'Everyone in the government works with the New Israel Fund'
Mickey Gitzin, who grew up in a national right-wing home, is not quite the natural choice to head the New Israel Fund. Now, after establishing himself in the role, he no longer listens to online commentators and has started instead to focus on the objectives: bring the NIF into the consensus, but also fight back against detractors.
“When the Czar in Russia would have a problem, he would say, ‘The Jews are to blame! Strike at the Jews and save Russia!’ Throughout history, the moment you’re in a severe political crisis, when you’ve got nothing to offer, when you’re unsuccessful, you point to someone else and say that they’re the problem. Usually, it’s a minority that isn’t in power and is in a state of maximum vulnerability.”
As the son of a Jewish family that immigrated to Israel from the Soviet Union, Mickey Gitzin is familiar with that sense of persecution, but now he’s experiencing it from a different direction in his capacity as the New Israel Fund’s new executive director in Israel.
The New Israel Fund is an umbrella organization that promotes civil society and human rights in Israel—or, as Yair Netanyahu succinctly describes it: the 'Israel Destruction Fund.'
In recent years, we’ve heard the words “New Israel Fund” bandied about as a coded short-form for something else. When I asked people over the past few days what the New Israel Fund is, their answers ranged from “I don’t know” to “they’re the ones who support terrorists, aren’t they?”
“The New Israel Fund creates the Israeli society that Bibi Netanyahu brags about when he travels the world,” said Gitzin. “He has never said, ‘See how lovely it is, we burn down Palestinians’ olive trees.’ Instead, he talks about gays in Tel Aviv-Jaffa, progressive women’s rights in Israel, and how the Arabs here have equal rights. The NIF has been working on all those things from day one. It led and funded a residents’ struggle, thanks to which the only radiation lab in a hospital in northern Israel was opened, and then the prime minister and the health minister came to cut the ribbon.”
So you work hand in hand with the government?
“The NIF fills the gaps that the government leaves. Government ministries work with us. We have letters of thanks from them—the Welfare Ministry, the Health Ministry, the Justice Ministry, Miri Regev! The My Heart Is In The East Festival, of which we were one of the principal sponsors, was produced this year in cooperation with the Culture and Sports Ministry. On the poster, there’s the Culture and Sports Ministry’s logo alongside the New Israel Fund’s logo. The NIF and organizations it supports are working with Ayelet Shaked’s Justice Ministry to draft a report about the issue of racism against the Ethiopian community. Work on the allocation of NIS 15 billion to the Arab sector—almost everyone who is involved with that decision is connected to the NIF. The Prime Minister’s Office and the Finance Ministry have been working closely with them. The Mizrahi organizations and the social justice organizations who work with (Aryeh) Deri’s Interior Ministry are almost solely supported by us, and we do so with great pride—the Mizrahi Democratic Rainbow Coalition, the Association for Distributive Justice, the Public Housing Forum.”
So what has changed since the onslaught against the NIF first began?
“In practice? Only the public tone. There isn’t a single organization that has left the NIF. Miri Regev and Ayelet Shaked can brand us as Israel-haters, while on the other hand they embrace things we’ve been working on for a decade already.”
Turned into the devil overnight
The New Israel Fund is an American organization established in 1979 by Israelis and liberal American Jews who support Israel. It is involved and invested in every political issue that creates social diversity in Israel: the public housing struggle, efforts to promote Mizrahi culture, all issues that pertain to religious freedom, the status of women in Haredi society, coexistence and minority rights. It supports organizations such as the Peace and Security Council, the Negev Council, Adam Teva V’Din, Ahoti, Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah, as well as other organizations that have come to be viewed by the Israeli right wing as controversial, primarily Breaking the Silence, B’Tselem and Adalah—the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel.
The NIF’s board is comprised of Israelis and Jews from around the world. It spends some $30 million every year, most of which is invested in practice in Israel.
