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Friday, April 9, 2010

Of What Use is the New Israel Fund ?

Ms. Naomi Chazan
President, New Israel Fund

It is almost thirty years ago that the French scholar Georges Lavau published his memorable study A quoi sert le parti communiste français ?, "Of What Use is the French Communist Party ?", with the question mark on its cover five times as large as the rest of the title. (Click here for a French-language review). No, Lavau found, the CP does not in any way live up to its declared aims of proletarian revolution, human brotherhood, or social betterment. But nevertheless, he says, the Party has its functions -- mainly one of providing a venting place for the dissatisfied in the larger society; in this way, according to Lavau, the CP promotes social stability.

The idea of piercing behind professed aims to examine the reality of a social institution did not originate with Lavau. Nor did it originate with the American sociologist Robert K. Merton (1910-2003, born Meyer Schkolnick), who introduced the terminology of "manifest" versus "latent" functions. But Merton's terminology is useful as a handle. I am using it here to ask: what is manifest, and what is latent in the New Israel Fund ?

The manifest content of NIF is its self description, for instance this passage from its website:

The New Israel Fund (NIF) is the leading organization committed to democratic change within Israel. Since 1979, NIF has fought for social justice and equality for all Israelis. We believe that Israel can live up to its founders' vision of a state that ensures complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants, without regard to religion, race or gender.

Widely credited with building Israel's progressive civil society from scratch, we have provided more than $200 million to more than 800 cutting-edge organizations since our inception. What's more, through our action arm, SHATIL, we mentor, train and lead Israeli civil society in an ongoing struggle to empower the underprivileged.

Democratic social change. Social justice. Equality. Sound familiar ? And ah yes, "progressive civil society" -- we've looked at that one in the previous posting. As for the "cutting-edge" organizations that NIF has financed, these are better known for their accusations of Israeli "war crimes" and, in effect, their work to demolish Israel (see my postings of 2/11/10 and 4/8/10). Are any of these eight hundred groups, over and above the demonstrated anti-Israel agitation of at least some of them, involved in any discernible efforts for "complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants, without regard to religion, race or gender" ? I would not rule that out, but I am skeptical. The politics of NIF-supported groups are clear, their humanitarian impact, if any, is not clear to me.

In the meantime, there are many groups in Israel that do indeed work "to empower the underprivileged" and who do so without the political baggage of NIF. Two of these come to mind immediately: the Tel Aviv Foundation and the Jerusalem Foundation. Both are well established and have long records of work among the poor, both Arabs and Jews, work that they have done without fanfare and without public grandstanding. I would urge the reader to consult the websites of each. Moreover, the UJA-Federation of New York supports numerous groups in Israel devoted to the needy there, some of which are specifically organized for Arabs and other minorities.

About a year ago my wife Rita and I visited the Bialik - Rogozin School in Yaffo, which is supported by the Tel Aviv - Yaffo municipality. We found young children of many backgrounds studying in this very modern, well equipped Israeli institution. I was particularly struck by the many black faces from Africa -- six and seven-year olds -- all speaking Hebrew like sabras. They were children of African refugees, some of whom were in the country as undocumented immigrants. "This is the only place on earth where refugees from Darfur and other African countries are treated like human beings," a woman there remarked. While I was at the school and witnessed the colorful array of faces, I kept thinking of Jimmy Carter, who had just written his strange assessment of Israel as practicing "apartheid." I kept asking myself, is Carter just ignorant or is he malicious ?

So, well, no, we do not need the NIF to "empower the underprivileged" in Israel.

The NIF may or may not be helpful to underprivileged people in Israel, but it is well documented that it is definitely helpful to another group -- the extremely privileged. According to the group's 2008 IRS Form 990, it paid top salaries to at least two of its US-based officials: $228,331 to Larry Garber, then its CEO, and another $235,408 to Aaron Back, listed as "independent contractor." These payments are not much when compared to incomes of bank executives or even to those of executives at certain other Jewish groups. But these NIF salaries are more than twice as high as those of full professors of major universities. It places the recipients in the upper two percent of American households, assuming that they are sole wage earners. These are 2008 figures, the last that the group has provided to the IRS. Mr. Daniel Sokatch, the current CEO of NIF, has not responded to my request for the current salary structure at his organization.

So we know that NIF money goes to support Arab campaigns against Israel; it goes to pay for upper-middle class lifestyles of its officials. What else does it buy ? Nothing that can be definitely documented, but I would not dismiss feelings of satisfaction to donors whose political proclivities coincide with those of the NIF leadership. Whatever else may be said about the NIF, it is obviously far more political than eleemosynary. For prospective donors whose motivations are charitable, NIF is a good group from which to stay away.

