In a charged conversation with NRG, the International Director of the New Israel Fund, Daniel Sokatch, rebuffs the criticism against his organization: “They say that we are anti-Zionist. It’s a mistake, we want what’s best for Israel.” In his opinion, part of what’s best is to show the world its ethical problems.
Over the last few years, a great deal has been written about the New Israel Fund: that it is promoting extreme leftist organizations, that it wants to turn Israel into a ‘state of all its citizens’ and that it is active in supporting the two-state solution, including Israeli withdrawal from Judea and Samaria.
A example of the character of the organization can be found among the things that were said the day after Ehud Barak’s victory in 1999, by NIF’s then director, Eliezer Yaari: “Last night something big happened in Israel. Israeli society, in a stunning display of democracy, succeeded in securing two goals: the removal of the bizarre coalition government that embodied political stagnation, moral degradation and religious and cultural clericalism, and to grant the Israeli public a second chance.
“After these elections every one of us – members of the board, staff, volunteers and thousands of donors – can feel satisfaction with the values that were expressed in the ballot boxes (…) it’s impossible to look at what happened and not see the clear fingerprints of the New Israel Fund and of Shatil.”
Over the years, organizations like “Im Tirzu” have actively opposed the New Israel Fund. They proved in published reports that NIF assisted the Goldstone Report that accused the IDF of war crimes during Operation Cast Lead, and claimed that the organization is encouraging hatred of Israel around the world. At the same time, research institutes like NGO Monitor are tracking the grants that the NIF gives, and publishes reports on the problematic activities of the organizations its supports.
The World’s Darling
Sokatch and I met at the NIF offices in Talpiyot, Jerusalem. Unlike most leaders of the older generation of American Jews, who will never arrive at an interview without a tailored suit, Sokatch gave off a less formal vibe, even cracking jokes at times.
He was born in a small town in Connecticut and moved with his parents to Cincinnati, Ohio. His parents were immigrants from Eastern Europe, and his father ran a kosher butcher’s shop. After studying Jewish Studies at Brandeis University, he came to Israel in 1993, for two years. “Your readers will love it,” he said with a sly smile. “I enrolled in a Reform rabbinic program. I wanted to be here in what looked then like a historic time for Israel – the signing of the peace accords. I wanted to study Hebrew in order to be a small player, an extra, in this movie, and to participate in the incredible drama that was supposed to occur at that time.”
And what happened?
“Everything collapsed. What could have been was etched in my soul. BDS for example, which your country has recently become obsessed with: The number of people that hate Israel and the Jews today is exactly the same as it was in 1994. The difference is that then, the boycotters didn’t have the wind in their sails, because what the whole world saw was a government in Jerusalem reaching its hand out for peace and showing in the most sincere way it was willing to take a chance. For a few years, Israel was the world's ‘darling.’ But then, a Jewish terrorist killed the prime minister, and Palestinian terrorists blew up pizzerias and buses. The failure of Oslo should be called “the Murder of Oslo” by Israeli and Palestinian terrorists, who joined forces and killed the peace deal. We don’t know what would have happened if Rabin hadn’t been assassinated.”
You are talking about one Jewish murderer against hundreds of Palestinian terrorists.
“God no, I’m not trying to compare them. Oslo didn’t fail because the two sides weren’t capable or because it wasn’t realistic; Oslo failed because it was murdered by both sides. When friends of Israel in the West saw that Israel really wants peace, even if the other side is not capable of it or doesn’t fully desire it – Israel-haters didn’t have any wind in their sails. Today, we have a BDS problem because we have a policy problem. The settlement enterprise and the Occupation are the source of the BDS movement’s ammunition, as well as the lack of a realistic and honest approach to peace, on both sides.”
There are BDS activists that see the beginning of the Occupation as 1948.
“Of course, but there are always those who will say that the Jewish people have no right to their homeland. You can always point to the extremists. After all, there are also Jews who say that there is no need to compromise and that all of this land is ours, and across from them, there are boycott people saying that the Israel has been an occupier since 1948. But even the BDS movement is not stupid enough to present it this way.”
You attack the BDS movement, but many say that you are in essence part of it.
