A great deal of the news about Israel in the US is negative, focusing on the complex, vexing and disturbing military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza where only Jewish settlers live under Israeli civil law, the security wall built in the middle of West Bank villages and farms, the often unjust situation for Israeli Arabs. All of it can paint an awful picture of Israel and the news media often goes out of its way to do so. Because of that, it is important to remember that despite its serious problems with human rights, Israel is the only democratic nation in the Middle East and that in Israel, it is legal and acceptable to protest government action and policy, to pursue legal remedies for injustices of all kinds, to demonstrate for peace, to fight for equal rights in the courts, to publish vitriolic criticism of the military. In other words, it is possible to pursue social justice in Israel and that is the work of many courageous and fine citizens of Israel. The New Israel Fund and the organizations and agencies it funds are proof positive of this.
My sister and brother-in-law, Denise and Jim, are active supporters of the New Israel Fund, to which Chuck and I also contribute. It is a controversial organization in Israel for many reasons, but remember, even though some powerful people in Israel vilify NIF, it is absolutely free to follow its mission, attract donors, and annoy its detractors. Nowhere else in the Middle East, nor in many other nations of the world, could NIF exist. On its website, it says,
The New Israel Fund (NIF) is the leading organization advancing democracy and equality for all Israelis. We believe that Israel can live up to its founders’ vision of a state that ensures complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants, without regard to religion, race, gender or national identity. Our values drive our work. We fight inequality, injustice and extremism because we understand that justice is the precondition for a successful democracy — and the only lasting road to peace.
Denise arranged for the four of us to spend a day last week with some of the agencies that the NIF supports. We spent time with leaders and staff members of ACRI, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel; ASSAF, an aid organization for asylum seekers in Israel; and Mahapach Taghir, a feminist community empowerment organization in Jewish and Arab communities. It was informative, moving, and heartening to meet these people and learn about their work.
ACRI is the Israeli equivalent of the ACLU, promoting civil and human rights for all segments of Israeli society. They challenge unjust laws in court and fight for equal housing, freedom from religious coercion, gender equality, and human rights in Israel and the West Bank. They are very well-established and well-known in Israel, much as the ACLU is in the US. Our sense was there are highly skilled and dedicated lawyers and other staff members at ACRI who do essential, sophisticated and tireless work on behalf of all the residents and citizens of Israel. New Israel Fund is a major funder of ACRI.
Our visit with ASSAF was sad but inspiring. There are over 45,000 asylum seekers in Israel, mostly from Sudan and Eritrea in Africa, who have witnessed and survived horrific conditions including torture, rape, and human trafficking. They have no legal status in Israel, receive no aid and cannot work legally. They are in legal limbo and ASSAF provides pyschosocial support, food, help with housing, family and individual counseling, tutoring and a youth club, and legal advice to these refugees. Their budget is shoestring, their dedication steadfast and palpable, and they are doing holy work in my eyes. I was glad to hear that students from Kibbutzim College volunteer at ASSAF.
Mahapach-Taghir especially resonated for me personally because they employ the methodology of critical pedagogy first championed by Paulo Friere in Brazil and I am a strong believer in this approach to educating and empowering people in poverty and because they work in the neighborhood in Jerusalem where I lived 43 years ago. They work in seven different Jewish and Arab neighborhoods, establishing women’s councils, helping mothers pursue higher education, tutoring children, and pushing for community growth and development. The organization is co-directed by Jewish and Arab women. Once again, we learned that Kibbutzim College students volunteer here too. I really connected with one of the staff members we met and I hope to work with Mahapach-Taghir when I return next time to Israel.
As I’ve written before, Israel is an imperfect society, but there is hope for the future because so many talented, dedicated people are pursuing social justice and tikkun olam, the repair of our fragile world.