Throughout his career as a rabbi and Jewish community leader, Brian Lurie says he put Israel’s security first, mostly by focusing on immigration and absorption.
He now thinks he should have devoted equal attention to strengthening Israel’s democracy, something he believes is under assault.
That will be his focus now that he has been named president of the New Israel Fund, a role he will assume in July 2012 when he replaces Naomi Chazan for a three-year term. Until then, he will continue in his role as NIF vice president of North America.
The New Israel Fund works to promote democracy and human rights in Israel by funding a host of nongovernmental organizations, some of them controversial. The NIF presidency traditionally has alternated between Americans and Israelis.
“For so long, my focus was strictly on the protection of Israel and the strengthening of Israel in a physical sense,” said Lurie, who lives in Marin County. “On the other hand, the quality of life is equally important. I believe the quality of life in Israel is the major fight and [under] threat.”
The NIF has been at the center of controversy in recent years, in part due to its support for improved Arab-Israeli ties and bettering the lot of Pales-tinians. Last year, Chazan
was the target of personal attacks from right-wing groups in Israel.
More recently, some Knesset members, who claim the NIF finances groups hostile to Israel, have also targeted the organization.
Lurie wants to go on the offensive.
“I love Israel,” he said. “We have an unfortunate reality now with an [Israeli] government that is moving to the right, and that has proffered at least 25 laws that in some way undermine democracy in Israel. What you have is a wrestling for the soul of Israel. NIF is right in the middle of this.”
That “middle” includes the recent mass demonstrations and tent cities across Israel. Close to 10 percent of Israel’s population took to the streets this summer to protest the rising cost of living and social inequality in Israel.
NIF was one of the few organizational voices of support in Israel for those demonstrators. It not only raised tens of thousands of dollars to pay for costs associated with the protests, but also marshaled volunteers to help out in the tent cities.
“This is the largest protest in the history of Israel,” Lurie said. “They are talking about a fight for justice, fairness and equal opportunity. What has gone unnoticed to most American Jews is that for the past 30 years, NIF has been building a civil society in Israel.”
To its detractors, NIF has turned a blind eye to what they consider the anti-Israel positions of some grantees. Last year, an Israeli Zionist group called Im Tirtzu claimed NIF-funded NGOs were responsible for 92 percent of the damning input in the U.N.-sponsored Goldstone report on the 2009 Gaza war. Im Tirtzu claimed NIF “harmed [Israel’s] ability to defend itself during a time of war.”
Im Tirtzu also released a print ad featuring a scathing caricature of Chazan, depicting the outgoing president with a horn coming out of her head.
“No question the attack hurt,” said Lurie, who was not affiliated with NIF at the time. “The poster was such a crass and powerful attack on [Chazan] as a person, it stunned the whole organization. In the long run it was a good thing, because it made the NIF realize it has to be much more public. This forced it to be a tougher, more resilient organization than it was before.”
At 69, the Cleveland-born Lurie is a veteran of the Jewish communal executive suite. He served as CEO of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation for 17 years, and was president and CEO of the Jewish Museum San Francisco when it started raising money and planning its future as the Contemporary Jewish Museum.
He also headed the now-defunct United Jewish Appeal and co-founded and co-chaired the Inter-Agency Task Force on Israeli Arab Issues, a coalition of North American Jewish organizations and foundations devoted to peaceful coexistence.
He was one of the first leaders consulted when the NIF formed in 1979, and he followed the progress of the organization ever since, eventually becoming its North American vice president about a year ago.
San Francisco resident Daniel Sokatch, the CEO of the NIF, praised Lurie’s “experience and expertise in the workings of the organized Jewish community at high levels,” adding, “he brings a profound sense of commitment to the vision of Israel articulated in Israel’s Declaration of Independence. His advocacy on behalf of the issue of Israeli Arabs, an issue that ought to be front and center on the radar of the American Jewish community, is a powerful indicator of the kind of person Brian is.”
With the constant threat of Hezbollah and Hamas rockets, along with failed peace talks, Lurie understands why the Israeli peace camp has slipped in public opinion. He says NIF will continue to monitor grantees to make sure certain “red lines” are not crossed, such as funding any entity that supports BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel).
Among his top priorities in the months ahead: persuading more American Jews that NIF is no outlier when it comes to mainstream values.
“The values the NIF stands for are the values of mainstream America and Jewry,” Lurie said. “Most of American Jewry doesn’t know what NIF has done and what it stands for: pluralism, tolerance, civility and strengthening democracy.”