25 years later, NIF still promoting democracy, pluralism in Israel

Portola Valley physician Gerry Sarnat didn’t expect his first New Israel Fund international board meeting would be so remarkable.

Sarnat, who recently joined the international board, was in Jerusalem this summer when Eliezer Ya’ari, the Israeli executive director of NIF, interrupted the meeting to take a phone call.

A New York Times reporter was on the phone, and informed Ya’ari that the Israeli Supreme Court had just decided that Israel had to reroute some 18 miles of its security barrier because it was causing undue hardship on the Palestinians. Would he care to comment?

“For a first board meeting, what are the odds of this?” Sarnat remarked. “When one of your most important accomplishments has been achieved and we could celebrate it together?”

Sarnat was referring to the fact that NIF, an international organization with Bay Area roots, played a decisive role in the Supreme Court’s decision. Though NIF supports Israel’s right to build the security barrier, the organization’s leadership did not support its route.

Since the area’s terrain is so mountainous, a three-dimensional model was needed to fully demonstrate to the justices the potential human rights violations the barrier could have.

So NIF, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, made an emergency grant to Bimkom, Planners for Planning Rights, an Israeli group that does pro bono architectural work for disadvantaged communities, to create such a model.

NIF made another emergency grant to the Council for Peace and Security, a group of senior generals in the Israel Defense Forces and police, who argued for an alternative path of the barrier.

And last, but not least, the case — filed by residents of the Palestinian village of Beit Souriq, along with 30 residents of the Jewish neighborhood of Mevasseret Zion — was argued by Mohammed Dahleh, a graduate of NIF’s Israel-U.S. Civil Liberties Law Program.

The civil liberties program, now in its 20th year, brings Israeli attorneys specializing in civil rights and environmental advocacy to American University’s Washington College of Law for one year. When they return to Israel, they spend a year working with an NIF grantee.

Founded in 1979 by husband and wife Jonathan Cohen and Eleanor Friedman of Mill Valley, NIF gave approximately $70,000 that year to grassroots organizations working toward Jewish-Arab equality, women’s rights and religious pluralism. Last year, NIF was able to give away $8 million.

And the organization — which enjoys the support of both progressive Jews fed up with the more traditional ways to support Israel, and more mainstream Jews — still walks that same line today.

“We have people for whom NIF is one of many ways to support Israel, and we have people for whom NIF is the only way to support Israel,” said Steve Rothman, regional director of NIF.

Rothman said that one out of three children in Israel is now living below the poverty line, and the gap between rich and poor in Israel is as great now as it is in the United States. Recent grantees include organizations that help the poor and the homeless.

“The economy is improving incrementally, but these improvements don’t reach people in the weakest sectors, specifically single parents, women and children,” Rothman said.

On the religious pluralism front, NIF is funding Congregation Esh David, a synagogue in Ashdod founded by immigrants from the former Soviet Union whose spiritual leader is studying to become a Reform rabbi in Israel.

“The whole thing was built up from within with our help,” said Rothman. “The synagogue itself is an engine for social change.”

For Sarnat, who visited NIF grantees after his meetings, what he saw there was “transformative.”

The people working for NIF and its grantees in Israel, he said, “strike me as absolute heroes. They are the new Zionists — the patriots that are trying to keep alive these principles of social justice, religious pluralism and tolerance so there will be a stable, Jewish democracy when the fighting ends,” he said. “That’s not something I take for granted anymore.”

New Israel Fund’s New Generations benefit will be on Thursday, Nov. 11. Information: (415) 543-5055.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."