At 20, New Israel Fund heads down different roads

As New Israel Fund marks its 20th anniversary, its leaders find themselves unwrapping new issues such as Israeli Arab anger, Russian emigre separatism and the gap between Israel's rich and poor.

Such issues are "central to the complexities that Israel is going to have to address in the next couple of years," Norman Rosenberg, executive director of the progressive philanthropy, said last month.

The growing anger among Israeli Arabs is one of the emerging, hot-button issues that his organization will focus on.

"They are feeling much more frustrated about what they haven't gotten," Rosenberg said in a phone interview from Washington, D.C., before attending the regional chapter's annual dinner in October at San Francisco's Fairmont Hotel.

"We need to figure out how that can be expressed in an appropriate way. We have to focus our effort on how we can be more a part of the solution."

The New Israel Fund, based in Washington, has been taking on such issues ever since Jonathan Cohen and Eleanor Friedman started it in the Bay Area 20 years ago.

It has grown significantly since then, raising $19 million last year and spreading much of those funds to grassroots groups and non-governmental organizations in Israel.

Last year, it granted more than $12.5 million to 125 organizations directly and about 350 indirectly in such areas as Arab-Jewish relations, women's advancement, religious pluralism, and human and civil rights advocacy within Israel. Another $3.1 million went toward educational programming outside of Israel.

In conjunction with its 20th anniversary, the fund is studying its operations in the United States and its direction in Israel.

The fund is just beginning to work with Israel's Russian emigres, whose population is quickly approaching 1 million. Instead of blending into Israeli society, however, Russian Israelis are forming their own, separate society.

The New Israel Fund wants to help them better integrate into their new country.

"They consider themselves to be culturally and intellectually superior to Israelis, and there is no mingling. They are largely right wing and have their own media and haven't been integrated into the democratic mainstream," Rosenberg said. "We don't want to have two societies in that country. We want to prevent that from happening."

Rosenberg doesn't want to get into the blame game. He just wants to see a grassroots push to deal with the problem.

"Maybe it was an inappropriate fantasy 50 years ago, but Israel is not turning out to be a melting pot" for Jews, he lamented.

The other big issue on the horizon in Israel, he said, is a "greater than ever" gap between the rich and poor.

"It's a country with increasingly significant wealth…with a gross domestic product that rivals England," he said. "But increasingly the wealth is in the hands of a very small number of people. There is a growing structural underclass."

The life that the poorer people live is "a threat to the social fabric of the country." As a result, Rosenberg wants to fund groups that work to remedy the situation.

"The gap was among the smallest in the world 25 years ago. Israel had a dream that motivated its creation and the ways of thinking about the country, and that's all being challenged now," he said.

"People are looking at the Judean hillside and not thinking about the beauty, but where the next mall can be built, where the next McDonald's can be put."

American Jews generally don't learn about these topics, he said. During an earlier visit here, "I talked to people in California and they didn't even know that there was a problem with these issues."

That doesn't mean Californians aren't contributing to his cause. About 1,100 Bay Area residents made donations to the New Israel Fund last year, accounting for about $1.36 million.

Overall, the fund is heading toward another record year for donations. It now has a donor base of more than 20,000, an increase of about 125 percent over the past four years. Donations may even surpass $20 million this year, Rosenberg said.

Contributions may reach a new high, but this apparently has little to do with the election of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and the improved pace of the peace process.

"The consequences have been relatively insignificant. The financial health of this institution does not appear to be affected by the Barak election."

Generally, New Israel Fund leaders are thrilled that Barak is in power and with his stated commitment to building an inclusive Israel with equal rights and opportunity for all citizens, Rosenberg said.

Translating that vision into a reality is where the fund comes in.

"Our work goes on no matter who wins the election," he said. "We're not looking to build alliances and become insiders. That's our job — to be outsiders and to advocate for people who otherwise lack access to the political process and means to air their grievances."

Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr was J.’s managing editor and Hardly Strictly Bagels columnist until he retired in 2016 to travel and live abroad. He and his wife have a home base in Mexico, where he continues his dalliance with Jewish journalism.