“Ninety-five percent of the money comes from American Jews who want to support an Israel they would want to live in. Those are the same Jews whose names you’ll see on the list of donors to hospitals or on Magen David Adom ambulances,” Gitzin explains.
So why is the NIF perceived as a left-wing organization, and why has it been maligned in Israel?
“Because in recent years—after public discourse became more extreme—democracy, social justice and human rights have become values that are categorically identified with the Left. People on the Right thought it was a money pipeline, and if they stopped it, they would stop what’s referred to as the “human rights organizations in Israel,” and then the volume of criticism towards the government would be reduced.
"Bibi’s thing is to portray anything that is critical of him as diabolical. It doesn’t have to bear any connection to reality. It has to do with the story he tells the public. ‘If you criticize me—if you’re a journalist, a civil society organization, a politician—you’re to blame for incitement, treason against the homeland. The homeland is me.’ And anyone who criticizes him—Ben-Dror Yemini, Guy Peleg, Kalman Liebskind, public housing residents, the disabled—they’re all the same. There’s no distinction nowadays in Netanyahu’s world between the State of Israel and its interests, and his own interests. Secondly, you need pure evil, someone you can rant against, since the government can’t step up and say, ‘look at the amazing things we’ve done.’ They need to say, ‘they’re traitors,’ just like Trump does.”
How did they do that to the NIF?
“One day in 2010, an organization called Im Tirtzu launched a monstrous campaign against the New Israel Fund. Monstrous in terms of its vileness. It cast the NIF as a hostile force that wants to hurt the State of Israel, that is treasonous towards the country. It claimed the Goldstone report’s allegations were based on testimonies from the NIF’s organizations. That is untrue. It isn’t based on any truth. The Goldstone report quotes the Israeli government far more than any one organization. That was the campaign, and it subsequently became evident a lot of their donors are close to Prime Minister Netanyahu, some of whom even donate money to him. They are also the ones who staged the ‘spontaneous’ reservists protest on Netanyahu’s behalf against Olmert. They are his attack dogs. One of them was charged with stealing weapons from the IDF. They attack like there’s no tomorrow, and they don’t think about the fact there’s an Israeli society that has to continue to exist afterwards. Can anyone say Im Tirtzu ever helped them? Took care of them? Were involved in anything that didn’t involve saying ‘they’re traitors'? Never! Their whole politics is, ‘they’re traitors,’ and not ‘we’re good.’
“Moshe Klughaft is their campaigner. He’s a man who balks at nothing. In my opinion, he doesn’t have a concept of good and evil, only how to profit. He’s staged campaigns in various countries in Eastern Europe and used the strategy of coming out against civil society and (vaunting) nationalism. He has no inhibitions or ideology. He’s cruel, in my opinion.
"These are people who don’t think about the repercussions of what they’re doing to Israeli society, only how to win the current campaign. This is a phenomenon that is taking the world apart today. It isn’t an Israeli phenomenon. Incidentally, Klughaft isn’t my rival. He isn’t important. He’s like a weapon that shoots for the highest bidder." (Moshe Klughaft declined to comment.)
He ran Erel Margalit’s campaign in the Labor Party.
“Correct. And shockingly, that didn’t work with the Left. With the right it works great. Bibi invented that formula. Do you remember ‘The Left has forgotten what it is to be Jewish?’ That’s the same thing. And ever since that campaign, they’ve been able to link the words ‘the New Israel Fund’—without anyone knowing what it is—to all sorts of social phenomena.
"Bibi said in an interview with investigative journalists Shimon Riklin and his friend that the demonstrations in Petah Tikva were being funded by us. That isn’t true. We have no connection (to these demonstrations). The demonstrations in Petah Tikva are legitimate. Had they asked us, we might have backed them, but we haven’t backed them. Not a single shekel has been given. That’s a fact.”
If the prime minister lied, why don’t you sue him?
