry of Defense, the Foreign Ministry, and the Ministry of Aliyah and Immigrant Absorption,” Odeh said in his statement.

A spokeswoman for Odeh said the displacement of Arab citizens cited by Odeh referred to the Jewish Agency’s affiliation with a separate entity, the Jewish National Fund, which Arab-Israeli groups have long challenged for policies they say have favored Jews over Arabs in leasing land. Arab-Israeli groups allege the policy blocks the growth of Arab towns.

The spokeswoman also said Odeh sees aliyah, the immigration of Jews to Israel, as expanding the Jewish majority in Israel at the expense of its Arab population. The Jewish Agency is responsible, with the Ministry of Absorption, for settling newcomers in Israel.

Another issue for Odeh, the spokeswoman said, is the funneling of money to West Bank settlements from another Jewish Agency affiliate, the World Zionist Organization.

Jewish organizational representatives who were stuck upstairs while Presidents Conference staff spoke with Odeh in the lobby told JTA they were taken aback. Not speaking for the record, the officials said they disagreed with Odeh on some issues, but looked forward to discussing areas where they could cooperate.

Jacobs, who was unable to make the Presidents Conference meeting, was ready to put his unhappiness with Odeh on the record.

“I am profoundly disappointed by MK Ayman Odeh’s decision to walk away from that important opportunity for him, for the cause of equality in Israel, and for the Conference of Presidents,” the Reform movement leader said after the incident.

Odeh offered to meet elsewhere, but the Presidents Conference said in its statement the request was “outrageous.” The lawmaker accused the group of stirring the pot and was especially upset by the Presidents Conference citing in its release Odeh’s contretemps with the Arab mayor of Nazareth earlier this year.

“We now understand the recent demand of the Mayor of the Nazareth, Ali Salem, that Odeh leave his city because his presence promotes divisiveness,” the Presidents Conference release said.

“I didn’t want to talk about this at all in the press, but they continued to incite against me through media outlets here in the U.S.,” Odeh said in a Facebook post.

For its part, the Jewish Agency accused members of the Joint List of being more interested in “scoring cheap and expedient political points than they are in advancing the well being of their communities.”

In a statement, its chairman, Natan Sharansky, listed Jewish Agency programs that specifically assist Israel’s Arab minorities.

Obama calls on Israelis and Palestinians to ‘exercise restraint’

President Barack Obama, making a surprise address, told a Haaretz-sponsored conference in New York that Israelis and Palestinians must “exercise restraint.”

“Inexcusable violence has taken too many lives — Israelis, Palestinians, Americans and others,” Obama said via teleconference on Sunday morning at HaaretzQ, the liberal Israeli newspaper’s event with the New Israel Fund. “I’ve been clear that Palestinian leaders have to condemn the ongoing attacks and stop the cycle. Individuals responsible for violence, including violence against Palestinians, have to be brought to justice, and we call on both sides to work to diffuse tensions, exercise restraint, prevent more loss of life and restore hope.

“Of course, the best way to reduce tensions and ensure Israel’s own security is to continue working in concrete ways towards a two-state solution.”

A spate of attacks since October has killed 22 people, according to the Israeli government. In the same period, 106 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli soldiers, police or civilians either while committing attacks or in their aftermath, on suspicion that they were about to carry out attacks or clashes with Israeli forces, Reuters reported last week.

The U.S. leader, who was not on the program of speakers, told the audience of approximately 600 at the Roosevelt Hotel that they would always have a partner for peace in him and in the United States.

“Peace is necessary, just and possible,” Obama said.

Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, in his keynote address noted his visit last week with Obama and emphasized that “the president’s commitment to a secure Israel is beyond any question.”

Saying peace is important for Israel’s safety and security, Rivlin said, “For that we need to think outside of the box.”

The conference, the first of its kind for Haaretz in the United States, is designed to provide a “unique platform for robust debate and intelligent reflection” on key issues regarding Israel, according to the newspaper.

“Isolated under [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu, the editors of Israel’s leading liberal newspaper are coming to New York to try to restore a sense of reason,” Aluf Benn, editor-in-chief of Haaretz, wrote in the Daily Beast on Friday. “We begin by turning to our American friends whose voices have been drowned out for too long.”