Read the important Im Tirtzu report on the NIF

Read the NGO Monitor report on the NIF

Read the NGO Monitor's Ethical Guidelines for the NIF

UPDATE, May 14, 2010: NGO Monitor ad re. NIF

UPDATE, Sept. 22, 2010: NIF makes contradictory claims; continues to send about $10 million a year to anti-Israel groups

Thursday, April 8, 2010

"Civil Society" -- the Shell Game of the New Israel Fund

Ms. Naomi Chazan
President, New Israel Fund

I first ran across "civil society" in this context when I looked into the agitational work of a Mr. Jeff Halper, an American immigrant to Israel who devotes himself to abolishing the Jewish state. He claims to have the support of "international civil society" because people from various countries, including the American Friends Service Committee, support his cause.

Now there is a public controversy surrounding the New Israel Fund, a far less radical group than Mr. Halper's, but one that devotes itself to similar objectives -- less stridently, much less directly, and probably less deliberately. As I have shown in a previous posting, NIF has financed a number of groups that work for the dismantlement of Israel. With all that, NIF claims, repeatedly and insistently, that it represents and supports "civil society" in Israel. That, in its self-description, is its raison d'être.

That sounds grand. But what, exactly, is "civil society ? As it turns out, NIF has a number of answers, each different from the next.

First, here is Daniel Sokatch, NIF's current executive director:

At a time when the organizations that safeguard Israeli civil society are under assault by those for whom openness, equality and pluralism are anathema, the NIF family of organizations has come together like never before to push back, and to stand up for justice. (Sokatch)
And here is NIF's form 990 submission to the IRS:

NIF works with civil society organizations to accomplish social and economic justice.
And here is Adalah, one of NIF's most strident anti-Israel beneficiaries, a group that accuses Israel of "crimes against humanity":

In 8/09, Adalah and Al-Haq held a symposium in Ramallah where research team members presented the findings of the study and discussed potential next steps with around 150 representatives of civil society, political parties, and international organizations who attended the event. (2009 Ann.Rpt.)
The many meanings of "civil society"

So we see that sometimes NIF uses the term as equivalent to democracy itself (example A) while at other times (examples B and C), the term refers to one or another of non-governmental organizations; there is a basic equivocation about this "civil society" in NIF usage.

But even when employed in the more narrow sense -- i.e. non-governmental organization -- there is yet a further ambiguity. If NIF and the groups it finances can be said to be "civil society," what about all the other voluntary groups of Israel ? Dare one mention, say, settler organizations on the West Bank ? No, NIF never mentions groups it does not like as being "civil society;" it seems that only the left-wing and Arab groups that it favors qualify.

In brief, the use of the term "civil society" by NIF is a shell game. When convenient, it means no more than voluntary or non-governmental groups. At other times it means the NIF-financed groups. At still other times, the term means democracy itself. By shifting back and forth, without keeping the spectator informed where the pea is hidden, NIF can deflect any criticism of itself or of one of its beneficiaries (B and C "civil society") as an attack on democracy itself (A "civil society") Such deflection is usually accompanied by a characteristic ultra-left barrage of vilification: McCarthyist ! Fascist ! Reactionary !

The use of "civil society" to characterize the left-wing groups that NIF favors also emboldens NIF to suggest that somehow the society as a whole is behind its cause. Since it's very simple to multiply friendly organizations, if necessary through overlapping memberships, one can seek to create an impression of substantial public support. But this procedure is obviously misleading. No matter how many organizations one claims as supportive, the total numbers of sympathizers can be minuscule. And that, as it happens, is the case here: all the groups trotted out by NIF, all of them together, represent but a very tiny slice of Israeli public opinion. How do I know this ? Well, Israel is a democratic country, and the voice of the people is heard in elections.

Ms. Chazan, NIF President, is a former member of the Knesset as member of the Meretz political party and Meretz, in a sense, remains the political arm of NFI. At one time Meretz commanded a respectable number of votes, but in the last (2009) election it felt constrained to run together with another small party to improve its chances. This combination, New Movement-Meretz, obtained ... guess how much of the vote ? It received all of 2.95% ! So by any meaningful accounting for "civil society" in Israel, 97.05% of it will have nothing to do with Ms. Chazan and her NFI.

Read the important Im Tirtzu report on the NIF

Read the NGO Monitor report on the NIF