After Smithsonian flap, NIF launches own Israel 50th

After pressure from some American Jewish groups and under threats of congressional hearings, the Smithsonian Institution canceled in January a series proposed by the New Israel Fund.

Opponents, including groups as diverse as Americans for a Safe Israel and B'nai B'rith, attacked the speaker series as biased and anti-Israel.

Now the NIF, which gives money to Israeli groups that promote civil rights and social change, has developed its own, amended three-part plan called "Israel at Fifty: Yesterday's Dreams, Today's Challenges."

"Given all the anguish that co-sponsorship entailed when we did it at the Smithsonian, we decided it would be more comfortable to do it on our own," said Gil Kulick, NIF's director of communications.

As part of the program, the fund is launching a revised and expanded lecture series that will include programs in several North American cities — including San Francisco in June.

Among the speakers scheduled are Dennis Ross, the U.S. special Middle East coordinator, columnist Thomas Friedman of the New York Times and Yisrael Harel, a leader of the West Bank settlers' movement.

Other lectures in the series focus on the peace process, religious pluralism, Israeli Arabs and women's issues.

As part of its commemoration, NIF has launched a campaign in Israel and the United States to reaffirm Israel's founding principles.

In Israel, the NIF, in conjunction with the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot, launched a program last month for Israelis to sign a document recommitting to the Jewish state's founding principles as expressed in its Declaration of Independence. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Labor Party leader Ehud Barak were the among the first signatories.

After the Smithsonian debacle, the NIF also decided to encourage North Americans Jews to express solidarity with those principles.

This campaign was launched last Friday when Israel's ambassador to the United States, Eliahu Ben-Elissar, signed a replica of Israel's Declaration of Independence at the Israeli Embassy in Washington.

The purpose of the program "is to make people aware that there are problems in Israel and that people should be using Israel at 50 not as a celebration, but as a time of reflection," Kulick said .

Herb Zweibon, executive director of Americans for a Safe Israel, said he was pleased to see that the lecture series was "a little more even-handed."

But he added that he disapproved of what he called the group's "bottom line" of "shining a light in all the dark places of Israeli society."

"At a time when we need unity, they're being divisive," said Zweibon.

The NIF's executive director, Norman Rosenberg, said the group had learned many lessons from the Smithsonian experience.

"One of the lessons is that there is a small and vocal right-wing element in the American Jewish community that shapes the agenda of American Jewish life," he said.