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NIF fracas: Defending Israel or destroying democracy?

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Jewish right-wing activists dressed as Arabs demonstrate in Jerusalem against the New Israel Fund on Jan. 30. Yossi Zamir/Flash 90)/JTA

JERUSALEM – A campaign against the New Israel Fund — a U.S.-based organization that funds civil society activists in Israel — has sparked a fierce debate over the limits of free speech, the financing of NGOs, the dictates of loyalty to the state, and, ultimately, over the fundamental values of Israel’s Zionist democracy.

The questions cut close to the bone on both sides of the ideological divide. For example: Are left-wingers using Zionist money to undermine the foundations of the state? Or are right-wingers trying to gag nongovernmental organizations critical of Israeli policies and actions? And to what extent are the government and its agencies involved in trying to silence their critics?

At the center of the storm is the Goldstone report on alleged Israeli war crimes during the fighting in Gaza last winter. (See related story, Will Israel's response to Goldstone be enough?.)

Most Israelis see the report as biased, based on flimsy evidence and false assumptions, and part of a concerted international campaign to delegitimize the Jewish state. The attack on the New Israel Fund was part of an angry Israeli backlash against Goldstone. But was it a bona fide attack on an organization accused of undermining Israel’s international standing or a premeditated onslaught against civil society?

The campaign against the NIF was conducted by an organization called Im Tirtzu, which describes itself as “an extra-parliamentary movement to strengthen Zionist values” and boasts a video endorsement from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It claimed that 16 NIF grantees — among them Physicians for Human Rights and B’Tselem, human rights organizations active in the Palestinian territories; Breaking the Silence, a group of soldiers reporting on Israeli army violations of moral norms; and ACRI, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel — had provided Goldstone with material contributing to false charges against the Israel Defense Forces in informer-like actions that were tantamount to betrayal in a wartime situation.

“The results of these groups’ activities caused significant diplomatic damage to Israel and harmed the country’s capacity to defend itself militarily,” Im Tirtzu said, adding that NIF was largely to blame because it had funded these “anti-Zionist” organizations.

In late January, young Im Tirtzu members dressed as Hamas fighters demonstrated outside the Jerusalem home of NIF President Naomi Chazan waving placards depicting Chazan with a horn emerging from her forehead. The text on the placard read: “Fact! Without the New Israel Fund there could be no Goldstone Report and Israel would not be facing international accusations of war crimes.”

The horn was a play on words, the Hebrew “keren” meaning both fund and horn, but critics say it also had obvious anti-Semitic connotations that many found offensive.

Im Tirtzu used the image as well in advertisements placed in several Israeli newspapers. The Zionist Organization of America has seconded the criticisms of the NIF.

The New Israel Fund says it knows that many of the minority rights groups it backs in the name of empowering the disenfranchised and fighting discrimination in Israel also take positions that the NIF does not endorse, such as calling for an end to Israel’s Jewish character. NIF officials say that while they do not agree with everything their grantees do or say, revoking their funding would be inimical to NIF’s goal of promoting free speech and strengthening Israel’s minorities.

“They’re using me to attack in the most blatant way the basic principles of democracy and the values of Israel’s declaration of independence; values of equality, tolerance, social justice, and freedom of speech,” Chazan declared.

In dismissing the Im Tirtzu case against the NIF as baseless, Chazan said that the materials the groups allegedly transferred to Goldstone are mostly in the public domain. And even if they were not, it would be the duty of the groups to pass on what they know — that is their raison d’être as human rights groups.

Far from giving succor to Israel’s enemies, the grantees were trying to create a better Israel, Chazan said.

The NIF and its defenders note that its work goes well beyond organizations focusing specifically on Palestinian rights. It also funds civil society groups dealing with a host of domestic Israeli issues, such as providing women’s shelters, supporting Ethiopian immigrants, and challenging the Orthodox monopoly on Jewish religious practice.

