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Peter B. Edelman, Pres. New Israel Fund 

An Interview with Peter B. Edelman
President of the New Israel Fund

Interviewed by Charles Smolover

Peter Edelman is a Professor of Law at Georgetown University Law Center, where he teaches constitutional law and poverty law. A member of the faculty since 1982, he has served in all three branches of government. In addition to serving currently as board president of the New Israel Fund (NIF), he is also a board member of the Public Welfare Foundation, the Center for Law and Social Policy, the American Progress Action Fund, and a number of other nonprofit organizations. The following are excerpts from an interview with Peter Edelman that took place on July 20, 2006.

o PJV: Earlier this year, the Jewish Exponent published an interview with Eliezer Yaari, the NIF's executive director in Israel. That interview prompted a letter to the Exponent's editor by Michael Goldblatt, chairman of the local chapter of the Zionist Organization of America. Goldblatt's letter was highly critical of the NIF and claimed that some of the organizations that the NIF supports not have the best interests of the State of Israel at heart. How do you respond to that kind of criticism?

Publisher's Note: To read the full text of Michael Goldblatt's letter and a rebuttal from the New Israel Fund, click here.

The NIF is a total, unabashed, loving supporter of the State of Israel. It has been since its inception and will always be so. These kinds of criticisms or characterizations are often the critic's interpretation of something that someone in an organization that we support said or did. It might be something that the NIF did not know about and would not have approved of had we known about it. After all, we directly support over 130 organizations at any one time, and hundreds more through SHATIL, our empowerment and training program. Nevertheless, we are very clear about our mission and purpose, which is about enhancing the inclusion of every citizen of Israel into the society and improving the quality of social justice in Israel. Civil liberty organizations are often painted as being unpatriotic by those who disagree with their policies. In the U.S., that's something the Bush administration does with some regularity.

o PJV: Despite the criticisms some civil liberty groups receive in the U.S., the idea of civil liberties is one Americans value greatly. It's part of our constitution, part of our national identity. Do Israelis have the same appreciation of civil liberties as we in the U.S. do?

The appreciation of civil liberties does exist to a good extent in Israel, and there are organizations like the Association For Civil Rights in Israel which is a well-established and widely accepted organization, working to strengthen it. But the challenge is really not so different as what we face in the U.S., to broaden the support and commitment of civil rights and to work through various advocacy techniques, including litigation, to protect civil liberties and rights, sometimes in areas that are unpopular. Israel is a vibrant democracy. In fact, a higher percentage of Israelis vote in elections than do Americans. The challenge is perfecting that democracy.

o PJV: Do you think that Arab citizens of Israel can be fully included in Israeli society and enjoy the same economic opportunities and civil protections as other Israelis?

I have optimism that Arab citizens of Israel can be more fully included in Israeli life. In some important ways, their situation is perhaps something like African-Americans faced 40 or 50 years ago in the U.S. Racism is still a problem in the U.S., but we have made great progress in fighting it. I think the same can be said of Israel. The organizations and institutions that are working to improve the life of Arab Israelis have been established and are working. I think we can and will make progress. 

o PJV: But can Arab Israelis ever sing their country's national anthem, which speaks of realizing the 2,000 year-old Jewish dream of being a free people in Zion and Jerusalem, with true conviction? 

Israel is a Jewish state, and there is clearly some tension about that for Arab citizens of Israel. And while the symbols of the state are unlikely to change, there is progress to be made in democratizing the society. If Israeli Arabs have a sense of full equality and inclusion with respect to the schools their children attend, the job opportunities they have, and where they can live, I think they will be less uncomfortable about the symbols of the state.

o PJV: Israel has absorbed close to a million Russian immigrants in relatively short amount of time. What is the NIF doing to help integrate these immigrants into Israeli society?

There are two issues embedded in that. One is finding NGOs within the Russian community to strengthen that community around issues of employment, education and the like. The other is strengthening the economy as a whole so that it can lift all boats. But there are unique challenges with the Russian community, such as their not being any history or tradition of NGOs in Russia - it's not a natural type of activity for them. They also tend to be very conservative politically, so organizations that are characterized as liberal, like the NIF, have difficulty in finding footing in that community. But we continue to work at it and there are a number of NGOs at work in the Russian community that we support. 

o PJV: There are civil liberty groups and religious organizations in Israel and the U.S. that seek to loosen the grip that ultra-Orthodox religious institutions have on certain aspects of Israeli life. How is the NIF involved in that effort?