“I can’t sue him. A lie isn’t libel. The law doesn’t prohibit him from lying. He would have had to say something that is a concrete lie that maligns us. Nearly everything politicians say about us is a lie. We’ve now sued Israel Hayom, which published an article claiming we supported (i.e. helped fund) the farewell party for Basel Ghattas (the former MK who was convicted of smuggling cellphones to security prisoners), which isn’t true. They printed that again and again, even though we made it clear it was a complete lie. This is the first time the New Israel Fund sued for slander. Miri Regev invented that we support the glorification of terrorists on the basis of that false report in Israel Hayom, but we can’t sue her, because she based her claims on them.
“There are some people who learned to exploit the NIF and left-wing organizations' liberal views on libel suits and turned that into a machine that churns out lies and fake news. We’re going to put an end to that. We have no intention of becoming serial filers of libel suits, but there’s a difference between freedom of speech and baseless lies. If someone falsely accuses me of something that is damaging to me and there are legal grounds—I’ll hit back.”
Yair Netanyahu allegedly described you on Facebook as the 'Israel Destruction Fund.'
“That’s exactly the same thing as me saying he’s an a**hole. He cursed. Had he said, ‘on such and such date the NIF smuggled terrorists into Israel,’ that would be one thing. And Bennett said that ‘Channel Ten is the New Israel Fund’s channel,’ and the prime minister said, ‘Ilana Dayan—the New Israel Fund,’ and ‘Raviv Drucker—the New Israel Fund.’ That isn’t the truth. It’s simply idiotic. So the Miri Regevs and the Bennetts of the world realized they’ve got themselves some ‘pure evil’ that can be played with. The organization didn’t hit back, because it was still stuck in the worldview of ‘let’s embrace everyone and peace-and-love.’ The NIF leaders were simply unprepared for the fight. They didn’t come here to fight. They came here to do good. They were unprepared. And since it is the perfect political embodiment of everything they’re not, the right-wing turned that into treason. The NIF was in a very vulnerable position. Everyone who worked for it believed they were getting up in the morning to do only good things. They weren’t prepared from a media standpoint to cope with a Klughaft-styled campaign.”
How does it feel to be so hated?
“I can show you what people write about me on Facebook: ‘enemies of Israel,’ ‘traitor,’ ‘Nazis,’ all of the most awful things. I don’t keep track anymore. For a long time, it used to depress me. We’re a generation that grew up in the opposition. We’re not the elite. And suddenly we saw ourselves being turned into the biggest traitors in Israeli society.”
Gemara with a Haredi rabbi
Gitzin, only 36 years old, isn’t cut from the usual cloth of the Israeli left-wing. His parents immigrated to Israel in the late 1970s from the USSR and settled down in Beer Sheva’s Dalet neighborhood. He was born two years later, but was infused with Soviet culture from every direction (“including wearing sandals with socks”). A sister who played the piano; a grandmother in the living room who practically raised him; a father who was trained as an engineer and worked three jobs (“at night he worked like a good Russian security guard”); and a mother who worked for the National Insurance Institute. He grew up in a public housing apartment in Azor.
“My friends were Russians and Mizrahim. My friend Asher’s father came from Syria, and people used to joke that he was an ‘Arab,’ and I was a ‘pork-eating Russian.’ At the age of 13, I began to keep kosher so I wouldn’t be made fun of. I tried to be ‘Israeli,’ to completely cancel out the Russian. My home was a very right-wing home, very secular, national-Jewish. We had stories about Maccabi Tel Aviv versus CSKA Moscow, while quietly rooting for Maccabi and no one must know. Hatred of communism.”
He was a good kid, active with the school social committee, president of the student council, and even right-wing. “In the 1992 elections, I handed out Likud flyers. I walked around wearing a shirt that came down to my knees with Yitzhak Shamir on it. Left (wing politics) began as teenage rebellion. From my parents’ perspective, that was not at all okay—(I wasn’t just) left-wing, but I kept kosher and wasn’t good at math,” he says.
