Washington — Norman Rosenberg doesn’t come across as a zealot. He is, by trade, a public-interest lawyer, with the low-key, ever-so-earnest demeanor befitting that role. But he has a special talent for enraging pro-Israel hard-liners.
Rosenberg is the longtime executive director of the New Israel Fund, the group based here that the Jewish right loves to hate — largely, critics and admirers agree, because the group’s philanthropic firepower is boosting grassroots organizations that are changing the face of Israeli society.
“They fund groups that are taking positions that are detrimental to Israel, and that are having a negative impact on Israel,” said Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America.
Klein and other critics recently forced an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution
to scrap its partnership with NIF in a proposed series of lectures marking Israel’s 50th anniversary — a program pro-Israel hard-liners said was top-heavy with Israel bashers.
Leonard Fein, director of the Commission on Social Action of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations and a longtime NIF board member, agrees that NIF is changing Israeli life, but says it’s for the better. The philanthropy, he said, provokes such a wrathful response from the right “because it isn’t a conventional enemy; they are doing more than just taking positions on issues.”
The group’s Israel-U.S. Civil Liberties Law Fellow Program, Fein said, “has provided a significant proportion of Israeli public interest lawyers. Their support for the women’s movement in Israel has made that movement a strong one. If you could survey the grassroots public service sector in Israel, you’d find that 80 or 90 percent owes its existence to the help it’s received from Shatil [a NIF agency that provides technical assistance and training to Israeli public interest groups].”
The right-wing hostility may also be a function of the group’s financial muscle.
The NIF raised some $12.9 million in 1996, giving to groups ranging from the Association for Civil Rights in Israel to Jerusalem’s Crisis Center for Religious Women. Numerous reports suggest some Jews are shifting contributions from traditional Israel-related philanthropies like the United Jewish Appeal to the NIF because of the bloody pluralism fight — a shift that worries mainstream pro-Israel leaders.
The New Israel Fund was created in 1979 by young philanthropists who worried that Israel’s understandable emphasis on security was putting efforts to deal with a wide range of social problems, including civil rights, Arab-Jewish relations and women’s rights, on the back burner.
According to Rosenberg, the group’s executive director since 1989, NIF was not created as an alternative to traditional Jewish fund-raising organizations like the United Jewish Appeal.
“We have always honored what UJA and the federations have accomplished,” Rosenberg said. “They are largely responsible for the building of the State of Israel. But we always felt that there was another, complementary agenda.”
To prove the point, Rosenberg offered a statistical overview of what he calls a “very conventional” membership.
“About 70 percent of our supporters are also supporters of the UJA,” he said. “Thirty-five percent are supporters of AIPAC [the American Israel Public Affairs Committee]. A significant proportion have lived in Israel and 25 percent have been to Israel four or more times.”
But as the religious pluralism wars heat up in Israel, it’s clear that many American Jews do see NIF as a philanthropic alternative.
Some synagogues that give time to the UJA and Israel Bonds to fund-raise during the High Holy Days now feature NIF appeals, as well. In an October column, The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman — whose scheduled appearance at the NIF-Smithsonian conference particularly irked right-wing Jewish leaders — suggested that Jews who are unhappy with Israel’s direction on the peace process and pluralism shift donations to groups like NIF.
Rosenberg doesn’t deny that NIF is driven by a left-leaning ideology, but he says the group stays clear of Israeli partisan politics.
“We don’t support anything associated with a political party,” he said. “But, we do have an ideological and intellectual mind-set about what it takes to build a robust democracy in Israel.”
But that leads to a fuzzy line between support and interference that has been a major focus of critics, who say that NIF is exporting American-style democratic advocacy to an Israel that is still wrestling with conflicts between being a Jewish state and a democracy, between its egalitarian ideals and the existence of a hostile Arab minority.
“They put a lot of money into Arab rights, which makes many people angry, and the Orthodox don’t like the fact that they do feminism,” said a leading Jewish conservative. “But what really bothers many is that they go beyond simply helping people who believe in these causes in Israel. They’re trying to impose American values on a very different kind of system.”
NIF’s effort to export American-style religious pluralism, this source said, “is a kind of cultural colonialism.”
But the pluralism fight has been good for the New Israel Fund; last year, NIF fund raising was up 25 percent, largely because of non-Orthodox Jews angered by the growing power of Orthodox authorities in Israel. Rosenberg said that the group’s emphasis on the issue is perfectly in synch with its longstanding principles. In fact, the battle has spurred the group to go beyond mere philanthropy.
“This summer, for the first time, we began speaking out publicly in this country on issues of tolerance and religious freedom,” Rosenberg said. “In the fall we ran a six-part ad campaign — the first time the NIF has spoken out in that way — in addition to funding groups that support religious pluralism.”
Some Reform and Conservative activists charge, however, that NIF is actually complicating the pluralism fight by funding mostly secular alternatives to Orthodoxy.
“It’s an excellent, noble organization that stands for enlightened values,” said Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, executive director of the Association of Reform Zionists of America. “But while they promote the value of religious pluralism, they give very few allocations to the movements. They tend to support secular groups.
“In my opinion that’s a mistake. We’ve been advocating that the real alternative to ultra-Orthodoxy isn’t secularism, it’s modern, vibrant, non-Orthodox Judaism.”
Rosenberg denied that funding decisions favor the secular over the non-Orthodox religious.
“NIF works to promote pluralism, but we don’t promote one particular form of Judaism over another,” he said. “We support Jewish spirituality; we support programs that bring the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform together for dialogue.”
The Smithsonian controversy pointed to another aspect of the conservative critique of the NIF — that it focuses too much on Israel’s flaws and not enough on the miracle of its creation.
Rosenberg bristles at that charge.
“I’m in awe of Israel,” he said. “The fact that they created this vigorous democracy, with a lively free press and a Supreme Court — these are things that require celebration.
“But it’s also important to look critically at some of the problems Israel faces. NIF is an organization that enables people to love Israel, and to honor it not just because it exists, but because of what it is.”