Rachel Liel is used to withstanding persistent, large-scale attacks. But even after a term of eight years as Israel executive director of the New Israel Fund, the most attacked left-wing organization in Israel - it is unlikely that she was prepared for the final onslaught from Yair Netanyahu, which outraged the entire country. "The Israel Destruction Fund" was what the prime minister's son called the organization, which sees itself as having an ideological mission. "The post is annoying, outrageous and saddens me but I know today that it says more about the son, the father and the extreme right," Liel says in an exclusive interview to Globes G magazine to mark her retirement.
Was it spin?
"Obviously. They should teach that post when they talk about not responding to what you are being asked. He flings accusations at Peres's son, Olmert's son, NIF - accusations across the entire political spectrum without a single answer, which is to the point. A lot of people in Israel saw it and didn't like it and not only on the left."
Isn't that the way governments work, trying to avoid being confronted by questions?
"Absolutely. We saw it only recently with the story of the Temple Mount and the metal detectors. Instead of answering questions they said 'they are inciting against us' and 'acting against us' and they always look for the scapegoat - and we at NIF are an excellent scapegoat. The Likud has been in power for so many years, yet it still feels as if it is a persecuted minority and a victim and doesn't give answers to people that ask sensible questions."
A short reminder. Netanyahu junior wrote his post in response to the Facebook page of "61," an initiative of Molad, under the headline" Five things you didn't know about the crowned prince."
Yair Netanyahu responded. "I saw that a filthy page heavily funded by the radical and anti-Zionist Molad organization, which is funded by the Israel Destruction Fund and the EU slandered me. I couldn't restrain myself and I am responding. In the spirit of the times I have a message for everybody at the Israel Destruction Fund and their followers." And he signed off with emojis giving the finger and poop.
Last week Molad filed a NIS 140,000 libel suit against Netanyahu. "We were major contributors to Molad until 2015 and then we stopped," says Liel. "But when they want to defame them they still say 'the New Israel Fund.'
How did you end up being on the frontline of attacks?
"In a normal situation, the political opposition should be on this frontline. But Israel does not have a strong enough opposition, which sometimes doesn't know where it stands in ideological terms. Look at what has happened to the Labor party. We had to fill a vacuum and that's why we are so much under attack. Those in power understand that those who are creating problems for them are not the politicians on the left but the social change organizations that sometimes hold up a mirror that they don't like to have to look into. NIF is a target for attack from politicians at a time when we are working for the soul of Israel. The Declaration of Independence is the constituent document that NIF has adopted.
Attacks from the most senior politicians. Is that Miri Regev who claimed that NIF finances and supports terrorists, or Ayelet Shaked who promoted the NGOs Law because there are dangerous foreign organizations?
"The right secretly feels that it is in jeopardy. The world is not behind it. The world does not applaud occupation and they are very anxious about what will happen here. To put it simply, they need an enemy. These are classic tactics of intimidation and incitement and finding a scapegoat. Who are they against? The Arab Knesset List doesn't count and who is the opposition today? Meretz, a small party for whom I have admiration for each and every one of them but it is not enough."
"So who is there in Israel that is positioned to bring something new in criticizing what is happening in the country? And not only on issues like the occupation but also topics at the core of the public experience like religious indoctrination, the Western Wall, conversion. Only Israel's social change organizations and we are the only organization funding most of them."
The New Israel Fund was founded in California in 1979 and presents itself as "The umbrella organization in Israel for establishing civil society and protecting human rights." Its budget in Israel in 2016 totaled $21 million (altogether $30 million including international activities) and over the years NIF has contributed $300 million to more than 900 organizations working for social change including Breaking the Silence, B'Tselem (more about them later), Sikkuy, the Reform Movement, Machsom Watch, Physicians for Human Rights, and the Israel Women's Network.
"In the past eight years," says Liel, "We have changed from a modest, shy organization that sees its main role as allowing many organizations to get on with their work into an organization that finds itself on the front line. NIF is today seen as a symbol, for better or for worse, depending on who you ask.
