It worked for Democrats when they were underdogs in America during the last decade, and now some believe it can work for beleaguered liberals in Israel.
The New Israel Fund, the largest funder of liberal causes in Israel, has announced that it will shift one-fifth of the $30 million in annual grants it provides mostly to Israeli grassroots social service and civil rights groups to more political purposes. Its aim, the group states bluntly, is “to change the public discourse and strengthen the pro-democracy, progressive camp in Israel.”
In America, it was organizations such as MoveOn.org, Media Matters and the Center for American Progress that proved valuable in shaping and consolidating progressive public opinion. Many observers credit them with playing a significant role in Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential victory.
NIF’s funding shift, announced on September 17, seeks to take a page from the same playbook, in which an array of think tanks, media watch groups and digital outreach programs help rally public opinion to support progressive goals.
In practice, the plan, tagged NIF-D, as in D for democracy, will take NIF, which has long been accused by its rivals of being a fundraising arm of the Israeli left wing, deeper into the Israeli political debate. And while the new initiative is not aligned with any political party, its goal is to establish an Israeli “progressive infrastructure” similar to the one that helped bring the Democrats back to power in America.
“There is no such thing as apolitical in Israel,” said Daniel Sokatch, the organization’s CEO. “Our plan,” he stressed, “is not about partisan [party] politics but about advancing a progressive agenda.”
NIF-D has been in the planning stage for more than a year and is a result of extensive discussions held by the group’s leadership with its partners in Israel and with the American donors providing the funds.
Established in 1979 as an American not-for-profit organization, NIF emerged as one of the largest grant makers in Israel, its funding exceeded only by the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency. Under a broad mission to promote social change, it funds human rights organizations such as the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, B’Tselem and Adalah which seek to investigate and — through publicity and legal action — stop Israeli human rights violations committed primarily but not exclusively against Palestinians. NIF also funds groups working to promote women’s rights, empowerment of Arab-Israelis and Ethiopian immigrants, social justice and religious equality.
The recent shift in focus, described by Sokatch as a “strategic addition,” reflects, in part, a feeling shared by many NIF activists that they are losing the institution-building race to Israel’s right wing.
In recent years, conservative and right-wing groups gained prominence, with think tanks such as the Shalem Center growing in influence, and with media and nongovernmental organization watchdogs, including Im Tirtzu and NGO Monitor, playing a key role in shaping Israeli public discourse. The left, which once dominated Israeli academia and the press, failed to produce new vehicles to carry its message to an Israeli public. According to public opinion polls, it’s a public that has been growing increasingly intolerant.
Events surrounding the Gaza war, including expressions of violence toward anti-war protesters and animosity aimed at Israeli Arabs, only highlighted NIF’s sense of urgency in changing course, officials there said. “It accentuated the need for action,” Sokatch said. “The war reminded us that the critical issue now is trying to figure out how to help those in Israel who are truly trying to build a shared society.”
Separate from the launch of the new initiative, the NIF also announced it has elected Talia Sasson to serve as the group’s next president, replacing Brian Lurie in June 2015. Sasson was a senior attorney at Israel’s Attorney General’s office who composed a 2005 report on illegal Jewish outposts in the West Bank. Sasson’s report, which revealed the magnitude of the outpost activity and the massive government funding directed at illegal settlements, has since become one of the most important documents detailing Israeli settlement activity.