Rivlin, saying he sometimes is “annoyed and angry” by what he reads in Haaretz, said however that the newspaper is “a beacon for freedom of expression in Israel” and “I am here today because I believe the free market of ideas is a holy principle.”

With Breaking the Silence, an Israeli organization of military veterans that accuses Israeli soldiers of mistreating Palestinians, presenting on one of the panels, Rivlin praised the morality of the Israel Defense Forces and earned vigorous applause.

“The IDF does everything in its power to keep the highest moral standard possible, even under impossible conditions,” he said, adding that no other army in the world is as moral.

Tzipi Livni, a Knesset lawmaker from the center-left Zionist Union party and Israel’s former justice minister, in her address criticized the settlements.

“Settlements don’t give security to Israel,” she said, “settlements take security from Israel.”

Saeb Erekat, the secretary-general of the PLO and a leading negotiator for the Palestinians, said the source of the current violence is failed peace talks.

“When every day we bury our loved ones — it’s for one thing,” Erekat said. “It’s our failure to achieve peace. It’s out failure to achieve a two-state solution.” He begged the audience not to give up on the idea.

Erekat insisted that Israel has a partner for peace with the Palestinians, saying the conflict with Israel is purely political. He also called the Islamic State terrorist group “criminals and thugs,” saying they have nothing to do with Islam.

Others scheduled to speak are the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, and Arab-Israeli Knesset member Ayman Odeh.

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.

U.S. Jewish groups opposing Israel’s ‘Jewish state’ law worry about consequences

It’s not unusual to hear U.S. Jewish groups speaking out against laws that discriminate and framing their protests as protecting Jewish interests.

What’s unusual is that the target this time is the Israeli government and the proposed law emphasizes Jewish rights.

At issue is Israel’s nation-state bill, which if passed by the Knesset would enshrine Israel’s status as a Jewish state into law. Proponents say the bill would reinforce the Jewish character of Israel, but opponents charge that it would jeopardize the state’s democratic character and undermine Israel’s Arab minority.

Most major American Jewish groups weighing in on the debate are against it.

“It is troubling that some have sought to use the political process to promote an extreme agenda which could be viewed as an attempt to subsume Israel’s democratic character in favor of its Jewish one,” the Anti-Defamation League, the first group to speak out against the bill, said in a statement Nov. 24, a day after the Israeli Cabinet approved a version of the bill.

American Jewish groups against the measure outline two broad reasons for their opposition: the fear that it is ammunition for anti-Israel and anti-Jewish forces already feeding off the aftermath of Israel’s war with Hamas in the Gaza Strip and recent tensions in Jerusalem; and the fear that Israel is drifting from its democratic character, particularly in laws and practices that target minorities and women.

“The proposed Jewish state bill is ill-conceived and ill-timed,” Kenneth Bandler, the American Jewish Committee’s spokesman, told JTA in an email.

Abraham Foxman, the ADL’s national director, said the bill provides cover for Israel’s enemies.

“It’s an unnecessary debate, it has spillover and provides fodder,” he said. “What comes out of this? Nothing.”

Other major groups opposing or expressing reservations about the proposed law include the Reform and Conservative movements, the National Council of Jewish Women and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the umbrella body for Jewish public policy groups.

The Zionist Organization of America is among the few U.S. Jewish groups that have taken a stand in favor of the nation-state bill.

“Non-Jewish citizens live and are welcome in Israel, but the Israeli state, its institutions, laws, flag, and anthem reflect the history and aspirations of the people who founded it with their labor, resources and blood,” ZOA President Morton Klein said in a statement.

The U.S. State Department has said that it expects “final legislation to continue Israel’s commitment to democratic principles.”

In Israel, the opposition to the bill is led by President Reuven Rivlin. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu backs the law – although he has yet to settle on final language – and has pledged to bring it to the Knesset for a vote as early as next week.

As a “basic law,” the law would have constitutional heft. Its backers say giving Israel’s Jewishness a constitutional underpinning is increasingly necessary given attempts to delegitimize the state.