“They simply don’t understand what’s happening here. The BDS movement doesn’t exist because of ‘B’tzelem.’ BDS is a Palestinian call to boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel, demanding that Israel be thrown out of international bodies and relations with it be cut off. It has no relationship with ‘B’tzelem,’ ‘Breaking the Silence’ or ‘Adalah’ (note by Tzvika: leftist organizations that the NIF supports). These organizations exist in Israel just like in every democracy, in the United States and in the European Union. Israel also deserves ‘watchdog’ organizations that demand answers from the government.”
There’s a difference between ‘watchdogs’ and organizations that go around the world and talk about how terrible Israel is.
“The work of human rights organizations is to hold a mirror up to society: ‘look in the mirror, this is what we’ve done, what’s been done in our name. Are you comfortable with that?’ In today’s global society, information is available to everyone, even without ‘Breaking the Silence’ going to Zurich. But the challenge and the problem is that already, for almost fifty years, Israel has been tied up in what most would call a very big obstacle. There are millions of people here that you don’t allow to live normal lives.”
The Red Line of ‘48
Why don’t you also fund organizations that show the humanitarian sides of Israel, that there is a military ethic here much higher than in the US or UK military. You agree that we are more humane, don’t you?
“I’m not a military expert so I don’t want to answer that. I don’t want to say that the IDF is the most moral army because I think that it’s a problematic characterization. I believe that Israel tries to do everything in its power to ensure that its citizens won’t be hurt. And with all of that, if you will cross a few kilometers east – there’s the Occupation. One of the things that people are starting to ask out loud is if the Occupation is temporary or not, and what are they going to do about these millions of people under occupation. Millions of people are without basic rights. Israelis abroad can’t vote in elections except for one group – the people that live in the territories, that according to Israeli law are not living in Israel and yet they are being allowed to vote.”
They are Israeli citizens and they are living in Israel.
“They are Israeli citizens, but an Israeli citizen in San Francisco isn't able to vote in elections. A citizen that lives in Ariel can still vote.”
Because Israel recognizes it as part of the country.
“But it is occupied territory, it’s not Israel.”
That’s how you see it.
“No. That’s how the world sees it.”
Are Tel Aviv or Jaffa also occupied?
“No. You are speaking like the BDS extremists. Red lines were drawn, and according to them, the definition of the Occupation is from 1967.”
So what do you recommend to do with the settlements?
“It’s not my role to tell you what to do with the settlements. But why do these organizations feel that they need to convince the Israeli and international public that the Occupation is still going on? There is a people here being controlled by another government, the Israeli government, and they have no say over it. It is dealing a serious moral blow to the Israeli state and to Israeli democracy.”
I assume that you were not pleased with the results of the last election?
“We don’t take a position on elections and political parties, just policies and values, and those, unfortunately, are not represented in the current government.”
There were claims that ‘Project 61’ of the ‘Molad’ organization helped the Labor Party’s campaign.
“It doesn’t look like it worked for them, eh?” He laughed. “Our fear is not from the elections but from the policies that the government represents. We advance Israeli democracy, and try to build a society based on the values of the Declaration of Independence of this country. This is why I work here as a proud liberal Zionist.”
Many of our readers would define you as post-Zionist.
“Fine, you stick me with that stigma. Where I come from, most of the people would say that the settlers are involved in national suicide and are responsible for the rise of the BDS movement. What’s the plan? A two-state solution is not feasible or it won’t happen. All you need to do is look at Minister Bennett. Whoever opposes the two-state solution, is responsible for the lack of a peace deal. It sends a powerful message to everyone who lives here, to the world, to American Jews.”
The Twins of J Street
The words of Eliezer Yaari after Barak’s victory in ’99 prove that you are trying to push the public in a specific direction.
“We believe in advancing those values. In this sense, the last elections were a source of fear and worry. On the other hand, the second most powerful Likudnik in Israel is the president of the country Reuven Rivlin, a person that most of the supporters of the New Israel Fund look at and say, ‘wow, this man represents our values.’ At the moment your president is one of the most important components of Israel’s image in the world.”
By the way, Rivlin was supposed to get a prize from the Givat Haviva Center, but following a storm about its being supported by the NIF, he decided not to accept it.
“We are aware that there are sectors in Israel for whom the New Israel Fund is the source of all evil. They ask themselves what is Israel’s problem, and answer in an automatic way: The New Israel Fund.”