Earlier this month, a group of leading Israeli academics, writers, actors, directors, and political activists, including novelists Amos Oz and A.B. Yehoshua, placed a full-page ad in Haaretz expressing “disgust at the campaign of incitement and hatred” being waged against Chazan, the NIF, and the organizations it supports.

Several U.S. Jewish groups on the left side of the political spectrum issued their own statements slamming the anti-NIF campaign on similar grounds. The tenor of the anti-NIF campaign was criticized as well by Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League.

In late January, 13 of the 16 NIF grantees slammed by Im Tirtzu fired off a letter to President Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin complaining that the Im Tirtzu attack on the NIF was part of a larger pattern encouraged by “senior government officials.” In other words, it was more than a one-off campaign by a young, marginal group but part of an anti-democratic trend for which the government was setting the tone.

They gave some examples: Interior Minister Eli Yishai backing claims that organizations that help refugees and asylum-seekers “aim to destroy Israel”; Netanyahu denying the legitimacy of Breaking the Silence testimonies on the Gaza war; Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya’alon referring to Israeli human rights organizations as “enemies from within.”

Others see the specter of an impending clampdown against civil society.

Anat Hoffman, chair of Women of the Wall and director of the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center, an NIF grantee, was questioned and fingerprinted by police in early January after taking part in an all-female prayer session at the Western Wall that involved the use of a Torah. A week later, ACRI director Hagai El-Ad was arrested while monitoring a protest against Jewish settlement in the Arab neighborhood of Sheik Jarrah in eastern Jerusalem and released as soon as the case went to court.

Were these isolated cases of police folly or part of a pattern dictated from above?

There is no hard evidence to suggest that the Netanyahu government is planning to curb civil society or that the police action had the prime minister’s blessing. What is clear is that Netanyahu is deeply concerned by what he calls “Goldstonism” — moves in the international community aimed at delegitimizing Israel.

The prime minister says he sees three existential threats: Iran; a Palestinian state without adequate security arrangements; and rampant Goldstonism. That means that Israeli organizations the government feels contribute to delegitimization of the state could be seen as serious threats to national security. But the government does not seem to be considering operative moves against them.

Moves, however, are afoot in the Knesset. The Law Committee, headed by Yisrael Beiteinu’s David Rotem, whose party has proposed that Israeli citizens take loyalty oaths, has set up a subcommittee to examine the sources of funding of NGOs active in Israel. Some of the committee members aim to ban funding by foreign countries, which is seen as interfering in Israel’s internal affairs. Most of that funding is from European countries for left-wing NGOs.

Otniel Schneller of the Kadima Party wants to go a step further, proposing the establishment of a full-fledged parliamentary commission of inquiry to probe the conduct of the NIF and its grantees. Schneller says he is against the absurdity of Israeli civil society “paying organizations like Physicians for Human Rights to slander us,” and wants to stop the NIF from supporting anti-Zionist groups.

Schneller’s proposal, which he plans to submit next week, has run into stiff opposition from the left and right.

Left-wing Meretz leader Haim Oron asked who would decide who is a Zionist or what are Israel’s best interests. Schneller, he suggested, should fight the left-wing organizations with counter arguments rather than trying to cut off their funding.

On the right, the Likud’s Michael Eitan argued that parliamentary commissions of inquiry are established on non-political issues, such as corruption in soccer or water prices.

“It is unheard of for the majority in the Knesset to investigate the minority,” he fumed.

Eitan’s stand has the support of others in the Likud, like Rivlin and Minister without Portfolio Benny Begin, and it is not clear whether Schneller can muster a majority for his proposal.

Meanwhile, Im Tirtzu’s funding also has attracted scrutiny in recent days.

Liberal organizations and bloggers have been reporting that Im Tirtzu has received money from the Central Fund of Israel, a U.S.-based nonprofit that has also supported pro-settler organizations and a group that aids militant Israeli Jews accused of carrying out violence. They also note that Im Tirtzu reportedly has received $200,000 over the past two years from John Hagee, an evangelical pastor in San Antonio, Texas, who is staunchly pro-Israel but came under fire for having declared in a sermon that God allowed the Holocaust to happen as part of a plan to bring Jews to Israel.