“The State of Israel is the national state of the Jewish people,” Netanyahu said Nov. 23. “It has equal individual rights for every citizen and we insist on this. But only the Jewish people have national rights: a flag, anthem, the right of every Jew to immigrate to the country and other national symbols. These are granted only to our people, in its one and only state.”

Such talk induces uneasiness in American Jews who over decades have been invested in an Israel in which Jewishness and democracy have successfully melded in equal parts, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, told JTA.

“Let us strengthen Israel’s democratic foundation,” Jacobs said, noting in an interview a recent proliferation of attacks on minorities in Israel as well as statements from Israeli politicians elevating the Jewish character of the state over its democratic values. “If anything needs strengthening, that’s what needs strengthening,” he said, referring to democratic values.

U.S. Jewish groups generally confine their criticism of Israel’s government to issues of status that affect Israel’s Jewish citizens, like the treatment of the non-Orthodox religious streams and discrimination against women. They avoid criticism – at least in public – that would feed into attempts by Israel’s enemies to depict it as racist and exclusionary.

This bill is an exception, Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, the executive vice president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, said in an interview, because it has broader implications than a single decision involving the Palestinians that might draw controversy.

“This law speaks fundamentally to the democratic nature of Israel,” she said.

Schonfeld said Jewish-American sensitivities already were sharpened because of a series of legislative initiatives in Israel that would limit the rights of the non-Orthodox and practices that discriminate against women, like segregation on some buses. Particularly galling, she said, was a law that a ministerial committee maintained this week that criminalizes marriage by non-Orthodox rabbis.

“These laws that violate religious freedom are building blocks to anti-democratic legislation,” Schonfeld said.

The nation-state law also has drawn criticism from liberal Jewish groups that in the past have not hesitated to target what they see as discriminatory Israeli policies. Among the groups are Americans for Peace Now, the New Israel Fund and J Street.

Rachel Lerner, a J Street vice president, said American Jews have internalized democracy and equal rights for all as Jewish values in part because of the protections they have been afforded in the United States.

“We’ve had equal rights because this country is so accommodating, so there’s a lot of sensitivity toward that,” Lerner said.

Several major groups, including the Orthodox Union and the Jewish Federations of North America, have yet to weigh in. A source close to Jewish Federations said the umbrella body wants to see a final draft of the bill before pronouncing.

Netanyahu reportedly is seeking ways to include in the bill an emphasis on Israel’s democratic nature and its commitment to equal rights.

The JCPA in its statement called for postponing Knesset consideration of the bill and urged that the final draft make clear that Israel remains committed to equal rights.

“If they’re going to do this bill, it should be incredibly clear that there is no intention to diminish the rights of citizens who are not Jewish,” JCPA’s president, Rabbi Steve Gutow, told JTA.

Schonfeld said the law is the wrong solution to whatever anxieties are driving its proponents.

“This is a time of great anticipatory anxiety among Jews, and it calls for signal courage and not to give in to fears,” Schonfeld said. “This seems to be legislation motivated by fear and not by courage.”

 

Jewish Federation executive, Jonathan Jacoby, moves to New Israel Fund

After nearly four years as a senior vice president at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, Jonathan Jacoby — who helped oversee major changes in the organization’s program planning — will rejoin the New Israel Fund (NIF) decades after serving as one of its founding members.

Jacoby will be NIF’s director of operations in Southern California, a region in which CEO Daniel Sokatch hopes the group will become a major presence. NIF is one of the largest U.S. organizations working to advance democratic and liberal values in Israeli society. According to its most recently published financial statements, the group spent about $33 million in 2012, mostly in grants to Israeli nonprofits.

Jacoby first worked for NIF in the late 1970s and early 1980s as its founding director — he was based in the San Francisco Bay Area. A longtime Jewish social services professional and advocate for increased research of rare medical diseases, Jacoby said one of his main goals with NIF will be to help young American Jews — who trend liberal — feel a connection to Israeli society.

Sokatch said that Jacoby, as someone who “helped build this field,” will strengthen the “progressive pro-Israel camp” in creating a “social justice-based civil society in Israel.”

“The party line that often comes out of the American-Jewish community about the ways that you can support Israel are no longer sufficient to justify a deep connection” for young American Jews, Sokatch said.