Very much for the worse if you were to ask the prime minister.
"We are only a small organization, and look how threatening we seem even to Netanyahu, to Regev, to Bennett. What does that say? It says that this is an unusually influential organization, which is perceived as threatening their world view. I'm very proud of this. We lead the ideological camp and sometimes it happens the other way around: when the right goes to international institutions what is it proud about? The achievements of NIF but of course it does not give us credit.
"They brag that Israel is a LGBT power. Excuse me, who were the first to give the LGBT community support and assistance? Year after year we supported the LGBT community including the first year of the Jerusalem Gay parade when they said about them 'that they would leave the sins of Tel Aviv in the city." And even today the country is very proud about women's rights but who was the first to fund shelters for battered women when the government said that Jews don't beat their women and that it only happens with 'goyim?' It's hard to believe that that is how it was, people don't remember."
Have you got used to such cynicism over the years?
Yes, because you have to see things in a much larger historical perspective. At the moment we aren't given any credit but we are on the right side of history. When they look at it in another few years, they will do a genuine analysis and understand. Miri Regev is conducting a campaign for resources for the Mizrahi culture of peripheral Israel. Who was the first organization that did that - people such as the "My heart is in the east" festival and "Ahoti-My Sister, when they didn't even talk about it? NIF began those things."
"I take a lot of satisfaction from issues that were once on the fringes and NIF brought them into the mainstream - like sexual harassment, trafficking in women, beating women, laws for women with disabilities, equal pay for women, public housing. As a strategic organization, we are running a marathon and we know that we must give another little push and another little push and eventually we will get there. The struggle against tycoons and business magnates, the profits from the gas, incidents of racism - I would be very glad if the credit was given to us and sometimes it annoys me that it isn't but I look at the whole picture - we have succeeded in making Israel a more just place."
How does a harsh remark like "the Israel Destruction Fund" make you feel?
"When you are an organization, which is so much under attack, such a label is very tough but on the other hand there is not a single person in Israel that has not benefited from NIF - and I know that that sounds extreme. But if you take the overall package you will see that we have done so much good for the country, so it certainly hurts. But it also tells you more about them and because it's like that it very much strengthens our supporters. During the period in which NIF has been under attack, donations in Israel and abroad have been growing as well as the number of people joining us."
"In the past two and a half years Talia Sasson has served as NIF's President and she has stood by my side, backing me up with strong public support. Without wishing to sound bombastic, for our camp, we are the moral lighthouse that does not panic and does not stray from its path."
In the current situation do Israel's social change organizations have enough power to make a fight of it and change things?
"No. They have a lot of strength and it is a fact that they are threatening to do so but they do not have enough strength and my concern is for the future. There is a campaign to destroy them. Netanyahu is talking about a further law to the NGO Law that will completely prevent foreign funding to NGOs. There are attempts by the right to destroy civil society, which is the oxygen of democracy and this would unquestionably harm democracy. Meanwhile, we remain at the breach and are even getting stronger. But there is no knowing what will happen, these are not just strong forces with a lot of money. This is the government."
One of the main claims is that NIF receives money from the EU.
"The vast majority of donations comes from private people in the US, Zionist Americans. There are a small amount of donors from Europe because we raise money there; we have branches in England, in Germany and more. A negligible percentage comes from the EU. I don't even think it comes to 2% of our money."
Liel, 67, was born on Kibbutz Maoz Haim and grew up in Herzliya. Her husband is Alon Liel the former director general of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Israel's former Ambassador to Turkey and South Africa. Her father Meir Tzealim (her maiden name) was a doctor and her mother Naomi was the principle of a special needs school. "I grew up in an ultra-Zionist and ultra-patriotic family," she recounts. "My parents escaped from Poland to Russia during the Second World War, which in hindsight saved their lives. They were prisoners in a work camp for nearly seven years before they came to the country. It's impossible to describe the love for Israel on which I was raised at home. That generation saw the establishment of the State as a miracle and nothing could harm that. It's in the DNA. My father supported the Labor party all his life.