Hagee has expressed regret for the upset caused by his remarks and promised to be more sensitive in the future. A spokesman for the pastor criticized the tenor of Im Tirtzu’s campaign against NIF.

Meanwhile the debate goes on, with each side seeking to claim the mantle of preserving Israel’s fundamental nature.

“Today the question is not whether Israel survives, but what kind of Israel survives,” said Daniel Sokatch, the NIF’s chief executive officer.

Im Tirtzu leader Ronen Shova countered that “The debate is not about left or right. The new debate is between Zionists and non-Zionists.”

JTA

 
 

With school controversy, secular-haredi tensions reach boiling point

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Haredi children protest opposite the Ramle prison, where a group of haredi parents were jailed June 18 for defying a court order to send their daughters to a school in Emanuel. Yossi Zeliger/Flash 90/JTA

The showdown between Israel’s Supreme Court and the parents of students at a haredi Orthodox school found guilty of discriminatory practices against Sephardic girls has brought already strained secular-religious relations in Israel to a fever pitch.

A remark by Supreme Court Justice Edmond Levy that the court’s decisions are not subject to rabbinical approval went straight to the heart of the matter, with irate haredi demonstrators declaring that if they had to choose between the court and their rabbis, the rabbis always would come first.

The fundamental argument over whether the courts or the rabbis have the ultimate authority reflects a long-standing clash between Theodor Herzl’s vision of a secular democratic state for the Jews and haredi notions of a Jewish state subject to rabbinical law.

For secular Israelis, impugning the authority of the courts means anarchy. For the haredim, overriding rabbinical rulings means perverting God’s will. At issue is a test of the capacity of the Zionist, secular state to impose its will on a large group of haredim who often are derisive of its democratic, secular institutions.

The latest angry confrontation between the state and the haredim began with a ruling by the Israeli Supreme Court in April ordering a school run by Ashkenazi Slonim chasidim in the west bank settlement of Emanuel to stop excluding Sephardic girls from their regular classes.

In the state’s view, the practice constituted a form of intolerable segregation and violated basic principles of equality and human dignity. The offending Beit Yaakov school agreed to more mixed classes.

But rather than comply, the Ashkenazi parents started their own school next door. They argued that the segregation wasn’t ethnic but religious. The Sephardic girls, they said, came from homes less strictly observant than their Ashkenazi daughters — for example, homes with television sets and Internet connections — and they didn’t want their daughters influenced by those who were less religious. They said Sephardic girls were welcome at the Ashkenazi-dominated school if they met the standards for stricter religious observance.

The court ordered the parents to send their children back to Beit Yaakov or face fines. The parents ignored the court order and didn’t pay the fines. The court found them guilty of contempt and ordered that they be sent to jail for an initial two-week period to reconsider their position.

Amid defiant singing and dancing, 35 of the 38 fathers went to jail last week. The mothers failed to report for their prison terms on the grounds that they needed to be home to look after their younger children.

There are conflicting accounts over what caused the brouhaha and what it means.

The Slonim chasidim say that in a true democracy, they should have the right to educate their children in any way they please. They say the Israeli state, like the Romans and Greeks before them, is interfering in matters of religious principle. Just like their ancestors, they say, they’d rather face punishment than compromise their religious beliefs. In the chasidic account, the parents’ going to jail was presented as a form of martyrdom, showing up the inhumanity, lack of values, and wanton persecution of the haredi Orthodox by the secular Israeli state.

Secular Israelis see things quite differently. Many regard the Emanuel school case as a reflection of a much wider phenomenon, that of the haredim milking the state for funds without accepting its authority or performing the ultimate duty of Israeli citizenship: army service.