At Federation, Jacoby helped build the ongoing “Ensuring the Jewish Future” and the “NuRoots Community Fellows” programs, which together aim to educate and engage Jewish youth and young adults in community life. 

Federation CEO Jay Sanderson said that he long knew Jacoby intended to return to the field of Israel-focused nonprofits where he could serve in a position “relative to his strongly held political beliefs.” In his few years at Federation, Sanderson added, Jacoby “accomplished a great deal.” 

The organization is not searching for a replacement. 

Prior to his role at Federation, Jacoby also was a founding member of the Israel Policy Forum, a liberal organization that advocates for a diplomatic resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

“This is a critical time in Israel’s history and in the relationship of Jews in the United States to Israel,” Jacoby said. “That is my greatest passion.”

Jacoby, whose first day with the NIF was Sept. 2, is following in the footsteps of a number of current NIF leaders who were previously Jewish Federation professionals. Sokatch was executive director of Federation’s Bay Area office for 14 months before joining NIF. Board President Brian Lurie also served as the Bay Area director for 17 years, and board member Jeffrey Solomon was previously the COO of UJA-Federation of New York. 

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.

There’s more than one way to support the Jewish state

In the landscape of American Jewish organizations, The New Israel Fund (NIF) has long occupied a prominent place on the left side of the aisle. Back in 1979, almost three decades before the “pro-Israel, pro-peace” lobby J Street was established, when Peter Beinart was still in elementary school, NIF began supporting Israeli-based non-profits that advanced the Jewish and democratic identity of Israel.

In the years since, NIF has donated more than $200 million to civil- and human-rights organizations in Israel. Its current list of grantees includes groups advocating for women, Palestinian Israelis, Ethiopian-Jewish Israelis, and Reform and Conservative Jewish practice, to name a few. 

The Journal caught up with NIF CEO Daniel Sokatch, formerly the founding executive director of the Los Angeles-based Progressive Jewish Alliance, to discuss changes he’s seen in Israel, how NIF is advancing its mission in the Jewish state and how he manages to stay optimistic about the future.

Jewish Journal: You lived in Israel in the 1990s; how has the country changed since then?
Daniel Sokatch: I went to Israel in 1994 to go to rabbinical school. I realized pretty quickly that what was exciting to me was less the rabbinate than it was Israel. I dropped out of rabbinical school and stayed in Israel for a year and a half, working and soaking up what was a completely golden age, and went back to the United States in September 1995, just about five weeks before the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

Today, [Israel is] a very different place in terms of the hopes and aspirations that people there feel are realistic. It’s a very different place in terms of the demography. The situation of the Arab-Israeli sector was quite different than what it is today. Many of the fractures and schisms that are so apparent in today’s Israeli society were less exacerbated then.

JJ: Benjamin Netanyahu, both in his time as finance minister and now as prime minister, seems to have really transformed the country.
DS: Netanyahu led a series of economic shifts that have transformed the country in ways that have resulted in great prosperity for some and — as we saw this summer, when almost half a million people took the streets — massive amounts of discord for many others. But it was a mélange of factors that caused this transformation, and it’s an ongoing transformation.

JJ: Your organization recently launched a new campaign with an ad in The New York Times focusing on extremism and the treatment of women in Israel. It was inspired by one NIF supporter’s trip to Iran, and his concern that there might be parallels between the situation of women in Iran and Israel. Did you worry about that comparison?
DS: The ad doesn’t mention Iran at all. Murray Koppelman — this is a pillar of the New York Jewish community [who traveled to Iran and pledged to match all contributions to NIF for the new campaign, up to $500,000] — wasn’t afraid Israel was turning into Iran. He worried, though, because he saw things that reminded him of developments in Israel that have been unsettling to him in recent years, like the segregation of buses, like the removal of images of women in the public sphere, like the attempted crackdown on human rights or civil rights organizations to do their jobs. These things disturbed him, and he came home and said, ‘I don’t want to see my beloved Israel go down that path.’ That’s what the campaign is about.