And you too?
"I don't talk about identifying with any political party but all my life I've been on the left."
When she was 23, she lost her first husband Ziv Shorar who was in the armored corps and was killed on the Suez Canal during the Yom Kippur War. They had been married for two years. "On Memorial Day in 2010 I went to see his grave at the same time as Im Tirtzu was conducting a campaign calling us traitors and accusing NIF of hurting soldiers. I thought to myself, how can you call us traitors? Alon, my husband is a disabled Israeli army veteran who was injured in action. We are all people whose families have served in the army. Do you have an ideological argument with me? Then argue with me. But to call me a traitor. That's outrageous."
Liel began her career as a sociologist in public service. "My first job was in Project Renewal set up by Yigael Yadin as part of the social policy department of the Prime Minister's Office," she recalls. Later she served as Deputy Director of the Rehabilitation Services Department and the Ministry of Labor and Welfare and advisor to the Director General.
"They threatened me with violence"
She remembers the three years in which the family lived in South Africa as a formative experience. "The first democratic election ever to take place there in 1994 was an event that shaped my world outlook," she explains. She even earned a social work degree there. "The experience of seeing the Blacks in South Africa voting for the first time, some of them didn't know how to read and write, signing with their thumb; that feeling of the victory of the human spirit, the triumph of justice of a people who were oppressed suddenly in power with Nelson Mandela in the background and his personality - it was something exceptional."
Afterwards she managed SHATIL for 11 years, NIF's implementation arm, which provides support and consultancy services for social change, before being appointed head of NIF in Israel in 2009. "I never imagined that the job would look the way it looks today," she admits. "I came into an organization that was barely known and suddenly we found ourselves on center stage. The attacks on NIF began two months after I started in the job when Im Tirtzu initiated a campaign that included posters that presented Prof. Naomi Hazan, who was then NIF President, as a traitor with a horn coming out of her forehead and a caption underneath saying Naomi Goldstone Hazan. Naomi told me then that it was beginning with NIF but it wouldn't end there, and she was right."
Was there personal danger in your job? Did you receive threats?
"There were. They threatened me several times with violence and we lodged complaints with the police. We also reinforced security at NIF's offices following demonstrations that alarmed the staff. We took a range of security measures." Liel warns about "A process of erosion and trampling on democratic principles that is slowly underway. Today it is already against the court, artists, university lecturers, schools, civics studies and of course the media. It helps today that people understand that it is not just NIF. NIF was the first target of destructive processes in Israeli society and that is our concern. If a society attacks the court, the Shin Bet (general security services) then it is dangerous. After all, the entire Elor Azaria affair began with B'Tselem's cameras in Hebron. Without that it wouldn't have happened," she says referring to one of the issues that has consumed the country. "It exposed one of the very dangerous tendencies of the right that needs to be stopped."
"Things that aren't pleasant to hear"
For many Israelis, if you are talking about NIF then you are talking about "Breaking the Silence" and "B'Tselem" and groups that feature on the public's daily agenda and arouse controversy.
"Do you know how many times consultants of all sorts have told us 'just stop supporting Breaking the Silence and B'Tselem and everything will be fine.' We didn't even consider it for a moment," she says.
Are there any organizations that have caused NIF damage?
"Of course there were. Therefore, we have professional methods for awarding grants with criteria and monitoring. For better or for worse, we renew grants each year and do not give multiyear grants. We say to organizations, listen, we are watching you - and there have been organizations that we stopped supporting because they crossed our red lines."
What are those red lines?
"Above and beyond the obvious, for example that we won't support an organization with a criminal past, we have three strong red lines: we do not support any organization that is in favor of the world BDS movement calling for a boycott of Israel, even if it is legal; because BDS opposes Israel not just the occupation - and so we said we won't be with them. There were some organizations that felt that they supported BDS and we stopped supporting them. Secondly, we will not support any organization that calls for putting senior Israelis on trial for war crimes in the International Court of Justice, and thirdly, NIF does not fund those who refuse to serve in the Israeli army. We think it is only fair that everybody gives."
