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'We're Not About Poking Israel in the Eye'
The philanthropic partnership of Israelis, North Americans and Europeans has given more than $700 million to more than 120 organizations working on the ground in Israel. Recipients have ranged from groups that run battered women's shelters and rape-crisis centers to organizations working on behalf of gays and lesbians, as well as people with disabilities.
But it's their funding of Israeli-Arab groups that has often received the most attention - and criticism - particularly after the outbreak of the second intifada in 2000, when a larger segment of Israel's Arab citizens seemed to publicly embrace Palestinian nationalism.
"There is nothing about being for social justice and social improvement that is inconsistent with being supportive of the state," said Daniel Segal, a Center City lawyer who sits on the 13-member regional board, as well as NIF's international council.
Others on the Philadelphia board include Adena Potok, the widow of novelist Rabbi Chaim Potok, and Jane Eisner, a former columnist at The Philadelphia Inquirer.
Segal explained that NIF does not have the money to open an office or even pay a staffer in Philadelphia - the organization claims that 82 cents of every donation dollar goes directly to Israeli programs - but that the council plans to meet periodically, and eventually organize local programming centered on issues of social justice in Israel. Besides Israel and Washington, D.C., the New Israel Fund has offices in New York and San Francisco, and employs consultants in Boston, Chicago and Miami.
This week, Eliezer Yaari, who heads NIF's Israel office, was in Philadelphia to meet with the new council and help get their activities rolling. In an interview, Yaari - a longtime television journalist in Israel - discussed some of NIF's most recent initiatives, including fostering dialogue between members of the settler movement and secular Israelis.
He added that some NIF employees helped train Israel Defense Force officers and soldiers prior to last summer's disengagement from the Gaza Strip. (While widespread violence was feared, the evacuation was a relatively peaceful affair.)
Yaari said NIF's work on behalf of Israel's Arab citizens is about fulfilling the ideals set forth in the nation's declaration of independence, which promises equality to all citizens regardless of race or religion.
"We are not about poking Israel in the eye," he stated. "We are a group of North Americans, Europeans and Israelis who want to see Israel become a better place."
Still, NIF has its critics. The NGO Monitor, which is affiliated with the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, has repeatedly cited NIF for funding groups with "highly politicized" agendas, including the Arab Association for Human Rights, which the Monitor said promoted the anti-Israel divestment campaign.
According to the Monitor's Web site, in 2004, the group also gave a 10-month stipend to an individual who worked for the International Solidarity Movement, also a proponent of divestment, as well as the Israel Committee Against House Demolition.
Yaari said NIF gives no direct support to Palestinian groups.
When asked if a large portion of the Israel Arab community accepts the notion of Jewish state, Yaari replied, "First of all, they are citizens. If someone does not accept the state, therefore they will be cut off from any support? Then Israel should not give any support to ultra-Orthodox people.
"If I'm such a traitor, what did I do for 10 years as a pilot in the Israeli air force? What does my son do there now?" he asked. "You can believe in the right of Israel to exist, and at the same time believe in [progressive] values."