He served in the IDF's Intelligence Directorate, and discovered the world. “I was always sure I was one of the good guys, and then I went there and I met the Israel of Tel Aviv and Gush Dan (the greater Tel Aviv area). People with two names—Ran Inbar, Shahar Omer—said to me, ‘Mickey Gitzin is the name of a guy from the Artillery Corps.’ I met some of them in other places on the Left. I always look at them from the outside. Even today. In my perception, they were always better than me.”
In his attempt to become Israeli, he became an intelligence officer. “I was an intelligence researcher in the Palestinian arena. A lot of my left-wing character was nurtured there.”
What did you glean politically from your military service?
“You hear a lot of, ‘The Military Intelligence Directorate’s assessment is…’ Well, we’re the Military Intelligence Directorate that assesses. I’m not part of the naïve Left. I know exactly what Barghouti was involved in, what Hamas in Hebron is. I remember all the arms smuggling incidents as if I had smuggled them myself. But I came to understand the Israeli interests, which aren’t just preserving security, like we were being told: There’s a complex reality here; there aren’t good guys and bad guys; and the Israeli intelligence services have become a well-oiled machine in the service of Israeli public relations.”
After he completed his military service, Gitzin served as a Jewish Agency envoy to a small Jewish community in the United States. “Three-thousand Jews and three synagogues—Reform, Conservative and Orthodox. I discovered that there wasn’t any conflict between my liberal worldview—or between the fact that I’m what’s known as secular—and my connection to a Jewish worldview. I would sit with a Haredi rabbi and study Gemara.”
Between his meetings with the rabbi, Gitzin met a local Catholic woman who became his girlfriend. “She was a religious affairs reporter in the area, and she came with me to Israel. We lived here together for three years and a bit. When we separated, I came out of the closet and she converted and became a religious Jew. Today she’s in Jerusalem, married with two children. National-religious.”
It took you some time.
“I was scared. After I got my degree from the Hebrew University, I was (Meretz MK) Ilan Gilon’s spokesperson in the 2009 elections. I was accepted with a scholarship to University College London for a master’s program. It was only there that I came out of the closet to myself. It was a huge betrayal of my parents, and I was also afraid it would be used against me if I had a job with a high public profile. But the Left made it possible for me to do that.”
And if you were on the Right?
“I wouldn’t have been able to live the way I live. You’ve got MK Amir Ohana on the Right, but you’ve also got a lot more people in the closet over there.”
His parents were anything but thrilled when he came out, but even his decision to come out to them was facilitated by his political activism. Gitzin returned to Israel and was hired to establish Free Israel, an umbrella organization to bring together various organizations that were active on the religion and state front.
“The first organization that stood by us was the New Israel Fund," he says. "One of the issues that Free Israel deals with is the LGBT community. We were getting ready for the gay pride parade. I printed up and distributed flyers with other volunteers, and then my mother called me to say, ‘Don’t go there.’”
“Because that’s the worst thing in the world. The following Saturday I went to see them at home. My mother asked me what was going on with me in my personal life, and I told her, ‘I’m actually gay.’ She cried like crazy. My father wouldn’t stop pacing back and forth, crying. He went into the bedroom and closed the door. From their perspective, it was terrible.”
How many years has it been since?
“Around eight. They know, but aren’t willing to hear about it or accept it. It’s a huge cultural challenge for them.”
Gitzin has been in a relationship with Motti for the past six years, “and they met him for the first time a month ago. Formally.” That’s the way it is when your son becomes the executive director of the NIF, and a Tel Aviv-Jaffa Councilman to boot.
Did you think they would hire you?
“Everyone I spoke with said they would take someone who was like them, looked like them, older. Someone 55 years old, a person with public stature. A person who has already done something. A person who has ties with what’s known as the old Left, culturally as well. Maybe even someone Ashkenazi. You’ve got to understand, this is the most important organization on the Left. I didn’t think I’d be hired. But they were amazing. These are people who took a risk—hiring a 36-year-old fellow to run such a large organization—because they believe a change is needed here, and they’re committed to it.”