You are against the settlements, against Jewish settlement in the Negev, you promote an impression that it is terrible and expensive to live here, and you supported the ‘Tent Protests.’ If it’s so horrible here, why should Israelis view you in a positive light?”
“We support organizations that promote social change, not organizations that say ‘everything here is fine.’ I’ll give you an example: Israeli Hasbara uses LGBT rights in Israel in order to distract attention from the settlements or other problems in the country. It’s absurd, because the victories of the LGBT community in Israel that came after decades of struggle by the New Israel Fund, were turned into Hasbara tools in the hands of the nation. They don’t have more rights in Israel because the Israeli state just decided by itself to award them; they have more rights because tens of thousands of Israelis worked very hard over many years to make this happen. That’s what the New Israel Fund does.
NIF members are the ones that fought so that Alice Miller could be a pilot in the air force. We represent the Alice Millers of Israel, the LGBTs of Israel and also the Bedouins and the minority communities of Israel. And when they succeed, it shows the world how wonderful it is that they broke through and were victorious. People say that we are anti-Semitic, anti-Israel and anti-Zionist. It’s a mistake and it’s absurd. As long as there are divisions between Mizrachim and Ashkenazim, Arabs and Jews, seculars and religious, as long as there are divisions between the center and the periphery, homosexuals and straights – it’s bad for the future of Israel.”
You support J Street, the lobby that constantly criticizes Israel.
“Yes, I think that the entrance of J Street to the American political scene was very important. What the NIF did to the conversation in Israel, J Street does with American Jewry. They represent the opinion of the majority of Jews in the US in every way when it comes to Israel. Having a critical conversation about Israel has always been difficult, sometimes it was even underground.”
Why? Jews were embarrassed?
“Yes, it wasn’t popular. Peter Beinart (note by Zvika: a Jewish-American journalist who expresses the opinions of the Jewish left) tweeted once after a visit in Israel: ‘I just spent a week in Israel with people from the New Israel Fund. If only they were the face of Israel in the world.’ And then your group says: ‘Why does the New Israel Fund make us look so bad?’”
So why do you do it? Why don’t you say what Peter Beinart said and also show the beautiful sides of Israel?
Here Sokatch loses his calm demeanor and the sense of humor that accompanied him throughout the interview, and he is clearly thinking seriously about this issue: “We do, but what Peter Beinart meant is something that you’re not going to want to hear. He is saying that the New Israel Fund shows Jews and people around the world that not all Israelis support anti-democratic legislation. The New Israel Fund shows Jews and people around the world that not all Israelis ignore the Occupation. It shows people abroad that there are tens of thousands of Israelis who are saying that we do need to repent when we violate human rights. We want to be measured by Western standards and not by those of Boko Haram or Assad. It’s clear that Israel needs to repent.”
Give them Reasons to Fall in Love with You
As a man who seems to work for human rights, explain to me why the world is constantly criticizing us, while Assad is conducting a massacre in Syria without any intervention.
“Over many years, Israel had the strongest army in the region. Israel is a major interest of the world. On one side, I think that as Jews, our story is a significant one, especially in the West after the Holocaust, and the rebirth of our people in this country. To some extent we enjoyed this drama. We were in the center of history, and therefore, now, a lot of people are giving us a lot of attention. But it really is hypocritical that the world media dedicates a lot of its time to every small thing that happens in Israel and ignores the atrocities in Syria.
We agree, but isn’t all this criticism because of ‘B’tzelem,’ which publishes reports on seeming violations of human rights?
“No, it’s not ‘B’tzelem’s’ fault. Look, the Syrians also have organizations like this that work out of London. I don’t want Israel to look like specific countries in Eastern Europe right now, which violate human rights and close human rights organizations. The NIF, and in my opinion, most of the Jews in the US and some Israelis, believe it’s not a good approach.”
Do you think the two-state solution is realistic today?
“I think that the two-state solution can happen, but I don’t know if it will happen in the near future. You don’t need political creativity just political will. If there’s a will, of course we can advance.”
I don’t think that there is a political will today.
“I agree with you, there isn’t a political will to advance. Only the Americans still have it, and I’m not sure of that either.
What do you think about the interview Barack Obama did with Ilana Dayan where he clashed with Netanyahu?