JJ: NIF will have a booth at this year’s Celebrate Israel festival in Los Angeles and representatives of the group will be marching in New York’s Celebrate Israel Parade, even as there have been some calls for NIF to be banned, calling the group anti-Israel. What’s it like to be at the center of that contention?
DS: These are charges made either by extremist right-wing organizations who have vowed to — to use their terminology — “delegitimize” any organization or any individual that doesn’t subscribe to their definition of what it means to be pro-Israel. But we don’t have anybody who gets to dictate what it means to be pro-Israel, and I’m deeply gratified by the response of the Jewish establishment of this country — for the most part — in refusing to blacklist organizations like NIF.

JJ: You brought up the Jewish establishment, so I have to ask you about Peter Beinart.
DS: I knew you were going to ask me about Peter Beinart.

JJ: Is there something that you usually say when people ask you about him?
DS: (Laughing) No, but I’ll say this. I think that our community prides itself on being a big tent. And lots of people say things and put forth ideas. If they do it with good intentions and civility and respect for the opinions of others, I think that we’re crazy not to encourage them.

JJ: How do you hold onto your idealism?
DS: One thing I picked up when I was in rabbinical school was the belief that there are two Jerusalems: Yerushalayim shel ma’alah and Yerushalayim shel mata — in the rabbinical tradition, a heavenly aspirational Jerusalem and a real, actual city where people live. One day, I was walking home and I looked up at the sky when I heard the roar of a jet. There was a big airplane, which flew from the east over Jerusalem, circled the city twice, and flew back to the east. This is 1994, when you can’t do that without violating some enemy country’s airspace.

When I got home, I learned it was King Hussein of Jordan in the plane, the flight was to signal the surprise signing of the peace accords between Israel and Jordan, and Rabin had been in the control tower at the airport talking to him. At that moment, I saw the coming together of the heavenly and the actual Jerusalems. I saw what’s possible, I tasted it — we all did. I just don’t think that’s dead or over; I just think it’s a long hard road to get back there.

For Murray Koppelman, a distasteful Tehran scene inspires a gift to New Israel Fund

Murray Koppelman saw women pushed onto the back of a bus in Tehran and had a nightmare about Israel’s future.

Koppelman, a well-known philanthropist in New York, is behind a New Israel Fund pledge drive to combat discrimination against women in Israel. He will match every new dollar donated to the New Israel Fund up to $500,000.

A full-page ad in The New York Times including a dramatic photo of a defaced poster featuring a woman’s portrait—one of many that have been vandalized in Jerusalem—announced the drive on April 18. The ad urges Americans to “Help keep Israel strong, free, and democratic.”

Koppelman, 80, said in an interview that the idea for the campaign came to him when he was touring Iran last autumn.

He had traveled much of the world and wanted to see Iran “while I still could make the trip,” he told JTA. His decision caused much family consternation, but he persisted.

Koppelman waited six months for a visa. He hired a guide when he arrived in Iran.

“It was a very arduous trip—I am over 80—I needed to sit down. I found a bench, I sat down,” he recalled.

It was a bus stop. “There were 20 to 30 women with chadors on, and when the bus came, they were pushed to the back,” Koppelman said.

The scene brought to mind an NIF-organized lecture he had attended just before leaving for his trip. Alice Shalvi, a veteran Israeli feminist, described encroachments on Israeli women’s rights, including buses where women were expected to sit in the back.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has pushed back against such measures, pledging to “preserve public space as open and safe.”

Seeing Iranian women shoved to the back of the bus unsettled Koppelman, who asked his guide whether such measures were introduced all at once after the 1979 revolution that brought Islamists to power.

No, the guide said, each change came incrementally.

“I thought, ‘What’s going to happen to Israel?’ ” Koppelman said.

He didn’t leave it at just thinking about it.

“I’m a person who likes to speak out,” said Koppelman, who then recited an Op-Ed he had submitted to The New York Times in 1995 weeks after an extremist Jew assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

“Like so many members of the American Jewish community, I have kept my opinions to myself for too long,” Koppelman read from the Op-Ed in stentorian, Brooklyn-inflected tones. “Hesitant to contribute to an image of the Jews as a divided people, I have refrained from taking a public stand on the issue of Israel exchanging occupied territory for peace. In unity, so I thought, there is strength. But it was words—words of venomous hatred—that led directly to the unthinkable outrage of the assassination of a prime minister of Israel by a Jew.”