Is the change part of an effort to chuck out the old Left?
“No, the change is to defeat the Right. It was the Left that gave me the opportunity, and I’m not going to spit in its face. There’s no need every time a new generation arrives to spit on the previous generation. That’s a stupid practice.”
If the New Israel Fund is so active on behalf of Israeli society, why does it always do that with the help of left-wing organizations?
“There aren’t any right-wing organizations that address human rights in the territories and think we need to stop the occupation. You can’t engage in a fight against corruption, on behalf of LGBT and women's rights, fight economic struggles, and say: All of that is true, but only for Jews. It ends at the Green Line.”
So the NIF doesn’t support organizations identified as being right-wing?
“We don’t ask people whom they vote for or what their political worldviews are, but I have no interest in supporting an organization that promotes the development of settlements on privately-owned Palestinian land, or an organization that says, ‘Jews and Arabs aren’t equal.’
"The NIF supports, for example, Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah, which is an Orthodox national-religious organization, and Batya Kahane-Dror, the director of the Mavoi Satum non-profit organization that helps women who have been refused a religious divorce, who was also a candidate on the Bayit Yehudi's Knesset list. The NIF was prepared in the past, for ethical reasons, to support organizations that didn’t want to identify with it and didn’t want people to know the NIF supported their struggle, so they wouldn’t be branded as left-wing. Today it’s made clear to everyone who comes that option doesn’t exist.”
Doesn’t the right-wing have values like the ones you support?
“There isn’t a single right-wing fund that supports something that isn’t on behalf of the right-wing. Uri Ariel took public housing apartments and turned them into yeshivas that serve the religious-national ideology groups in the periphery, when the entire goal is to recruit people to the right-wing worldview. The person who exposed that was (MK) Orly Levy-Abekasis, who isn’t exactly a left-wing figure. Those are apartments people could live in. That is the complete opposite of what’s known as social justice. There is a lot more money on the Right—the Tikva Fund, the One Israel Fund—and it is invested entirely in strengthening the right-wing worldview. A very large investment in the territories, the City of David and Hebron, organizations like Honenu or issues that are connected to Im Tirtzu and Lehava. There’s nothing there that is, ‘hold on a moment, what does the Israeli society need?’
“When they speak out against us, the first thing (they say) is: Breaking the Silence-B’Tselem-Adalah. That same mantra, without any ability to create a narrative that explains how the right-wing’s worldview really contributes to Israeli society as a whole. In a radio interview to Galei Israel ahead of the most recent Ha’aretz conference, which had the support of the New Israel Fund, MK Shuli Mualem put it beautifully: ‘If I boycott the New Israel Fund, I’ll have to boycott everything in civil society in Israel.’”
What’s your opinion about Miri Regev, who wants to redistribute cultural capital in the name of the Likud?
“Her idea is the right idea, but she hasn’t done anything. What has she said? Not, ‘let’s think about how we can build a cultural space encompassing all parts of Israel,’ but ‘let’s f*** Tel Aviv.’ Why do you need to cast Tel Aviv as the enemy when you’re talking about cultural development in the periphery? She stood in southern Tel Aviv and spoke about the Sudanese. What has she done on behalf of the residents of southern Tel Aviv? Tell me how you intend to develop that cultural space.”
Tell me, how does one get funding from you?
“If you’re an organization that meets the criteria of our values, you submit a request that gets approved by the board of directors.”
People on the Right claim your funding comes from the European Union and “foreign nations.”