There are still organizations that cause NIF major discomfort. There are those who do not feel comfortable with an organization like Adalah - Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, which is funded by NIF.
"There are many organizations that cause discomfort. All the human rights organizations say things that are not pleasant to hear and right there are certain things that organizations do that I would be happy if they didn't do them. But in life in civil and pluralistic society you have to look at the total sum. I look at what Adalah has done in the past few years, all the court rulings and Supreme Court petitions they brought and that equality is one of the central values of NIF and I think that Adalah has made a huge contribution, even so they annoy me sometimes."
Tell me about the dialogue with Breaking the Silence
"We have a dialogue with them the entire time. The major argument at NIF regarding them is not whether we should support them or not because support for them is across the board but the fundamental argument about their work abroad. My tendency is to think that although this part of the work is not against the law, they take a hit for their work abroad far more than they get anything. We've had many talks with them about this, not about whether it is permitted or legitimate but whether it is effective. This is a substantial argument that touches all the human rights organizations."
Liel is referring for example to the exhibition that was held in Switzerland where Breaking the Silence presented testimony from soldiers who fought in the Operation Protective Edge campaign in Gaza in 2014. "We told them that a large part of NIF's management feels uncomfortable about this and that it damages NIF," Liel says.
On the other hand, in Israel some doors are closed to you.
"Correct and that is a classic example of the stupidity of the government. The government says to the organization that you are a traitor when you go abroad but in Israel it persecutes them. Now 'they celebrated' 50 years of occupation and Breaking the Silence says - 50 years they have been working on this in Israel and not succeeding, perhaps we need to think that it is not actually working out."
"All the time they are binding their legs and not letting them into places. The principle of the Herzliya Gymnasia school Zeev Degani dared to invite Breaking the Silence and look at what they did to him because of it (Degani was summoned to a hearing at the Ministry of Education). My husband Alon is chairman of the school and they almost fired him over it. Let's have a fair fight. Each side will voice their opinion and there will be a public debate. But if you try to trample these organizations under foot, hurt their contribution, legislate against them, then it's no wonder that they look for other outlets."
Alon Liel, your partner, met with Breaking the Silence a year ago and advised them the opposite to you that they should work abroad. The meeting was recorded by a hidden camera and aired by the media where he recommends to focus on campaigning abroad and put on international pressure. That must have embarrassed you?
"It just shows you that in a family not everybody thinks the same way. I very much love and admire Alon but I don't agree with him about everything. We see 95% of things the same way and argue about the other 5% including education for children or other subjects. By the way, our arguments are part of the left."
Regretting the 'Minister of Hatred'
Liel, who stepped down as Executive Director of NIF last month and joined the board does not hide her disappointment with the left that could have made their voices heard, written, published, made speeches, and donated. Only 5% of NIF's budget in 2016 came from donations in Israel. "People are scared to pay a price but we cannot give up," she says, "My successor, Mickey Gitzin is more and more involved in the question of how to get people more active and not just complain over Shabbat lunch with friends. However, despite everything I do feel things are changing. I see the start of a transformation and awakening with even the election of Avi Gabbay to the head of the Labor party and the repercussions of that. More and more people feel fed up with people saying let's join the right and we'll be more popular. It's not good for Israel and it's not good for us."
Netanyahu accuses the media of an obsessive witch hunt against him. Should gagging the media also bother the right?
"It should concern everyone. It began with an attack on NIF and people said what have I got to do with NIF? What do we care it doesn't affect us? The next day they attacked university lecturers. Slowly people began to understand that it would not stop and it's impossible to know where it will end. You think it will end with you but no. Tomorrow they will say that all Reform Jews are sinners or all those who don't eat kosher. Or you believe in pluralism and the right of everyone to live their lives how they want providing they don't hurt anyone else, or you don't. So I think that the right is fooling itself. If there will be these laws then tomorrow it can change and affect you."
