How Zionist is the New Israel Fund


NAOMI Chazan’s visit to Australia to launch the New Israel Fund (NIF) here has generated much interest, comment and debate. It has brought important issues of the nature and scope of Zionism and Israel engagement among our community into sharp focus.

The Australian Zionist movement, with the Zionist Federation of Australia (ZFA) at its head, is very broad based, encompassing organisations from the Left to the Right; from Orthodox to Progressive and Conservative; including Zionist youth movements, students, women’s groups and key Israel fundraising organisations, including the United Israel Appeal (UIA) and Jewish National Fund (JNF). Within the ZFA there is candid and sometimes vigorous debate on issues relating to Israel, and Jewish and Zionist identity.

Despite the divergent views, the movement unites under certain fundamental Zionist principles, including the belief in Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people and as a Jewish and democratic state which offers full legal rights to its non-Jewish citizens.

Chazan’s visit has also unfortunately generated the circulation of some comments which are at best misinformed and at worst deliberately disingenuous about the ZFA’s position on her, NIF and its Australian leadership.

The ZFA does not vilify or ostracise any individual or organisation, whether or not they are part of our Zionist movement. Every person in our community, including in our Zionist movement, is perfectly entitled to become involved in NIF if they believe it speaks to them in a meaningful way.

I understand from Chazan and NIF’s Australian leadership that NIF considers itself to be a Zionist organisation, although curiously the word Zionism does not appear anywhere in its statement of principles set out on NIF’s website.

The debate in Zionist circles concerning NIF is not about the Zionist credentials of Naomi Chazan, which are not in question, or of any Australian NIF board member, some of whom have been active in our movement. Rather, the discussion around the ZFA table has been in relation to clarifying whether NIF’s current funding decisions conflict with the core objectives and principles of the Zionist movement.

There can be no doubt that NIF supports valuable projects which aim to improve Israeli society, and for which it should be commended. It funds organisations that attempt to reduce social gaps and improve the lives of individuals in disadvantaged groups, and it supports pluralism and tolerance.

Nevertheless there are recipients of NIF grants totalling millions of dollars who stand for principles and carry out activities which are at basic odds with the Zionist and Jewish ethos of the State of Israel. I refer specifically to organisations such as Adalah, Mada Al Carmel, Mossawa and Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity Movement, which have variously called for changing the definition of Israel as the Jewish State, the eradication of the Israeli flag and her anthem, the Hatikvah, repealing the law of return for Jews, arguing for a Palestinian right of return to Israel and boycotting Israeli goods and services.

Some NIF grantees have also called for the dismantling of the JNF and the Jewish Agency For Israel (JAFI). The raison d’etre of these organisations is building and maintaining the State of Israel as the national homeland and haven for the Jewish people. JAFI, with considerable financial assistance from UIA Australia, also provides extensive support for our Zionist youth movements, short and long-term Israel programs, aliyah activities and many Israel-oriented school projects in our community.

Some NIF supporters say that we are naive in thinking that these particular organisations are going to adopt the Zionist narrative, and I agree. They are legitimate Israeli organisations and provided they don’t break the laws of Israel, they are entitled to espouse their own views and work towards them.

However, the question for the ZFA, and by extension the entire Australian Jewish community, is whether it is appropriate for NIF, if it considers itself to be a Zionist organisation, to seek financial support in order to fund organisations whose objectives are anathema to the core principles of Zionism.

It is for this reason that the ZFA has written to NIF in order to seek clarification on these very points. The ZFA is not engaged in a witch hunt (as some might suggest) but rather aims to inform both itself and the wider community, so that if and when people consider engaging with NIF or contributing financially to it, they will be in a better position to determine whether the organisation’s actions and principles align with their views on Israel and its place as the homeland for the Jewish people.

Philip Chester is president of the Zionist Federation of Australia.