In the Op-Ed, Koppelman describes the time he spent as a young man on a kibbutz in Israel.

“I spent years working in the fields by day and standing guard duty against terrorists at night,” he wrote. “It is a time in my life that I look back on with tremendous pride, a time when my personal ties to Israel were forged strongly and immutably in the exhilaration and promise of a Jewish homeland reborn.”

Koppelman is fiercely loyal to the institutions that shaped him as a youth. He is a major benefactor to Brooklyn College, and his resume lists the years there he spent earning a bachelor’s degree in accounting, 1954-1957.

“I was on welfare during the entire Depression,” he said. “That’s why I rewarded Brooklyn College—because of them I got my degree and became a CPA. Now I’m in the securities business.”

“In the securities business” is his understated way of a professional biography that includes founding Eastlake Securities, which was eventually folded into J.P. Morgan, where he is now a vice president.

Following his trip to Iran, Koppelman reviewed the Jewish organizations that have benefited from his largesse—among them ORT, the Anti-Defamation League and the UJA-Federation of New York. He settled on NIF, which focuses on funding programs that promote civil rights and democracy in Israel.

“I decided that was the most obvious,” said Koppelman, adding that his prior donations to the group had “not been consequential.”

New Israel Fund was happy to oblige. And not just for the cash: A past president of American ORT, Koppelman lends credibility to the organization, which has come under assault from right-wingers in recent years as not sufficiently pro-Israel.

“He’s a pillar of the American Jewish community,” said Daniel Sokatch, NIF’s CEO.

The defaced poster in the Times ad features Roni Hazon Weiss, an Orthodox woman who posed for the poster for an NIF-backed group called Yerushalmim (Jerusalemites). The group placed the billboards around the city in defiance of some in the Jerusalem haredi Orthodox community who have systematically defaced images of women.

Abraham Foxman, the ADL’s national director, says Koppelman is “a caring, loving, decent Zionist.”

And also a fundraiser’s dream: “He puts his money where his mouth is, without a lot of demands,” Foxman said.

The ADL leader bemoaned the ad as divisive, although he lauded its mission.

“The NIF is to help Israel maintain its democratic values,” he said. “This only gives another excuse to people we don’t like.”

Foxman especially was upset by the story behind the ad. Comparisons with Iran, he said, are “odious.”

Still, he could not fault what motivated Koppelman.

“I know where his heart is,” Foxman said. “I know how deeply he loves Israel.”

U.S. Jewish groups against Israel’s boycott law consulting on next steps

American Jewish groups that have spoken out against Israel’s new anti-boycott law aren’t stopping there—now they’re speaking with each other on further responses.

“We’re all in communication with each other about these things,” said Daniel Sokatch, the president of the New Israel Fund, a U.S.-based funder of Israeli civil rights groups.

Sokatch said the cooperation was low key for now, that it was at the level of each group knowing what the others are up to in terms of pressing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to ameliorate the law.

“Those who are concerned are mindful of what the other groups are doing,” Sokatch explained, saying that the most recent call took place Monday morning.

Sokatch declined to name the other groups involved, but officials at leading centrist groups confirmed that such calls were taking place.

Centrist groups that have spoken forcefully against the law include the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee. On the right, the Zionist Organization of America has said that it understands Israel’s need to push back against those who would delegitimize the nation but that it opposes laws of this sort in principle.

The anti-boycott law approved July 11 by the Knesset provides for civil sanctions against supporters of boycotts targeting Israel or its West Bank settlements. Those harmed by boycotts can file civil lawsuits seeking monetary damages from those who advocate or organize such boycotts.

Some Jewish groups have expressed the hope that Israel’s Supreme Court will strike down the new anti-boycott law.

Americans for Peace Now announced Tuesday afternoon that it was backing its Israeli sister group’s boycott of settlement products that was launched to challenge the new law.

“Like Peace Now, we recognize that fundamentally this new law is not about boycotts or even, truly, about settlements,” APN said in a statement. “It is about stifling dissent, smothering activism, and suppressing freedom of expression.”

Sokatch said that NIF would launch fundraisers for Israeli civil rights groups, such as the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, to support their efforts to defend those targeted under the new law.