Let's get back to current matters. How do you think that the investigation against the prime minister will end?
"I'm not in a position to know but I can say that there is an awakening in our camp. I feel that it is not only people on the left that are stirring and that is a source of hope for me. There is a feeling that people are fed up. More and more people feel that what is happening in Israel is not good with corruption, chauvinism and extremism, the messianic feeling about the Temple Mount, with ugly racism, and even the style - talk like that of Yair Netanyahu. I've got nothing against Netanyahu's son but this manner reflects a mood that I think many feel is despicable and they want to see a change. And this style is not only directed against NIF. Take the example of Assi Azar. After Amir Fryszer Gutmann drowned then somebody wrote on their Facebook post why didn't he take Assi Azar with him. Violent language and culture have taken over here; everyone is a traitor and garbage and we'll kill you and there are emojis of crap."
Are you worried that the next political assassination might happen?
"Very much so. And it can happen, it's not impossible.
Society in Israel sees the writing on the wall?
"For sure the lessons from the murder of Rabin have not been learned. There are a lot of scenarios that might take place. Think of the Temple Mount. The dialogue is very violent, the incitement is clear, so don't be surprised. If they call people infiltrators - then perhaps you have to eliminate an infiltrator. Pay attention to what you're saying. That's not the way to conduct an argument."
With the promotion of the NGO Law, NIF conducted a campaign against Ayelet Shaked headlined 'Minister of Hatred.' Wasn't that incitement, something you yourselves are against?
"I regret the Minister of Hatred. Today I wouldn't do such a thing. It doesn't happen to us much, as we are very strategic and thoughtful. In principle, I prefer to attack policies and outlooks rather than people but you can't be too pure when people like the prime minister attack you personally. It's very difficult not to relate to Netanyahu. It's on the verge of impossible."
Netanyahu charges that NIF funds the demonstrations against the Attorney General Avihai Mandelblit protesting his prevarication. Is that true?
"We are giving no direct funding to these demonstrations"
Indirect funding maybe?
"Look. I don't know if some of the organizations have called for their demonstrators to go and demonstrate or whether activists go on their own. There are activists that I know that went to demonstrations. NIF has a series of emergency grants that we give to demonstrations all the time but in this instance, we gave no grant to demonstrations against the Attorney General."
So on what basis does the prime minister make his claims?
"On the basis of lies, of spin. Listen, we have many times thought about suing for libel over lies. We always grapple with this. Firstly, we are experienced and smart enough to know that that is what the right wants that we will invest our energies in a struggle against it and which will exhaust us, and we will have less strength and energy and money to deal with the real things that we want to handle. Secondly, in terms of the public, these struggles very often serve the right. They'll say we took those traitors to court. And thirdly, there would only be a result after three or four years, when everybody forgot what it was all about."
Are you still optimistic about life here?
"I'm convinced that most of the public believe in our values and want to live sane lives even if they don't call for our left wing values. Most people want to live in peace and that there will be social justice here, and that there won't be corruption and that we will have 'live and let live' here"
And the two-state solution, are you still optimistic about that?
"There is an erosion of this idea and that is worrying but the majority still believes in it. Not tomorrow but believes that a process can be started. Most people will say that they do not believe that tomorrow will yield peace with the Palestinians including many left-wingers but that's different from saying that we need to start a process that in some years will bring sanity to our region."
How worried are you for your grandchildren?
"Worried but we don't belong, not even one iota, to those that say that their place is not in Israel. We and our children want Israel to be the place that we dream about and we believe that is possible even if that seems difficult at the moment, I'm crazy about this country and I wouldn't want to live anywhere else. It has got so much to offer, you just walk around and say 'wow.' We don't want any harm to come to this wow."
Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - www.globes-online.com - on August 20, 2017
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