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NIF fracas: Defending Israel or destroying democracy?

Im Tirtzu founders say their fight is against anti-Zionists

Ben HarrisWorld
Published: 12 February 2010

For more than three years Ronen Shoval and Erez Tadmor, classmates at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, have been building Im Tirtzu into a nationwide student network with chapters at nine Israeli universities.

But it wasn’t until last week, when the group ran an advertisement in several Israeli papers claiming that the much-maligned Goldstone report on Israel’s conduct of the Gaza war last winter would have been impossible without the contributions of Israeli NGOs supported by the New Israel Fund, that the pair found themselves in the international spotlight.

Tadmor and Shoval describe themselves as bookish, entrepreneurial types who have identified a gap in the Israeli psyche.

“All my life, when my friends went to parties, I read Jabotinsky and Herzl,” Tadmor said. “This is my character, my nature.”

The controversy over the attacks against NIF has thrust Im Tirtzu into a long-simmering dispute over where criticism of the Jewish state crosses the line into treason and anti-Zionism, while making the organization vulnerable to charges it is merely part of a wider effort to intimidate and silence the Israeli left and its American Jewish backers.

On the latter point, Shoval and Tadmor, both 29, make no apologies. They say that some on the left end of the political spectrum have lost their commitment to the idea of a Jewish state.

NIF’s defenders have sought to portray the duo as ideologues advancing a right-wing political agenda, but both say that Im Tirtzu is a centrist organization aimed at boosting Zionist ideals across the political spectrum.

Tadmor volunteers for the Likud Party and once worked as a reporter for a nationalist newspaper. Im Tirtzu has previously received funding from John Hagee Ministries and supporters of the settlement movement. And both founders profess admiration for Vladimir Jabotinsky, the ideological father of the movement that espoused the concept of Greater Israel extending into what is now Jordan and eventually produced the Likud Party.

Shoval insists that Im Tirtzu has nothing to do with the tug of war between left and right nor the fight over land captured by Israel in 1967.

“We are fighting about the identity of the state,” he said, adding, “You can be a very good Zionist and say we must leave almost all the territories. And you can be a good Zionist and say we must stay in all the territories.”

In their bid to spark what they describe as a second Zionist revolution, the pair has demonstrated a willingness to play rough (see opposite page), but also to play for laughs (in a satirical YouTube video) and merchandising revenue (want a Herzl, Ben-Gurion, or Begin T-shirt?).

Shoval, a high-tech executive, is cagey about his future plans, a subject of speculation in the wake of the NIF incident. While he won’t rule out a future in politics, he maintains the moment is not yet ripe.

JTA

 
 

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

 
 

J Street’s wrong turn

 

With friends like these…

_JStandardColumns
Published: 02 September 2010
 
 

New Pollard clemency campaign

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A new campaign to free Jonathan Pollard, shown with his wife Esther, is being seen as generating more momentum on the issue than any campaign on his behalf in recent years. JonathanPollard.com

NEW YORK – A new campaign for clemency for convicted spy Jonathan Pollard has racked up a series of big name politicos in the last few weeks: former Vice President Dan Quayle, former U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter and Chicago Rabbi Capers Funnye, a cousin of first lady Michelle Obama.

The recent successes can be traced not to Washington lobbyists or a New York boardroom, but to a small team of four activists whose doggedness, rather than political connections, has yielded results.

The four men, spread across America, have managed to generate more momentum on the Pollard issue — or at least more expressions of support for clemency from public figures — than any public campaign in recent years.

Foremost among the activists is David Nyer, a 25-year-old Orthodox social worker from Monsey, N.Y.

Nyer was the force behind a letter last November to President Obama from 39 congressional Democrats urging the president to grant clemency to Pollard, a civilian U.S. Navy analyst who received a life sentence in 1987 for spying for Israel.