“I think that the burning hate for Obama here (in Israel) is irrational. Maybe it’s a symptom of something worse, which worries me a lot in the Israeli discourse. More and more people who don’t agree with the official line are painted as enemies, anti-Semites, anti-Zionists or anti-Israelis. ‘Breaking the Silence,’ ‘B’tzelem,’ ‘Adalah’ – every organization that criticizes Israel is thought of as an enemy. I think that it’s troubling and dangerous. Maybe you don’t love President Obama, and there will be those that think that he’s naïve or he’s making a mistake with Israel, but to claim that he hates Israel? That he’s a closet Muslim? A person trying to ruin the state of Israel? Honestly this discourse is very scary. If it influences the behavior and policies of the state itself, we are in a very bad position.”
What’s your opinion on the war against BDS?
“If we look at BDS as the biggest threat to Israel and the Jewish people, and think the way to beat it is to throw money at campaigns on campuses instead of giving young American Jews a reason to fall in love with Israel and to be proud of her – we’ve already lost the battle. No one wins in the long term by building a movement based on invalidating the other side. By the way, it only strengthens the BDS movement and gives it more airtime. All the time spent dealing with this subject only helps them.”
But you are also helping BDS.
“How are we helping BDS?”
Because you present Israel as a state that violates human rights.
“We promote Israel as a country that produces people who champion human rights, by promoting the rights of LGBTs and minorities. What is happening now in Israel is similar to the human rights movement that occurred in the United States in the 60s.”
‘B’tzelem’ Renounced Goldstone
In the document defined as ‘guidelines’ of the New Israel Fund, three criteria are noted, that if organizations violate them, their grants from the NIF will be cut off. Two of them are encouraging evading service in the IDF and advancing the boycott against Israel. As for organizations that support a gray definition of the boycott: “That being understood, the NIF will not cease support for organizations which advocate a boycott of the settlements, though none of the NIF’s organizations do so.” The third criteria deals with “organizations that call for putting Israeli soldiers on trial abroad.” ‘Breaking the Silence’ indeed does not expressly call for this, but its actions clearly can cause the prosecution of specific Israeli soldiers.
Theoretically, if I would sit in ‘Breaking the Silence’s exhibition in Zurich and I don’t have any prior familiarity with Israel, I would think that Israel is the worst country in the world.
“I don’t know that you’d think that.”
Of course I would. I would see Israeli soldiers saying all these terrible things, without any opposing viewpoint.
“From an examination we conducted after the report by ‘Im Tirzu’ (note by Zvika: which claims that the New Israel Fund supplied information to the Goldstone Report), it came out that most of the material for Goldstone didn’t come from us but rather straight from IDF soldiers, who were interviewed for foreign and Israeli media. ‘Im Tirzu’ blamed us in vain.”
But your organizations assisted in the production of the ‘incriminating’ materials.
“We supported the organizations, but only a very small percent of their materials were in the report. Most of the information was public and didn’t come from us.”
What is your opinion of the Goldstone Report?
“’B’tzelem’ said then that they opposed parts of the Goldstone Report, specifically the claim that the IDF intentionally harmed civilians. At the end of the day, Goldstone himself took it back. The problem is that our organization, ‘B’tzelem’, that said it’s not true, is actually remembered as the ones who supposedly fed information to the report. When ‘Breaking the Silence’ published their file on ‘Protective Edge,’ they sent it to the Chief of Staff’s office and asked to meet. They were ignored. I’m not always proud of the tactics our organizations use, but in today’s world, information is available everywhere. Have you met the group from ‘Breaking the Silence’? You should meet them.”
I’ll meet them when they are in the country, at the moment they are busy dirtying Israel’s name around the world.
“Good comeback, but you need to sit with them. You won’t feel that these people are trying to demonize the nation of Israel. They are patriots who say ‘we were soldiers and officers in combat units, we documented the commands we were given, transferred the information to the Chief of Staff, and they ignored us.’ After the previous round of fighting in Gaza, the army spokesman admitted that they want to give credit to ‘B’tzelem’ and the human rights organizations for their reports, which inspired a change in combat directives. Meaning, we understand that it’s important to read what they write and learn how to better and more carefully protect the lives of civilians. It’s not obvious to me why it is gets characterized as anti-Israeli activity. We don’t want to be China, Syria or Iran.”