Haredi schools are largely state-funded but do not teach the country’s core curriculum. The secular press in Israel has been inundated with articles blasting the haredim for defying the state’s authority while tapping into its budgets for health, education, and welfare. Nowhere else in the world would haredi Jews have the temerity to behave this way, the secularists say; nowhere else would they defy state law or mock the Supreme Court.

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Before a father’s incarceration for defying a court order to send his daughter to a school in Emanuel, he tries to console his crying child. Abir Sultan/Flash90 /JTA

Many see the standoff as a test of strength the liberal democratic state cannot afford to lose.

“Don’t give in to Emanuel,” the liberal daily Haaretz exhorted in an editorial.

“We must not surrender,” echoed journalist Yair Lapid, who reportedly is on the brink of launching an anti-clerical successor party to Shinui, the party once led by his late father, Yosef “Tommy” Lapid.

The Orthodox-Sephardic Shas Party was more ambivalent. Shas was created in the mid-1980s to combat Ashkenazi discrimination against Sephardim, so it might have been expected to take up the cause of the Sephardic students and families. But to do so would have seemed like siding with the Supreme Court, which is anathema for Shas. Its spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, resolved the dilemma by coming out against discrimination, but more strongly against taking the case to the Supreme Court.

“Anyone who appeals to the secular courts will have no share in the world to come,” Yosef declared.

Other recent rulings by the Supreme Court have compounded the strains between the haredim and the state, as well as a string of violent clashes between haredi demonstrators and police. In mid-June, the Supreme Court ruled against state stipends for married yeshiva students on the grounds that similar stipends for married university students were abolished in 2000. A seven-member panel ruled that this constituted a violation of the principle of equality in the distribution of public funds. Either all married students should get the stipend or none, the court ruled.

Shas leader Eli Yishai has vowed to introduce legislation to overrule the Supreme Court decision.

The ruling was seen as a major blow to the haredim, many of whom choose to study Torah rather than work for a living. This exempts them from mandatory army service.

The haredim also clashed recently with police during demonstrations against building on sites where ancient bones are believed to be buried. These often violent protests were led by a small radical group in the haredi camp known as the Atra Kadisha. In May there were clashes over the removal of bones — believed to be pagan — from the site of a new rocket-proof emergency room at Barzilai Hospital in Ashkelon; in June there were protests in Jaffa over bones at the construction site of a boutique hotel.

For its part, the Israel Defense Forces is considering launching a new plan that would allow more yeshiva students to enlist and more yet to join the labor force. At present, yeshiva students must remain in school until middle age in order to stay out of the army.

Meanwhile, with the basis of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government a strategic alliance between Likud and Shas, government ministers have had very little to say on the Emanuel school brouhaha for fear of upsetting their haredi coalition partners. But it also means that Shas is unlikely to do anything that could topple the government.

If tensions remain high, it could strengthen secular parties in the Knesset willing to take a stand against the haredim. That’s what happened in 2003, when Shinui won 15 seats. But three years later it lost the seats when members defected to other parties.

Whether the current haredi-secular tensions will translate into a political shift, and whether that could be sustained, remains to be seen.

JTA

 
 

Opposition to Israeli conversion bill mounts

WASHINGTON – Opposition to a proposed Israeli conversion bill is mounting, from the U.S. Congress to the Israeli prime minister.

Meanwhile, the bill is likely to be put on hold while the Knesset adjourns this week for a two-month recess.

The controversy over the bill erupted last week when its main sponsor, David Rotem of the Yisrael Beiteinu Party, unexpectedly put it to a committee vote. The measure passed by a 5-4 margin, sending it to the full Knesset.

Meant to give would-be converts more leeway in choosing where and how to convert in Israel, the bill also would consolidate control over conversions under the office of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate. Non-Orthodox diaspora Jewish movements and the leadership of the Jewish Federations of North America and Jewish Agency for Israel all have warned that non-Orthodox converts would be put at risk of being disqualified as Jews by the Orthodox-dominated Chief Rabbinate.

