An optimistic Daniel Sokatch
Israel may be a “democracy in recession” but there’s a “blossoming of grassroots social justice activism” fighting on the frontline.
That’s the optimistic assessment of Daniel Sokatch, the CEO of the New Israel Fund, who spoke to almost 100 people at Shalom College in Sydney on Sunday night.
Mr Sokatch, who has headed Israel’s leading organisation committed to equality and democracy since 2009, told the audience that Israel is experiencing a “Dickensian moment” that was “the best of times” and “the worst of times”.
He said the Jewish state has witnessed over the past two-plus years a “process of attempted de-democratisation” characterised by some 40 anti-democratic bills that “would fundamentally alter the democratic nature of the face of Israel”.
But the good news, he said, is that very few have passed and Israel is also in the midst of a period of “grassroots social justice activism,” referring to the almost 500,000 Israelis who demanded social justice on Rothschild Boulevard and elsewhere last year.
“Between the democratic recession and the social justice movement, the New Israel Fund is front and centre in the middle of the biggest tectonic shift going on right now,” Mr Sokatch said.
The current anti-democratic agenda is an attempt to “circumscribe freedom of speech and freedom of expression,” he added.
“McCarthyism is exactly what NIF and our supporters in Israel and the Diaspora stand firmly against.
“We reject the notion that you have to choose between the Israel right or wrong camp and the Israel is always wrong camp,” he said.
Mr Sokatch, 44, who hails from San Francisco, said that a group of Likud MKs are some of the strongest supporters of Israel’s democracy. He described Benny Begin MK, son of former prime minister Menachem Begin, as “one of the best friends we have in the Israeli government”.
Begin and others such as Dan Meridor and Ruby Rivlin are “conservatives of conscience” who are fighting for Israel’s democracy, Mr Sokatch said.
Asked whether the NIF has “red lines” regarding its funding guidelines, Mr Sokatch said that guidelines had been put in place as the threat of BDS became apparent and gave examples of grantees that had been dropped for being in breach of them.
However, he staunchly defended NIF’s support for Adalah, the leading Arab-Israeli civil rights organisation.
To ask Arab Israelis – some 20 percent of the population – to pledge allegiance to the Zionist ideal “seems ridiculous,” he said. “But to tell them they have no place in the conversation because we don’t agree with them seems to me the way to truly create a disastrous problem for Israel.”
He cited praise for Hassan Jabareen, the founder and director of Adalah, from three Israeli Supreme Court justices, including former chief justice Aharon Barak who said Jabareen should sit on the Supreme Court of Israel one day.
Mr Sokatch is on a whirlwind speaking tour in Sydney and Melbourne on behalf of the newly formed Australian branch of the New Israel Fund.
Led by president Robin Margo, a former president of the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies, NIF Australia was officially launched by Naomi Chazan last year – one year after her previous visit to Australia was cancelled amid a public attack by a right-wing activist group called Im Tirzu.
Mr Margo said the Australian branch had been welcomed by a groundswell of support in its first 12 months – testimony to the need for a voice that supports both the Jewish state and social justice and human rights for all Israelis, regardless of race or religion.
The New Israel Fund was established in 1979 and has disbursed more than $US250 million to more than 850 Israeli NGOs in the last three decades.
It has branches in the UK, US, Canada, Switzerland and most recently in Australia.