THOUGH a native Israeli, I’ve been fortunate to spend a lot of time in English-speaking countries. In my experience, no people place more value on independence of thought and action than Australians. Your national character is relaxed, informal and not terribly tolerant of being told what to do or think. In this, you are very much like … Israelis.
This month, I will visit Australia, where the newest chapter of the New Israel Fund (NIF) is now organising itself. As NIF’s chair, and as an unabashed representative of an Israel rooted in democratic and humanist values, this visit comes at a time when the stakes for my organisation, and for Israel itself, could not be higher.
If you have not heard of the New Israel Fund, first and foremost, we are the acknowledged seed-funder and founder of Israel’s progressive civil society. In 33 years, we have provided over $US200 million to more than 800 Israeli non-profit organisations, all recognised by the Israeli Government, that work for civil and human rights, social and economic justice, Jewish pluralism and the environment.
As the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz put it: “In effect, there is hardly any significant socially-oriented organisation today in Israel that does not owe its existence to the New Israel Fund.”
Our work seeks to realise the vision of Israel’s Declaration of Independence, of a Jewish and democratic state that provides a just and equitable society for all. Our principles and funding guidelines are public and clear. As a partnership between Israelis and Jews overseas who share our vision, NIF has often supported causes that were viewed as controversial and cutting-edge, before their eventual adoption by the mainstream.
From the first rape crisis centres to the first LGBT rights groups, from the ongoing fight for recognition of Progressive and Conservative Judaism to the landmark court cases prohibiting torture of prisoners and land-sale discrimination, the New Israel Fund family was there. These accomplishments, and many more, are often cited by defenders of Israel to demonstrate that it is in fact a vibrant democracy.
But times have changed in Israel, and even casual observers of our society know that there is now cause for concern. No fewer than 25 Bills were proposed in the Knesset this past year that would – or will, as some have passed – constrict freedom of speech and conscience, traduce minority rights, or constrain the legitimate activity of Israel’s homegrown human rights community.
Such legislative proposals emanate from the proliferation of a profoundly anti-democratic ethos. Our current governing coalition partners with the most extreme elements to designate any organisation not in line with their thinking as hopelessly misguided, anti-Zionist or even treasonous. Leaders of human rights groups are frequently attacked and have even been jailed for participating in peaceful protest. The Arab Israeli organisations of the NIF family, which, like most Arab citizens they represent, decline to embrace the Zionist narrative, are vilified for fighting for the rights of those whom the Israeli Government itself acknowledges are living lives of second-class citizenship.
Both in Israel and overseas, many conflate legitimate criticism of particular policies with a denial of Israel’s right to exist in security and peace – a right that I have spent my entire life and career upholding.
But I don’t believe that this state of affairs is permanent. There are too many Israelis and lovers of Israel who are dismayed by these efforts to dictate a narrow and self-interested path as the only way of being “pro-Israel”. There are many decent people, including some in this government, who are speaking out against repression and injustice.
And there are those who have not yet made up their minds. Perhaps you are one of them. Perhaps you, who live in a free-spirited democracy and a multi-cultural society continuously coming to terms with its own history, understand that there is a real Israel with real challenges that deserves attention and support. That Israel has veteran Israelis and immigrants, Jews and Arabs, religious and secular, working towards a society that encapsulates the best of Jewish and universal values.
As the New Israel Fund begins a new phase in its relationship with the Australian Jewish community, we are quite modest in our first request. We ask that you discover us, and the Israel we represent, in a way that does not fit anyone’s agenda but your own. As staunch believers in the rights of individual conscience and of an empowered citizenry, we can do no less.
Naomi Chazan is the former Deputy Speaker of the Knesset, emeritus professor of the Hebrew University, Dean of the School of Government and Society at the Academic College of Tel-Aviv-Yaffo, and the Chair of the New Israel Fund. She has multiple speaking engagements next week in Sydney and Melbourne. For details, see nif.org.au.