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Sen. Ron Wyden, left, is asking Jewish Senate colleagues to sign a letter opposing an Israeli conversion bill. Sen. Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, right, has agreed to sign the letter. Office of Sen. Ron Wyden/Office of Sen. Frank Lautenburg

In recent days, a Jewish U.S. senator unhappy about the bill, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), began circulating a letter asking fellow lawmakers to join him in condemning the controversial Israeli measure. Wyden’s letter is circulating among the Senate’s 13 Jewish lawmakers for more signatures before it is delivered to Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren.

Meanwhile, in Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he opposes the bill in its current form. The bill “could tear apart the Jewish people,” Netanyahu told his cabinet on Sunday.

Following its passage last week by the Knesset’s Law, Constitution, and Justice Committee, the bill must pass three readings in the Knesset for it to become law. The prime minister said he would try to remove the bill by consensus, but if that fails he will ask members of his Likud Party and other coalition members to oppose it in the Knesset. With the Knesset on the cusp of a long recess, the bill is unlikely to come up for another vote until the fall.

Rotem says the bill aims to simplify the conversion process, empowering local Israeli community rabbis to perform conversions and thereby make it easier for Israelis to convert — including those who don’t intend to adhere to Orthodox observance. But in giving the Chief Rabbinate ultimate authority over conversions, the bill puts non-Orthodox converts at risk and may make it more difficult for non-Orthodox converts to make aliyah, critics in the diaspora warn.

Rotem says the bill should not concern diaspora Jews.

“It has nothing to do with Jews in the diaspora,” Rotem told JTA last week. “It is only an Israeli matter.”

Shas Party Chairman Eli Yishai, a member of Netanyahu’s coalition government, said he supports the bill.

“The absence of a conversion law is the greatest spiritual danger for the people of Israel at this time,” he told Ynet.

In the United States, the Rabbinical Council of America, an Orthodox organization, said that “While the legislation in question may not be perfect, we who live in North America must recognize that it does contain much to commend it.”

The RCA called on diaspora Jews not to interfere with the internal Israeli legislation, noting, incorrectly, that “North American Jews have long embraced the principle that the duly elected leadership of the State of Israel should not be subject to outside interference or pressure by other governments, religious bodies, or communal entities.”

The chorus of American voices against the bill is growing, particularly in the Conservative and Reform movements, whose members make up most of American Jewry but have only a small presence in Israel. Opponents are concerned by the bill’s clause that converts will be recognized as Jews only if they “accepted the Torah and the commandments in accordance with halacha,” which could exclude some converts from being eligible to obtain Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return because they would not be considered Jews by Israel.

Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, wrote an open letter to Netanyahu explaining why the bill will divide the Jewish community.

“The way to really ‘solve this problem’ is to have options for multiple streams and for the indigenous Israeli expressions that will only flower in a non-coercive system,” she wrote.

The Jewish Federations of North America said it supports the U.S. Senate letter opposing the Israeli bill.

“We welcome any expression of commitment from influential Jews to maintain the unity of the Jewish people and the dangers posed by this divisive legislation,” said William Daroff, vice president for public policy and director of JFNA’s Washington office.

In Washington, U.S. Sens. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and Carl Levin (D-Mich.) have signed the Wyden letter.

“I am troubled by a proposal which I believe would make it more difficult for many people who want to convert to Judaism to do so,” Levin told JTA.

The letter’s text has not been made public.

Jewish members of the U.S. House of Representatives also have expressed support for Wyden’s letter. Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), chairwoman of the State and Foreign Operations subcommittee that oversees the State Department and international programs, left a message for Netanyahu and spoke directly to Oren to voice her objection to the bill.

“Congresswoman Lowey believes Israel should continue to be a welcoming place for Jews, as it has been through its history,” said Matthew Dennis, Lowey’s spokesman. “She is concerned that this bill would alienate Jews around the world and risks weakening the sense of unity within the diaspora that is critical to Israel’s security.”

JTA

 
 
 
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