New Israel Fund considers intervening in Israeli politics

Alarmed by the rise of Orthodox parties in Israel's election last month, America's major fund-raiser for Israeli progressives may reverse its long-held policy of staying clear of politics.

"One could conceive of a New Israel Fund that is much more activist in Israel and here," NIF executive director Norman Rosenberg said last week during a stop in San Francisco.

Since the fund was established in 1979, it has made grants to Israeli grassroots groups in such areas as Arab-Jewish relations, women's advancement, religious pluralism, and human and civil rights. Rarely has the fund directly intervened in Israel's political affairs.

"Our view is that Israel is perfectly able to fashion a democracy in its own image," Rosenberg said.

But the increase of the three Orthodox parties — National Religious Party, Shas and United Torah Judaism — from 16 to 23 seats in the 120-seat Knesset has worried New Israel Fund leaders.

Many of the issues that the fund has nurtured will suddenly face a larger, more powerful opposition in the Knesset. While mainstream media have focused primarily on the election's impact on the Oslo peace accords, the New Israel Fund considers the effect on domestic social issues just as significant.

"The fear is certainly that the clock will be turned back," said New Israel Fund president-elect Franklin Fisher, who also was visiting San Francisco.

These social issues include:

*Treatment of Israeli Arabs. Under the Labor government of Yitzhak Rabin, more public money was pumped into Arab village infrastructure. But hundreds of millions of shekels may be diverted back into the expansion of Jewish settlements in the territories, Rosenberg said.

"That is a serious danger for the state. Last guys," Fisher said of Israeli Arabs, "don't finish nice."

*Status of women. Both men predicted problems regarding abortion rights, women's service on local religious councils and relief for agunot — women whose husbands won't grant a divorce.

"There won't be any progress on the divorce issue," Fisher said.

In the new Knesset, the number of female Knesset members will drop from 12 to nine. The religious parties have no women representatives.

*Role of the High Court of Justice. Because Israel still does not have a constitution, the Knesset has a say over the powers of Israel's equivalent to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The High Court has become particularly active in expanding religious pluralism in Israel in the past several years. Last year, for example, it recognized a Reform conversion performed in Israel.

Orthodox parties are expected to try to limit the court's jurisdiction.

"The parliament can giveth and the parliament can taketh away," Rosenberg said.

New Israel Fund's potential transformation is far from settled. If another major American Jewish group, such as the American Jewish Congress, Americans for Peace Now or Association of Reform Zionists of America, decides to counter the new Orthodox political power, New Israel Fund may keep its current stance.

The possibility of a new New Israel Fund will be discussed for the first time when its board meets at the end of this month.

Besides the Israeli election's outcome, the fund's own success is part of the reason its leaders are considering the shift.

The fund was started in San Francisco 17 years ago with $80,000. Now based in Jerusalem and Washington, D.C., the New Israel Fund raised $12.4 million last year via 10,000 donors. It distributed more than 150 grants in Israel.

The attitude of American Jewish progressives also has evolved. Before Rabin became prime minister in 1992, Fisher said, Americans critical of Israel's policies were pressured not to speak out against the government. But the right wing's criticism of the Labor Party government over the past four years has legitimized such public challenges, he said.

In New Israel Fund's eyes, Rosenberg said, American Jews particularly should have a say in the treatment of non-Orthodox Jews in Israel by the Orthodox political establishment.

"The religious coercion issue is best going to be won — if it will be won at all — with the voice of American Jews," Fisher said.

Fisher recalled the last time American Jewry succeeded in organizing to block anti-pluralism measures. That was the 1988 "Who is a Jew?" controversy, in which the Likud-led Knesset attempted to rewrite the Law of Return to exclude non-Orthodox converts.

Rosenberg can imagine a similar activist scenario ahead.

"I think there is more concern about the potential domination of the religious parties now than there ever has been," he said. "This is an issue that will grab American Jews."