Empowering Israeli Democracy
The innovative New Israel Fund complements traditional social programs.
n 1979, a small group of American
Jewish activists, including a couple
from the San Francisco-based Levi-
Strauss family, sought new ways of giving
to Israel. Instead of establishing a central
organization, they wanted to empower cit-
izen groups already active in Israel —
especially those interested in strengthening
Thus, the New Israel Fund (NIF) was
"The New Israel Fund is the only inter-
national Jewish organization with equal
representation of Israelis and of Jews in
the diaspora, with a joint board of 50 per-
cent North Americans and Europeans, and
50 percent Israelis, including Arab
Eliezer Yaari, NIF executive director in Israel
Israelis," said Eliezer Yaari, NIF executive
director in Israel.
Yaari, along with June Rogul, NIF
Supporting Social Change
Washington, D.C., director for national outreach,
visited Oct. 14 and spoke at the Jewish Community The NIF has an impressive list of recent accomplish-
Center of Washtenaw County in Ann Arbor.
A former TV anchorperson and journalist in
• It supported a grantee that petitioned the Israeli
Israel, Yaari earned a master's degree from Harvard's
Supreme Court for funds for all streams of Jewish edu-
Kennedy School of Government. He says 24,000
cation. As a result, Israel's Ministry of Education allo-
American donors support NIF programs.
cated a $48 million annual budget for all schools
"We empower citizen groups and teach them how including state religious, state secular, Conservative,
to lobby, fund-raise and work with boards so
Reform and pluralist.
unheard voices will be heard," he said.
• NIF's support led to the ruling recognizing the flaw
In fact, when the NIF first began its work in
in the route of the security fence between Israel and the
Israel 25 years ago, no word existed in Hebrew for
West Bank. "There is no security without law," the
"empowerment." An American concept, the word
Supreme Court concluded.
ha'atzamah was created, which means power and
• NIF also supported rulings regarding equal pay for
women, gay rights and environmental issues.
"The New Israel Fund covers a lot of different
The NIF, Yaari explained, screens groups and gives
areas, and they do a very good job," said Robert
them seed money, but does not execute programs.
Aronson, chief executive officer of Jewish
Since 1979, it has granted $120 million to 700 Israeli
Federation of Metropolitan Detroit. Most of their
programs are progressive — for people who care
They also provide technical assistance and training
about the Arab sector in Israel, women's rights,
for nonprofit organizations at their SHATIL
issues of child abuse and neglect and social pro-
("seedling" in Hebrew) centers, dubbed capacity-build-
grams that promote democracy and cooperation
ing centers, in Jerusalem and at branches in Haifa,
within Israeli society, he said.
Beersheva and Ramie, a mixed Arab-Jewish city.
NIF supported the first group that started domes-
"The NIF is the premier fonder of progressive efforts
tic violence shelters for women in Israel, Yaari said.
in Israel," said Robert Sims of Ann Arbor, a board
And they also worked against the discrimination of
member of the Jewish Federation of Washtenaw
one-fifth of the population who are Arab Israelis —
"a very painful issue in Israeli democracy, but
He said he was surprised at how few people knew
awareness is growing."
about the NIF and its work
His group aided in building an infrastructure for
"They coincide with my understanding of the world
Arab civil society, including education for children.
and follow interests I think are crucial in human rights,
"In 1990, 10 percent of Arab children were in pre-
social and economic justice and democracy building in
school. We passed the necessary legislation, and
Israel," he said.
now it's 80 percent," Yaari said.
NIF also is working on Jewish pluralism issues, like
the right of Jews to marry in a non-Orthodox ceremo-
ny, or to marry or divorce in Israel if a part-
ner is not Jewish, Sims said. Currently, such
couples have to go to Cyprus.
The Washtenaw Federation is discussing
ways of working with NIF, he said. One
possibility is to allocate money to NIF to
provide technical assistance and training of
grassroots organizations Ann Arbor sup-
Yaari emphasized that his group comple-
ments, and is not in conflict with, federa-
tions around the United States.
"We propose to federations a system of
monitoring grants and a more entrepreneur-
ial approach to finding new groups and new
voices in Israel — and we build the capacity
of those organizations," he said.
Federations in cities like San Francisco,
New York and Cleveland already buy NIF
services, Yaari said. They partner with NIF
on existing programs and NIF aids federa-
tion grantees with their capacity building
centers, he said. NIF also has partnered with
American foundations like the Nathan
Cummings Foundation and the Andrea and Charles
Bronfman Philanthropies, both of New York City.
"We raise $20 million in the United States and Israel
bubkes [nothing] ! = compared to the power of the
federations and UJC [United Jewish Communities]."
But, Yaari added, the money NIF raises is a reflection
of the necessity of their voice — more cutting edge and
entrepreneurial. "We're more ready to take risks, and
we're open to voices not in the mainstream of life in
Aronson agreed that the NIF is not competitive or in
conflict with federations.
"The dollars are different and the people are differ-
ent," Aronson said. "The dollars are not the same mag-
nitude, and the people giving us major gifts are not
making major gifts to them (NIF)."
A Balancing Voice
Yaari said he also sees his work with the Israeli govern-
ment as complementary, though the NIF is sometimes
against what the government thinks is appropriate.
"We are the balancing voice in Israeli society today,"
Yaari said. "This work is patriotic and strengthens
Irving Goldman of Franklin, an NIF donor for six
years and a longtime Detroit Federation supporter, said
the programs of both the Federation and the NIF help
the cause for peace in Israel.
Yaari goes back to the spirit of the Israeli
Declaration of Independence signed in 1948 that
said there would be a Jewish and a democratic state
and no discrimination because of gender, race or
"I think NIF represents a true partnership and
stands for these right values for Israel." ❑