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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

 
 

My Father’s Coat and Hat

How the book became…

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Carol A. Shulter designed the cover for this book, which grew out of a class at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades.

“Recording Jewish Lives,” an anthology just published by the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades, grew out of a memoir-writing class there led from 2006 to 2009 by novelist, playwright, and biographer Susan Dworkin.

“People stayed in the class over time and worked very hard,” Dworkin said in a telephone interview last week. She said, for example, of Sarah Gottesman Lubin, who died in 2007 at 73 and to whom the book is dedicated, “she got closer and closer to the truth of her heart.” (Lubin lived in Englewood, and her family recently established a scholarship in her memory at Columbia University as well as the Sarah Gottesman Lubin Program for Arts & Crafts at the JCC.)

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Members of the first “Recording Jewish Lives” class are, back row from left, Dorothy Kershenblatt-Silverstein, Sarah Gottesman Lubin, Rochelle Lazarus, and teacher Susan Dworkin. Agnes Guttmann Dauerman, left, and Harriet Wallenstein are in the front row. Not pictured are Carol Carmel and Irene Ross, who joined the class in its second year.

Dworkin is the author, most recently, of “The Viking in the Wheat Field: A Scientist’s Struggle to Preserve the World’s Harvest” (Walker-Bloomsbury) and of a play to be performed at New York’s Fringe Festival in August. She said of the class that she “could see the way people developed their own voices as they got more confidence. It’s really great to see a writer develop.”

She had some suggestions for people who want to write memoirs.

First, “don’t work alone but join either a class or a writer’s group — the chevra is very important. You learn from listening to what other people do and you develop a trust in yourself from sharing what you’ve written and rewritten and having them share [their work] with you.”

Second, “read a lot of autobiographies” — and works with autobiographical elements — “by Proust, Gorky, Amos Oz, and Kate Simon. Proust is very important even though he’s hard,” she said, “because he really had his finger on the way to tell your story.”

Finally, “always read the best stuff.” That gives you “a real shot at illuminating your own work. If you’re going to read show-biz biographies that were ghosted by three different people, that’s not going to get you anywhere. But if you read one page of Proust or one chapter of Kate Simon’s ‘Bronx Primitive,’ it’s sustenance for a year.”

For more information about the anthology, e-mail .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

 
 

Scott Berrie in Israel to make film about Jerusalem

Film will show ‘the human aspect’ of the city

Filmmaker Scott Berrie was a little wary about transplanting his family to Israel for a year. A proud secular Zionist and son of the late toy magnate and philanthropist Russell Berrie, the Englewood native nevertheless imagined that religious confrontation and Jewish-Arab violence might mar the experience.

But he need not have worried. “I have found it to be spectacular and beautiful here,” said Berrie, who arrived in mid-July. “We are experiencing history, culture, and diversity here. We are hearing a million different languages all the time.”

While his wife and three children settled into the rhythm of life in their temporary surroundings in Jerusalem’s Talbieh neighborhood, he began laying the groundwork for the next film in Emmanuel Benbihy’s “Cities of Love” series. His company, Impulse Creative Productions LLC, is licensed to produce “Jerusalem I Love You.”

Berrie is hopeful that this full feature-length film, due for release in the spring of 2012, will put a new spin on the holy city for viewers across the world, just as his time here has proven unexpectedly delightful. It will present a montage of scripted short stories about falling in love in Jerusalem.

“This film will provide an opportunity to tell a different story about love and hope and possibilities — the human aspect of Jerusalem instead of the headlines — from multiple points of view,” Berrie said. “We hope to create something beautiful and touching and meaningful.”

Soon to turn 45, Berrie spent his first year of life in Fort Lee before his family relocated to Eastwood Court in Englewood. When he was 6, they moved a few blocks away to Mountain Road, where his mother continued to live after she and the elder Berrie divorced.

“When Scott finished college, I expected him to work for his father, and instead he went to serve in the Israeli army,” said Kathy Berrie, a Moroccan Jew who described her three grown children as “very big Zionists.” She looks forward to joining Scott’s family in Israel later this year for his oldest child’s bar mitzvah.

Berrie vividly recalls his mother crying on her way to Yom Kippur services at Tenafly’s Temple Sinai in 1973. War had just broken out, and she was worried about her brother, who had made aliyah the previous year, and her mother, who was visiting him.

After attending the University of Colorado in Boulder, Berrie spent a few months tending fish ponds on a kibbutz near Haifa. He returned to join his father’s New Jersey-based business and philanthropic Russell Berrie Foundation, of which he remains an active trustee. He made aliyah in 1989 and served for a year in a combat engineering unit (“I dealt in explosives and all that stuff”). As Scud missiles fell during first gulf war, he was translating news stories and setting up interviews for ABC News.

Berrie returned to the States, where he earned two master’s degrees, in Middle Eastern studies at Columbia University and in business from New York University. Eager to meld his interests in social justice and entrepreneurship, in 1999 he co-founded a venture devoted to designing and distributing fashionable and affordable reading glasses worldwide. He sold his share in the venture and turned to independent movie production in 2008.

“Film is an incredible method for conveying the complexity of human emotions,” he said. Impulse Creative Productions allows him “to be committed to public service as well as the bottom line.”

“Jerusalem I Love You” presented a welcome opportunity for Berrie and his wife, Patricia, to take their three kids abroad for a year. “I loved the business world, but I always longed to come back to Israel with my children,” he said.

Backed by private investors and a grant from the Jerusalem Film and Television Fund — the first ever awarded to an international production — Berrie has signed up an A-list cast of Israeli talent, and has invited American and European directors to join them.

His production partner is David Silber, producer of the Oscar-nominated “Beaufort” (2007) and Venice Film Festival award-winning “Lebanon” (2009). One segment will be directed by Joseph Cedar (“Beaufort”), and prominent novelist/screenwriter Etgar Keret is to contribute an original story.

Also on board are the authors Meir Shalev and Amos Oz, as well as prominent Israeli-Arab journalist/television writer Sayed Kashua. Berrie is in negotiations with Hagai Levi, creator and director of the Israeli TV series that inspired HBO’s “In Treatment,” and Ari Folman, writer/director of the Oscar-nominated 2008 animated documentary “Waltz with Bashir.”

“We’re asking all the directors to write their own short stories or work with stories from different writers,” said Berrie.

His wife is on sabbatical from her job as a news producer for WNYC radio, and the kids are doing well in public school, still perfecting the Hebrew that their father speaks fluently.

Rather than religious tension, the Berries have experienced warm acceptance among “a very special group of people who have invited us into their homes for holidays and Shabbat.”

Berrie enjoys biking, hiking, and Sunday night softball with a cadre of English-speaking Jerusalemites. “They’re all smart and fun to be with, world experts in this or that. This is an amazing, stimulating environment to be in, with fewer distractions than in Manhattan.”

Mayor Nir Barkat is among fans eagerly awaiting the movie’s debut. In addition to its hoped-for positive impact on the city’s economy, “Jerusalem I Love You” could be a fine homage to the city.

“We can portray Jerusalem in all its beauty to the world,” said Berrie. “I hope it will make the Jewish community around the world proud and that it will make people want to come and visit.”

 
 
 
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