“We will raise money for those defending free expression rights who are fighting lawsuits by the settler movement,” he said.

Otherwise, he said that NIF was looking to fund more civil liberties lobbyists in the Knesset, particularly amid the push by some members of Israel’s right-wing governing coalition for legislative inquiries into nongovernmental groups.

Officials from centrist U.S. Jewish groups said they were making their concerns about the anti-boycott law known through their contacts in Netanyahu’s government. Though he was absent for the Knesset vote on the anti-boycott legislation, Netanyahu has since expressed his strong support for the law.

Defenders of the new law point out that it resembles U.S. laws banning cooperation with Arab League secondary and tertiary boycotts of Israel.

“Every nation has laws against conspiracies to cause economic harm,” Eugene Kontorovich, a law professor at Northwestern University, wrote in The Jerusalem Post.

“Antitrust laws prohibit speech when its purpose is to unfairly cause economic harm. And the common law makes it a tort to ‘interfere with prospective business advantage,’ i.e. scaring off someone’s customers.”

Opponents of the new Israeli law say that such comparisons are specious.

“U.S. law doesn’t bar U.S. citizens from organizing boycotts of anything or any country, or participating in boycotts of anything or any country, that are organized by domestic or foreign individuals or organizations,” Lara Friedman, Americans for Peace Now’s legislative director, wrote in a column for The Huffington Post.

“What U.S. law bars is participation in unsanctioned boycotts and embargoes imposed by other countries that conflict with U.S. policies—including but not limited to the (effectively moribund) Arab League boycott of Israel.”

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.

Livni must demonstrate new type of leadership

Tzipi Livni’s victory in the Kadima Party primary is the result of the Israeli version of the clamor for change that we are seeing across the democratic world. She prevailed despite ruthless attacks on her experience, her judgment, her appearance and her gender. Her record of probity, her straightforward style and — most significantly — her decidedly civilian aura definitely worked in her favor.

But does Livni have it in her to capitalize on these currents and take the risks necessary to cement a new kind of politics in Israel?

She faces incredible opportunities and formidable challenges. Ultimately, the test of her leadership rests on her ability to move Israeli-Palestinian negotiations to an equitable and durable conclusion.

The new head of Kadima must begin to prepare herself and her party for the likelihood of new elections in the spring. Her main opponents — Ehud Barak of Labor and Benjamin Netanyahu of the Likud — justifiably perceive her as the single-most- serious threat to their respective political ambitions.

These two former prime ministers hoping for a second chance cannot ignore the polls that consistently show Kadima under Livni’s leadership pulverizing Barak’s Labor Party and giving Netanyahu’s Likud Party a close contest. That is why they did everything in their power during the primaries to promote Livni’s main intraparty rival, Shaul Mofaz. Now, they can be expected to step up their attacks on her.

Livni also faces ambiguity abroad. Indeed, her key negotiating partners present their own set of challenges. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is on her way out, as may be Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, whose term is set to expire next January.

Under these circumstances, the conventional wisdom is that Livni has two diametrically opposed options: She can put negotiations on the back burner and call for new elections as soon as possible, in the hope of taking advantage of her current popularity to consolidate her political position. Or, she can try to delay new elections as long as possible — by acceding to inevitably exorbitant demands from coalition partners — and use the limited amount of time at her disposal to reach an accord with the Palestinians.

Livni may be sorely tempted to follow the first course. Her advisers and some of her closest supporters believe that continuing the negotiating process that began last year in Annapolis would be an electoral liability, especially given the growing preoccupation of the Israeli electorate with domestic socioeconomic issues.

Opting to proceed quickly to the polls, while forgoing the possibility of making progress on the Palestinian front, Livni would be left with little ability to affect policy in the immediate term. Livni might then opt to fall back on a politics rooted in style and personality in the run-up to new elections.

Should she choose this route, however, she will be playing directly into Netanyahu’s hands. He knows full well that several months can be a lifetime in politics, enough to darken Livni’s halo with clouds of doubt regarding her leadership abilities and her decisiveness. Wrangling with recalcitrant party cohorts and getting muddied in Israel’s political quagmire would risk sacrificing the clean image that ushered her to where she is today.