“In the past, two percent of our projects—(in support of) sustainable local economy, an economy the community creates by itself—were financed by the European Union. All of the donations to the New Israel Fund are transparent on our website. Our financial reports are transparent to all. Incidentally, note that many of the sources of right-wing donations are tax havens. There were reports Channel 20 is supported by means of a company that is registered in a tax haven in the Virgin Islands. That facilitates concealing the identity of the donors and their business conduct. Those are organizations you can’t know who they are, what their interests are. A large amount of the right-wing money is dirty—from gambling and prostitution. And that’s just fine from the right-wing’s perspective since it serves the mechanism they live off of.”
In recent years, the NIF has supported Breaking the Silence. Do you identify with them?
“With the idea? Very much so.”
A lot of Israelis think, ‘Why do they have to go talk about it around the world?’
“All that talk about telling the world is nonsense. The discussion is held at the international level. When Israel is represented by (Defense Minister Avigdor) Lieberman or (Education Minister) Naftali Bennett, who only offer one voice, it is enormously important to have other voices represented. Besides, don’t let them lie to you. Settler organizations operate in US Congress today as well.”
They say that they’re acting on behalf of Israel.
“That’s just it. Look, David Bitan said that top Shin Bet and Mossad officials come out of (their service) Leftists. And really, there is barely a single Israeli security official who doesn’t view the expansion of the settlements—certainly the isolated ones—and the continued (Israeli) control over the territories as a security risk. Forget about morality and all that. There isn’t anything more pro-security than the argument a Palestinian state needs to be established and the occupation ended. And people who really haven’t done anything their entire lives, like David Bitan, sit and mouth off against generals who wrote Israel’s security doctrine.
“I view the activity of Breaking the Silence—and, more generally, everyone who acts on behalf of human rights either in the territories or in Israel—as the best representatives of Israeli Zionism. Herzl spoke about our right to live here only thanks to the fact we live alongside the Arabs . That is the embodiment of Zionism. There isn’t any other Zionism. And the right-wing currently in power has been raping Zionism. They operate with the same zealous worldview that was in vogue before the destruction of the Second Temple—everyone is against us; anyone who doesn’t agree with every single one of the goals they set for themselves as the formative idea for this society is a traitor. As far as they’re concerned, they can stay here all by themselves, they alone. They don’t have a vision of Israeli society as a whole. It doesn’t exist.”
Gitzin isn’t worried by the threats to nix the NIF’s funding. “They aren’t going to nix it. The fact is that they haven’t. They can’t because they know that if they hurt us, they’ll be hurting themselves as well. Ultimately, Israeli society won’t be able to live without the European Union financing academic research. And what will Bibi do without Sheldon (Adelson)? The right-wing’s entire political mechanism relies on money from overseas. They’ve tried to raise those red flags so you’ll think everyone is a traitor. In the end, they don’t want to shut down social organizations. If we get shut down, the State of Israel stops being the nation-state of the Jewish people, because the entire idea of Jewish partnership that keeps this project going will go down the drain. The end of the NIF is the end of Zionism.”
What do you intend to do to change the Israeli public’s perception of the NIF?
“I plan to present to the public what the NIF really does. To talk about that again and again, not to comment on the right-wing (attacks), but to tell our story all the time. In a lot of ways, I’m like a right-wing voter. My fears and all sorts of other things. That’s where I come from. The left-wing tells jokes about it being ‘Israel-haters.’ I’m not an Israel-hater. I’m fighting for this country.
“On Saturday I met with a friend whose family is from a settlement. He said to me, ‘You remind me of us back in the 1990s. You’re hungry.’ We are hungry. We feel that we’ve got something good, and we need to fight for it. You see the Likud today, and the right-wing more generally—Mapai has taken over it. From the 'jobs bill' to corruption that has become permissible, to ‘we’ll do as we please, and we don’t care about anyone else.’ That’s what happened to Mapai when it rotted. That’s the corruption and the rot and the vileness and the condescension of the right-wing today that says, ‘we’ll remain in power forever.’ Mapai woke up one morning and no longer existed. In this fight, we’ve got no choice but to win, because we already own our own loss.”