Over the past few months, Nyer successfully elicited letters calling for Pollard’s release from Quayle, former U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey, former Assistant Secretary of Defense Lawrence Korb, and President Reagan’s secretary of state, George Shultz. Korb went so far as to persuade Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to formally call for Pollard’s release, which Nyer says is a key gain in the effort to free Pollard.

“It’s not really hard,” Nyer said of his ability to get powerful or once-powerful officials on the phone. “I myself was very surprised by all of this. I guess that’s the great thing about living in a democracy. The average citizen can reach a former vice president.”

Along with Nyer, the team includes University of Baltimore law Prof. Kenneth Lasson, Phoenix attorney Farley Weiss, and Rabbi Pesach Lerner, a longtime Pollard advocate and executive vice president of the National Council of Young Israel. Weiss is a second vice president of the council and the president of a Young Israel synagogue in Arizona, as well as a national vice president of the Zionist Organization of America.

The four activists say they are in regular contact, bouncing around ideas and names of prominent individuals to solicit for support.

Lasson has a long track record of involvement with Pollard, having written more than a dozen articles in the past two decades calling for his release. Weiss, a trademark attorney, has a history of activism on issues related to Israel. Weiss was instrumental in reversing the views of former Arizona Sen. Dennis DeConcini, who long had opposed Pollard’s release.

Lerner has tended to Pollard’s spiritual needs, acting as his rabbi and paying him visits at the federal prison in Butner, N.C.

It is Nyer, however, who has done much of the legwork in recent months.

His start on the Pollard case came in graduate school, when Carlos Salinas, a former Amnesty International official, presented a lecture at the school and Nyer pushed Salinas to review the case. Salinas went on to join 500 signatories, most of them clergymen, in a separate letter to Obama on Pollard’s behalf.

Among the letter’s signatories were Pastor John Hagee, the Texas minister who founded Christians United for Israel, and Gary Bauer, a former Reagan administration official and now president of the conservative nonprofit American Values.

Nyer and company have been strategic in picking their targets.

They have recruited former officials who, like DeConcini, the former chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, had access to classified material and can speak authoritatively on the appropriateness of Pollard’s sentence. The biggest score on that front was James Woolsey, the former Central Intelligence Agency director, who called on Obama in January to release Pollard.

DeConcini was a longtime opponent of clemency for Pollard, but he told JTA that he changed his mind at the repeated urging of his finance chairman, the late Earl Katz. He wrote to both Obama and former President George W. Bush on Pollard’s behalf at the behest of Weiss, whose credibility Katz had vouched for.

“He has been on my case for a couple of years,” DeConcini said of Weiss.

The group also has targeted those with particular influence on Obama, such as Harvard law Prof. Charles Ogletree, a mentor to the president, who wrote to the White House in January. Several sources said the group is seeking support from others who are personally close to the president.

The activists hope that all the letter writing will give Obama the political cover he needs to take the potentially controversial step of freeing the spy. The fight for Pollard’s release typically has been spearheaded by the pro-Israel right wing in America, but the congressional letter was signed entirely by Democrats.

Nyer suggested that a pardon could boost Obama’s standing with American Jews and Israelis in advance of the 2012 election.

“The first thing we wanted to do was to create a political climate which would be easy to grant clemency,” Nyer said. “It would be very easy for Obama to do it. He has all the cover.”

Neither Nyer, Weiss, nor Lasson was eager to speak about his efforts on Pollard’s behalf. They each said that the injustice of the case speaks for itself.

Pollard has served 25 years of a life sentence for passing classified materials to Israel — a longer sentence than anyone else convicted of espionage on behalf of a U.S. ally.

While the activists would prefer that their names stay out of the media glare, they say their efforts have raised hopes that Pollard’s life sentence might soon be commuted.

“In 25 years,” Lasson told JTA, “I’ve never seen this degree of momentum or widespread support from both within and outside the Jewish community, both nationally and internationally.”

JTA Wire Service

 
 

Glenn Beck’s outreach expresses dangerous themes of Christian Zionism

 
 
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