There are two kinds of grantees that were involved with on this issue. The smaller group is within the ultra-Orthodox community. They are typically groups of women who want to open up or liberalize the ultra-Orthodox community in various ways, such as allowing more women to study Torah. We're working with some of those groups. The other group includes Conservative and Reform organizations who are working to establish a greater distinction between church and state in Israel. We are involved with those organizations as well as with groups who are working on specific issues such as civil marriages, divorces and burials.

o PJV: How long do you think it will be before there is true religious pluralism in Israel? 

Change comes slowly, especially when you're dealing with entrenched issues like religious pluralism. Another difficult problem is the widening income gap between the richest and poorest elements of Israeli society. Key to addressing both those issues is making Israel more secure, of finding a stable resolution to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. The more secure Israel is, the less need there may be for governments to form coalitions with ultra-Orthodox parties. A few years ago, a bill to allow some forms of civil marriage was moving to the front burner in the Knesset. But Sharon needed the support of religious parties for his plan to withdraw from Gaza and the bill languished. But I think that overall, there is strong support among many religious and secular people for reducing the leverage the ultra-Orthodox have in the running of the government.

o PJV: Speaking of conflict, Israel is involved in a fierce one right now with Hezbollah. What are NIF groups to help the victims of Hezbollah rocket attacks?

The NIF family has offered municipalities and local authorities throughout the north any assistance that we can offer them and dozens of NIF employees and grassroots activists have opened their homes to those fleeing the north. The Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC) of the Movement for Progressive Judaism in Israel (Reform) has bussed dozens of northern residents to the center of the country where they are being hosted by members of Reform communities. IRAC is also sending teams of rabbis and social workers to the north to provide spiritual and emotional support. Yedid: The Association for Community Empowerment is collecting and sending books, games, toys and other items that will help entertain families whose days and nights are now spent in bomb shelters. Another veteran NIF grantee, Bizchut: Center for Human Rights of Persons with Disabilities, is working with the IDF's Home Guard to find solutions for the deaf and hard of hearing, who are unable to hear the missile-warning siren. And those are just a few examples.

o PJV: Israeli society has been gradually moving to the center with respect to the Palestinians. The withdrawal from Gaza was completed with far less internal agony than some predicted and many Israelis favor further withdrawals from the West Bank. At the same time, however, Palestinian groups have become more fanatic and extreme. Can you offer any encouragement in light of these developments?

For one thing, I think it's important to remember that Israel is strong militarily. That does not mean there can not be conflict with tragic loss of life, but we can take courage from the fact we're talking about a strong, resilient, indomitable people that have created a modern miracle in the Sate of Israel. I can only say that one way or another, through Israel's strength and with the support of other people around the world, we can and will make it through this period of acute conflict. 

o PJV: Some observers of the conflict believe that while there may be people of good will on both sides, there is something in the Arab body politic that simply cannot countenance the presence of an independent Jewish state in the Middle East. For people who feel this way, the struggle against Israel will never end. It may take years or decades or even centuries, but ultimately they will prevail in removing the Jewish contaminant from their midst. How are we to deal with such thinking?

You could have asked this question a year ago, ten years ago or fifty years ago. Yes, there are some people who feel this way. There are people who never wanted to see Israel come into being and people who remain dedicated to its destruction. In that regard, we do live under a cloud. But we've lived under other clouds, such as the threat of nuclear war that existed between the U.S. and the Soviet Union for nearly a generation. The question is how to go about living your life. We must continue to do our best to achieve a stable solution that is not necessary based on everyone becoming best friends, but is based on a having a predominance of people of who see in their national self interest the value of ending a conflict that ultimately benefits no one.

Previous Interviews

  • July 2005:  Chuck Pennacchio candidate in the Democratic Primary for U.S. Senate.
  • August 2005: Lois Murphy who is running for Congress in Pennsylvania's 6th district.
  • September 2005: Pennsylvania State Representative Daylin Leach.
  • October 2005: Bob Casey candidate in the Democratic Primary for U.S. Senate.
  • November 2005: Gov. Howard Dean, Chairman of the Democratic National Committee
  • December 2005: Rep. Jim Gerlach who is running for reelection in Pennsylvania's 6th district.
  • January 2006: Rep. Chaka Fattah from Pennsylvania's 2nd district
  • February 2006: Matthew Brooks, Executive Director of the Republican Jewish Coalition
  • March 2006: Alan Sandals, candidate in the Democratic Primary for U.S. Senate
  • April 2006: Ira Forman, Executive Director of the National Jewish Democratic Committee
  • May 2006: Charles Smolover, Vice-President of the Philadelphia Jewish Voice
  • June 2006: Rep. Steve Israel, from New York's 2nd district.
  • July 2006: Joe Sestak, who is running for Congress in Pennsylvania's 7th district.