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The Unfinished Project of Israel

On June 6, the New Israel Fund (where I work) gathered one hundred young Jewish activists in New York City to discuss social justice and Israel, and the deep chasm between them. It’s no small matter, considering that the average … Read More

By / September 2, 2009

On June 6, the New Israel Fund (where I work) gathered one hundred young Jewish activists in New York City to discuss social justice and Israel, and the deep chasm between them. It’s no small matter, considering that the average Israel organization wants you (young impressionable Jewish scions) to give up your funds and your fealty to the Jewish state, but never mind those starving people in Tibet. And the average social justice organization wants you to donate your shekels and spare time to disempowered people all over the world. Good thing there are no disenfranchised people in Israel, right?

If only that were true. Israel is quite the unfinished project. Beyond prevalent poverty, there are serious structural problems with minority rights, religious freedom, environmental protection, and the rights of migrant workers, gays, and women, for example. Not to mention the human rights issues of the territories. Sadly, progressive causes are in no short supply in the modern State of Israel.

It’s a blind spot in the Jewish psyche, one which the New Israel Fund has made its mission. Who else will support the young, new social justice organizations and grassroots activists of the Jewish state? Israel’s equivalents of the ACLU or the League of Conservation Voters need funding and training to make Israel a state worth living in.

Last year, 40 participants joined a Birthright Israel trip sponsored in part by the New Israel Fund. In addition to the normal Birthright stops, they met a dozen of Israel’s most inspirational activists and organizers.

On day one, a staff member of the Regional Council of Unrecognized Villages led a tour of a Bedouin village near Beer-Sheva, a ramshackle hovel of corrugated aluminum siding and cracked concrete without electricity or water. Several participants had recently visited New Orleans for Hillel service trips and the similarity of state disenfranchisement wasn’t lost on them. This was no touristy "ride the camel" Bedouin camp.

By day three, participants debated a panel of five young Jewish activists: an environmentalist, a Mizrahi empowerment organizer, an Ethiopian immigrant organizer, and an orthodox advocate of religious pluralism. (See here for short videos of these issues.)

And on day five, just after visiting the national Holocaust museum, the Migrant Workers Hotline took them on a haunting and unforgettable visit to a shelter for Sudanese refugees in the slums of south Tel Aviv. After escaping from Darfur, these refugees were sometimes arrested at the border, sometimes sent back to Egypt, sometimes brought to social workers, and sometimes ignored by authorities. The Hotline works to secure them permanent asylum, permissions to earn a living, and support to become members of society.

These grantees of the New Israel Fund are reshaping the fabric of Israeli society – over 800 organizations and $200 million over 30 years. To date, NIF is the only organization benefiting all members of Israeli society.

But who says social justice has to be a drag? If you’re in New York City on September 9, 2009, then please join the 14th Annual New Generations Benefit produced with JDub Records [disclosure: JDub is an advertiser on Jewcy], featuring hip hop DJ masters SOULICO with special guests  AXUM. Tickets are $36 and on sale through next Wednesday.

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