New New Israel Fund augments aid to Israeli Arabs

An ominous staccato caused the walls to tremble as the helicopter gunships cruised — quite literally — a stone's throw above the Israeli offices of the New Israel Fund en route to riots in Bethlehem.

While the nonprofit's walls were shaken, its commitment to coexistence was not.

"Our Israeli director was saying she felt like she was in the middle of a war. I think that's a phrase that's been used with some regularity by my Israeli friends and colleagues in recent weeks," said Norman Rosenberg, the NIF's Washington, D.C-based executive director since 1990.

During a recent trip to Israel, "I felt a very significant malaise, a feeling of sadness and intense frustration at not being able to predict or project a scenario to end the violence soon. This is one of the few moments in recent years when there really aren't a lot of hopeful signs."

The past six months have also been sad and frustrating for the NIF. The progressive 22-year-old organization, which was founded in the Bay Area, has worked from the beginning to promote understanding between Israel's Jews and its 1 million Arab citizens.

During a recent fund-raising tour of the Bay Area, Rosenberg called Israeli Arab rioting and violence "a wake-up call," and said now more than ever, Israel must work toward providing equal rights to all of its citizens.

"We believe deeply in the rights of Israeli Arabs…This population is feeling intense anger. Discrimination exists beyond question — [Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon acknowledged it, just as [Ehud] Barak did before him and [Benjamin] Netanyahu and [Yitzhak] Rabin before. Since [Yitzhak] Shamir, Israeli prime ministers have acknowledged the extent of the discrimination against Israeli Arabs."

Though dozens of pledges have been made to curb the unfairness, Rosenberg said, "the Israeli Arabs are saying, 'You've got to make due on that promise.' I think we need to provide fairness to every population group in the country. Israeli security interests require that we do better on behalf of Israeli Arabs. This is more important now; the violence that occurred showed the extent to which anger has permeated the community."

As the hallmark of what Rosenberg calls "The new New Israel Fund," the organization will be devoting even more time and money to Israeli Arab affairs. Via emergency grants, already existing programs and lobbying, the NIF is targeting the improvement of Israeli Arab schools, the funding of democratic leadership projects and the official acknowledgment of "unrecognized" Arab villages.

"Probably 75,000 to 80,000 people live in these villages, which never receive official governmental recognition as legal entities. Consequently, they're denied assistance with sewers, water, roads or schools," said Rosenberg. "If an Arab in one of these villages wants to build a house, the only way he may be able to do it is illegally. It may be subject to a demolition order since the village is not legally recognized. I think this is a humiliation for Arabs, not productive for Jewish-Arab relations and hardly serves any legitimate purpose. We seek recognition for Arabs who've been residing in these villages for 52 years and generations before that."

Rosenberg hopes that desperate times may result in greater governmental aid to Israeli Arabs, even under a conservative government.

"Prime Minister Sharon has four bills he's trying to get through the Knesset that would provide major assistance to Israeli Arabs in education, housing and other areas," he said. "With Sharon, many people thought he wouldn't care, and certainly wouldn't put this population at the head of the queue in distribution of resources. But, clearly, he's taking [the rioting that] happened in October seriously and seeing the need to provide justice here."

The NIF has narrowed its focus in the last year to human rights, economic imbalances and pluralism.

Addressing the widening chasm between Israel's rich and poor, the NIF is targeting dot-com executives to help fund educational reforms. NIF programs in 120 schools, in cooperation with the Ministry of Education, aim to improve basic literacy, Hebrew and math skills in addition to imparting civil rights education.

Hoping to bring together both American and Israeli venture capitalists with an interest in improving the Israeli educational system, Rosenberg is launching a "venture network" in June, to be chaired by 3com CEO Eric Benhamou, the man behind the Palm Pilot. Rosenberg expects the network to raise between $1 million and $2 million this year.

The NIF is actually ahead of last year's fund-raising totals.

"Our major donors and most loyal donors are still giving readily to the cause — we've had a couple of large grants of $200,000 or $250,000 on behalf of Israeli Arabs," he said, estimating that 85 percent of the NIF's funds come from the top 10 percent of its donors.

"But our lower-dollar donors, who we generally reach through the mail, have been less responsive. There's a perception that Israel is in crisis right now, and when you talk about the problems of Arabs' rights or women's rights or Ethiopian rights, sometimes people don't hear that."

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.