In your opinion are we on the way to that?
“In my opinion the anti-democratic legislation is a step in that direction. It’s very worrying. In the first passages of the Israeli Declaration of Independence, it’s written that Israel will be the Jewish homeland, but will establish an open and equal society for all its citizens. This situation is moving Israel away from that.”
What is the New Israel Fund’s ideal vision of Israel? A state for all its citizens?
“What’s written in the state of Israel’s Declaration of Independence.”
A Jewish state?
“Who will define what ‘Jewish’ means? Like Ben Gurion, who promoted the acceptance of immigrants even with a single Jewish grandfather, or just halachichally Jewish?”
We Don’t Support BDS
What do you think about the Arabs who left their homes in Jaffa?
“Don’t worry, I think about that too. It’s impossible to sweep under the rug the fact that for Arab Israelis there was a Nakba. What happened here is a small part of a global phenomenon that was at that time accepted, and people were expelled from their houses.”
So in your opinion all of Israel is occupied?
“That’s not what I’m saying. In my opinion, a red line needs to be drawn in a specific place. The world recognized the state of Israel in 1948. If the occupation of Lod and Ramle wouldn’t have happened, there wouldn’t be a state of Israel. Now we have to move forward. The president of this country encourages this beautifully. But unfortunately his voice is not heard as the voice of Israel.”
I’ll return to the point: Are we an occupying country?
“You are occupying the West Bank. Israel before 1967 was not an occupier, that’s the state of Israel.”
So we are occupying part of the country?
“No, at least not yet. You are occupying an area, the legal ownership of which is not yet clear. Your country doesn’t call it Israel, because if you call it Israel you have annexed the West Bank, and then you have a huge problem with millions of people in your country that you aren’t giving rights to. That means you are an occupying power. There’s a grey area. Your readers will read it and yell at me. They will say that it’s like the San Remo Conference in the 20s, that there were no owners of this land, and that building settlements isn’t a violation of the Geneva Convention.”
What do you think about the settlements?
“They are not monolithic, there are different kinds. But in my opinion the settlement enterprise is at its core the biggest internal challenge that Israel faces.”
Do you have guidelines that were created in the last few years following the rise of BDS?
“A decade ago we didn’t even know what BDS was. When I came to this job and we understood that BDS is a big part of the discourse, we felt it was important to make our position on the subject clear. We decided not to support any organization that encourages BDS.”
Were there organizations that you decided not to support after that?
“We have criteria for granting assistance, for example if you call for violence, racism or BDS, you can’t receive anything from us. By the way, Omar Barghouti who created BDS, decided that the New Israel Fund is also an organization to boycott, and he’s right to an extent – we are a proud Israeli organization that promotes Israel. There were three organizations whose funding we canceled.”
To finish up, why is it so important for the New Israel Fund to be interviewed now?
“In my opinion, there is a lot of misrepresentation of us. I am prone to think like Ruby Rivlin: I may oppose you, but I will defend your right to speak your opinion. There are those who think that we are anti-Semitic, anti-Zionist, that we are undermining Israel. It’s far from the reality.”
“Our critics say: ’80 percent of the New Israel Fund is good, but the rest is not.’ That 20 percent – human rights organizations and the Arab-Israeli organizations that we support – they are organizations that represent something essential in a democracy. Those are the voices of citizens challenging the authorities, holding a mirror to society. Organizations that are vital to Israel being a thriving, democratic nation connected to the United States, the West and the Jewish diaspora community. This relationship is important, it’s vital to the survival of Israel. You need champions of democracy, of citizens’ rights and the rights of minorities, even if they say things that you don’t want to hear. This is the way that Israel will become the country it wants to be.”
Would you recommend to our readers to ask for support from the New Israel Fund?
“Of course. We support human rights organizations, social change, freedom of religion and pluralism. Organizations that work for a just society, and of course those that are active in empowering the Arab minority. If you are reading this article you are invited to apply.”
And what about an organization in Judea and Samaria?
“We support only Israeli organizations, not Palestinian. Some of our human rights organizations are active in the territories. We support a two-state solution and oppose settlement, so don’t waste the time if your organization is based there.”