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As the New Israel Fund (NIF) seeks to open an Australian branch, supporters and critics are arguing intensely about whether to embrace or reject the organisation. In this exchange, as in parallel debates on the NIF in the US, Britain and elsewhere, details regarding the complexities of this powerful organisation and its activities are central.

NIF’s annual budget of approximately US$31 million helps to fund hundreds of NGOs in Israel each year, making it one of the most influential organisations outside the electoral system. Many of their grant recipients make positive and important contributions to advance social programs and minority rights in Israel. NGOs supported by this dimension of the NIF agenda run shelters for battered women and promote dialogue between different parts of Israeli society.

The problem is that up to one-fourth of NIF’s budget is directed to a group of radical NGOs that demonise and delegitimise Israel, and, on the basis of the NIF’s involvement, more funds are provided for the same radical NGOs through European governments. Funding for these politicised organisations – which are active in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement and call for the end of Israel as a Jewish state – directly contradicts NIF’s newly adopted guidelines, recommended by NGO Monitor. NIF pledged that it “will not fund global BDS activities against Israel nor support organisations that have global BDS programs”.

NIF’s website also was changed in December 2010, declaring that NIF “opposes the global BDS movement, views the use of these tactics as ineffective and counterproductive and is concerned that segments of this movement seek to undermine the existence of the state of Israel”.

The most egregious recipients of NIF funds include the Coalition of Women for Peace (CWP) and Adalah, both leaders in the delegitimisation efforts and NIF recipients since 2006. CWP runs the “Who Profits?” divestment website, a project “initiated in response to the Palestinian call for boycott, divestment and sanctions on Israel”, and is used by BDS activists around the world to identify corporations to target with anti-Israel divestment. Who Profits? continues to receive tax-deductible donations through NIF’s offices in the US, UK, and Switzerland.

On March 16, CWP organised an Israeli Apartheid Week event at Tel Aviv University, “Life and Struggle in Apartheid”. Speakers included two members of Mada al-Carmel, another NIF recipient and co-author of the Haifa Declaration (2007) that calls for a “change in the definition of the State of Israel from a Jewish state” and accuses Israel of “exploiting” the Holocaust “at the expense of the Palestinian people”.

Adalah officials, also involved in the Haifa Declaration, wrote and edited large portions of a May 2009 pseudo-academic study that refers to “a colonial enterprise which implements a system of apartheid”.

The report delegitimises Israeli self-defence measures as “inhumane act[s] of apartheid … perpetrated in the context of an institutionalised regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over another”. Adalah also drafted a “Democratic Constitution”, which calls for replacing the Jewish foundation of the state with a “democratic, bilingual and multicultural” ­framework.

As a Zionist organisation, NIF funding for these and other grantees active in promoting BDS – such as Mossawa, Machsom Watch, and Women against Violence – makes no sense. These groups successfully pressed the Norwegian Pension Fund to divest from Israeli firms in 2009 – a move which is clearly inconsistent with Zionism in any form.

When these and other examples of NIF’s continued involvement in BDS and demonisation are raised, critics and whistleblowers (including some who worked with NIF) are harshly attacked and accused of being “anti-democratic”.  NIF officials have staunchly refused to engage in serious and open debate with informed critics on these central issues, raising key questions regarding NIF’s capability to enforce its own policies. As a result, NIF’s reputation in Israel, and its ability to make a positive contribution through social programs, has been impaired.

NIF supporters, in Australia and elsewhere, have the opportunity to press the leaders to correct the problematic and secretive political processes which allow for this to continue, and to end their refusal to engage in critical dialogue. This will allow NIF donors and board members to separate the positive from the negative dimensions of this schizophrenic organisation and its activities. To play an effective and positive social role and restore its reputation, NIF leaders need to strongly repudiate and eliminate funding for BDS and demonisation activities as well as listen to its critics without mudslinging and uncivil behavior.

Gerald Steinberg is president of NGO Monitor, a Jerusalem-based research institution that tracks NGOs that claim to promote human rights, particularly in the Middle East.