But forming a new government without elections may be impossible, given the distribution of seats in the current Knesset, especially since only Labor — which can expect to do poorly at the polls — has a strong interest in maintaining a Kadima-led government. And even if a coalition arrangement is reached, the political price would be prohibitive. Capitulating to the demands of the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party would prove to be a major liability down the line in terms of public opinion, and striking a deal with the Palestinians would, in any event, probably destabilize such a tenuous coalition.

Thankfully, Livni does not have to buy into the binary vise devised by the pundits. There is a third alternative: She can call for new elections and, in the meantime, step up talks with the Palestinians with a view toward concluding a comprehensive agreement that can be presented for public approval at the polls.

Such a move may speak to her Palestinian and American partners, who share her sense of urgency. It would at least temporarily confound her domestic opposition. Above all, it could salvage the last chance for a two-state solution.

The success of such a daring strategy hinges on Livni’s capacity to muster real political courage. She must be willing to inject new substance into the faltering negotiations with the Palestinians. This requires a readiness to revisit the roots of the conflict and to recognize the fundamental asymmetry that has plagued past Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

While success is not guaranteed, conditions are ripe for progress — especially if Livni takes the additional (and long overdue) step of embracing the Arab Peace Initiative, something that would have strong regional, as well as international, resonance.

Could Livni pull this off? The answer is unclear. What is evident is that if she fails to take an audacious step of this sort, her political career will be short-lived and prospects for a negotiated settlement will dim and perhaps disappear entirely.

It is up to Livni to demonstrate that her victory in the Kadima primaries augurs a new type of leadership. Otherwise she — like her once-promising predecessors — will become a footnote in the history of an Israel still desperately looking for ways to open up a new political horizon.

Naomi Chazan is president of the New Israel Fund. She is a former deputy speaker of Israel’s Knesset, where she represented the Meretz Party from 1992 to 2003.

Banking on Israel’s future — from Brentwood

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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.

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.

New Israel Fund Honors Rabbi Susan Laemmle

Last week, Rabbi Richard Levy, executive director of the Los Angeles Hillel Council, introduced to the Central Conference of American Rabbis in Pittsburgh a new Reform movement manifesto. And according to Rabbi Susan Laemmle, that’s not his only contribution to Reform. For without Rabbi Levy — her mentor and former superior — there may never have been a Rabbi Laemmle.

But it is the former English teacher who is now being recognized for her community devotion. On Sunday, June 6, New Israel Fund (NIF) will honor Laemmle during its seventh Tzedakah Dinner at Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel.

For the past three years, Laemmle has been dean of religious life at USC, before which the Reform rabbi served four years as the university’s Hillel director. If Laemmle’s name sounds familiar, it may be because her father, the late Kurt Laemmle, and her uncle Max, founded the Laemmle Theatres chain, years after creating and selling what is now Universal Studios. While the home of her youth was always a source of cultural and Zionist pride, Laemmle did not become observant until her 20s.

Laemmle’s history with NIF goes back to 1987, when her recommendation helped lead to the hiring of the nonprofit organization’s first Los Angeles director. NIF, through its subsidiary Shatil (“seedling” in Hebrew), provides funding and training for hundreds of organizations that address Israeli social issues, including National Council for the Child; Association for Civil Rights in Israel; Center for Jewish-Arab Economic Development; Interns for Peace; and outreach and support groups throughout Israel.

While studying at the rabbinate in New York, Laemmle became acquainted and impressed with NIF’s presentations.

“The programs were not pat…they looked at issues honestly. I don’t like hype, and they didn’t look at Israel like it was some sort of [infallible] icon,” says Laemmle.

Says David Moses, NIF’s Los Angeles Regional Director, of Laemmle: “She has been a vocal advocate [and has helped] raise the profile of NIF and the community…. She continues to believe strongly in the mission of the fund and the work that we do…building bridges between communities.”

Laemmle is very candid about her early 1990s failed attempt to make <I>aliyah<$>. Although she ultimately could not carve out a life in Israel for herself, that doesn’t mean that she will ever give up investing in the Jewish state’s future.

Says Laemmle, “I do what I can from where I am.”

For more information on New Israel Fund, contact the Los Angeles office at (310) 282-0300.