The NIF Controversy and Democracy

The NIF Controversy and Democracy


JERUSALEM -- In the current controversy over the New Israel Fund, no side comes out looking good. Perhaps, then, we should begin our discussion with a play of the theater-of-the-absurd genre. In 1959 Eugène Ionesco published Rhinoceros, a study of the anti-democratic power of conformity. The plot follows a town whose residents are transformed, one after the other, into rhinoceroses. When the play was presented in Israel, Rhinoceros generated a Hebrew word, "lihitkarnef," literally "to become a rhinoceros," to lose one's individual moral bearings, to go with the herd.

This was the charge implied in the caricature published by a three-year-old Israeli organization, Im Tirtzu. The ad showed the president of the New Israel Fund, Prof. Naomi Chazan, with a rhinoceros horn labeled "NIF" strapped to her forehead. The text claimed that over 90 percent of the detrimental material in the Goldstone Report cited as Israeli-sourced came from organizations supported by the NIF. There was also an insensitive visual pun. While the Hebrew word "keren" means both "horn" and "fund," the copywriters forgot it can also mean "beam" or "ray" of light, and that it is a linguistic source of classic demonizing anti-Semitic imagery. Thus Michelangelo's Moses, with horns emerging from his forehead—based on a mistranslation of the Biblical text that tells us that at Mount Sinai Moses' face "beamed" (with the light of Torah, according to the Midrash).

Chazan, a world-class expert on Africa and former three-term Meretz member of the Knesset, is a longstanding friend of AJC. Her integrity earns her respect across the political spectrum. We can only react with indignation at seeing this committed, utterly decent person caricatured in such a fashion.

However, the episode raises two genuine problems. First, groups from overseas with well-meaning agendas fund the extremes of our Israeli public square. Israeli democracy copes with large amounts of money sloshing around its polarities, inevitably distorting access to the marketplace of ideas. The NIF is hardly alone. Much right-wing as well as left-wing activity is funded by American sources. Im Tirtzu has received support from John Hagee Ministries; Pastor Hagee is founder of the conservative pro-Israel organization Christians United for Israel, whose spokesman last week disassociated the group from this ad.

Let's not misunderstand the challenge. Perceived misuse of freedom of speech is remedied by more exercise of freedom of speech, not by censorship. In this regard, perhaps NIF should be thinking out of the box about how it might participate more widely in the Israeli marketplace of ideas.

Second, there is the undeniable fact that many NIF-supported organizations unapologetically collaborated with the Goldstone Commission. Given the predictable (and predicted) discriminatory mandate and actions of the Commission, there is the legitimate question of accountability for that bad judgment.

Unfortunately, rather than engage in self-examination, the NIF reacted aggressively, using a highly charged idiom ("swiftboating") to tie the ad to the unrelated and appalling recent police investigation of Anat Hoffman, director of the Israel Religious Action Center and a leader of the Women of the Wall movement, who has protested what she sees as collusion between government and religious authorities to restrict non-Orthodox women's access to the Kotel.

The right wing in Israel responded with equal combativeness, pushing the idea of a parliamentary commission of inquiry into the activities of foreign funders of Israeli NGOs.

Both sides need to step back and take a deep breath. Proponents of a parliamentary investigation must consider carefully the intricate and vital connection between Israel's open democracy, a range of Israeli institutions and the Diaspora. And the NIF, for its part, needs to take a critical look at the judgment exercised by organizations it funds.

The NIF has played a significant role in the never-ending effort to strengthen Israeli democracy. It will need courage to examine questions of judgment and accountability. The challenge for the rest of us is to defend democracy – in the only Middle East state in which it boisterously, and sometimes rancorously, thrives.