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The Only Democracy? » Human Rights Activists in the Crosshairs » Audrey Farber, intern, from Mada Al-Carmel on New Israel Fund and Democracy

Audrey Farber, intern, from Mada Al-Carmel on New Israel Fund and Democracy

By Audrey Farber

Speculation has run wild on the as-yet-unreleased updated New Israel Fund funding guidelines. Here’s Richard Silverstein,

“My source tells me the proposed guidelines will include a provision acknowledging Israel as a Jewish homeland. But the language will also affirm that Israel is:
‘…A democracy dedicated to the full equality of all its citizens and communities.’”

Silverstein argues that “full equality” juxtaposed with the “provision acknowledging… a Jewish homeland” sustains a system of inequality. His explanation: “If…you’ve conceded to Jews that their nation is their homeland, but refuse to concede this to Palestinian citizens, then they still aren’t equal to Jews.”

Not mentioning a Palestinian homeland perpetuates ignoring that right. But on the other hand, no mention is made of Israel as an exclusively Jewish homeland.

The wording leaves open the possibility of a homeland for all citizens of Israel, regardless of religion. Silverstein gives this as a necessary precondition for peace but apparently does not see its potential in the new guidelines. In his words, “there is absolutely no reason that Israel cannot be a single state in which two separate ethnic groups see it as their respective homelands.” I agree, you agree, and even the NIF agrees. “The New Israel Fund (NIF) works to strengthen Israel’s democracy and to promote freedom, justice and equality for all Israel’s citizens.”

The problem is in the language: previous coverage of this controversy conflated the ideas of homeland and state. In an earlier post , Silverstein quotes The Forward:

The New Israel Fund, the target of attacks by right-wing organizations accusing it of supporting anti-Zionist groups, is discussing the possibility of specifying in its guidelines that grants will be given only to groups that accept the idea of Israel as a Jewish homeland.

… Board members and major donors are grappling with whether to require that grantees accept the idea of a two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, thus agreeing to the principle of Israel as a Jewish state.’ ”

Semantically, we must differentiate between a homeland and a state. Agreeing to the idea of Israel as a Jewish homeland is not the same as agreeing to the idea of Israel as a Jewish state. Homeland connotes sanctuary and safety. State connotes power and government. You cannot have a Palestinian homeland in a Jewish state, but you can have both a Palestinian and a Jewish homeland within a secular and democratic state. If the new guidelines are simply rewording this old idea, then frankly, this doesn’t constitute a huge overhaul.

The NIF has remained silent about what the guidelines say, and I don’t blame them given the amount of outrage and “scandal” it has produced thus far without any official word. But a statement from NIF’s website posted on July 16 (, just after their bi-annual board meeting, puts forth the following:

“The New Israel Fund is dedicated to the vision of the State of Israel as the sovereign expression of the right of self-determination of the Jewish people, and as a democracy dedicated to the full equality of all its citizens and communities. We are committed to advancing the values of human dignity ensconced in Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which we view as the key to its long-term security and survival.” [Emphasis mine.]

Do we read this as Israel as a Jewish state? If so, there is cause for alarm. This would inherently contradict to their commitment to true democracy, and provides evidence that their detractors have gained traction and influence. If indeed this rewrite is coming as a result of criticism and pressure from groups whose agendas scorn the principles of democracy, equality, and freedom, then we have on our hands a disaster.

Conflating these two ideas when implementing the new guidelines would constitute reneging on everything NIF stands for. If they conflate homeland and state, the new guidelines will indeed cause organizations to lose significant funds, as The Forward warns might happen. And we’re talking about more than just one or two renegade organizations; a large number of NIF’s grantees are committed to a truly democratic State of Israel, but one that does not recognize the Jewish nature of the state. If the NIF can differentiate between Jewish homeland and state, then technically it is upholding is decades-long commitment to democracy and equality within Israel. It is this commitment which should be preserved, and which I – perhaps naively – have faith in NIF’s leadership to uphold in spite semantic changes to their guidelines.

Semantics aside, the NIF is in a tough position. They constantly face an immense amount of criticism from all sides, and they cannot fund every worthy non-profit in Israel. That would be politically and financially impossible. As a foundation they need to listen to their stakeholders and investors, but they also need to respect their own commitment to their principles, to set a good example for governments and other foundations.

NIF has a long history of supporting projects which hold Israel accountable for upholding the democratic principles it claims to embrace. If NIF’s new guidelines cause it to cease funding such groups, that would constitute a catastrophe. But as of now, it is too early to tell.

If cuts happen, NIF joins the growing list of benefactors who have recently allowed themselves to be swayed by the loud voices of an intolerant few and are jeopardizing any true chance for democracy Israel has left.

I should certainly hope that NIF is well-respected and self-respecting enough not to back down from its own principles in the face of a gang of school-yard bullies. We would ask NIF to hold strong in the face of these and in support of the democratic principles it has until now succeeded in promoting.

Audrey Farber did her undergrad at UPenn majoring in – after much angst and indecision – Modern Middle East Studies. Her activism has involved resettling Somali, Iraqi, and Burmese refugees in Maine, researching forced migration issues in Amman, and rejecting the “path” by being a ski bum and bakery assistant at regular intervals. She is currently interning at Mada al-Carmel – Arab Center for Applied Social Research, in Haifa.  Audrey wants to fix the world and is actively trying to do so through photos and writing in her blog(s). She appreciates your support. The views expressed herein are her own .

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