By Daniel Sokatch, International CEO of the New Israel Fund
This week, in the face of this ongoing crisis in Ukraine, the New Israel Fund made a grant to support a crisis center on the Ukraine-Poland border and a network of safehouses operated by the progressive Israeli youth movement, Hashomer Hatzair. While it’s true that NIF does not usually fund efforts outside of Israel, we were moved by the urgency of this moment—and as an organization with resources that can help, we felt that we must.
NIF’s grant comes after Hashomer Hatzair’s successful fundraising efforts in Israel, as well as a number of private gifts that were transferred to the organization through NIF’s donor-advised Progressive Jewish Fund. We are so proud to put this kind of financial backbone behind the values that NIF has always believed in.
Though this grant is unusual for us, these are not usual times—and it is hard to imagine an initiative more in line with our core values of human rights and democracy, as well as basic decency and human compassion. Hashomer Hatzair already receives an ongoing NIF grant for their work at the Centers for Social Justice in Ramla, and they are familiar with humanitarian work abroad as well—for years, they have worked with refugees on the island of Lesbos, where they run an international school. This is an organization dedicated to service, progressive values, and humanism, and we are proud to support their efforts on the Ukraine border.
It has been 22 days since Russia invaded Ukraine—and the stories and images emerging are harrowing. Yet, over the last week in Israel, a political debate around Ukrainian refugees seeking entry to Israel raged: How many? For how long? What if they’re not Jewish? For our part, NIF’s Israeli International Council Members took out an ad in Haaretz that called on the government to open its gates and offer humanitarian help to Ukraine.
The government’s current refugee policy, which was determined only this Sunday, is to allow admission to Ukrainian refugees who have family in Israel—and some 20,000 are expected to come. But the proposals that preceded this decision involved a quota of 5,000 refugees, acquiring a visa in advance of getting on a plane, and requirements that Ukrainians leave a NIS 10,000 ($3,091) deposit with the Israeli government to ensure that they would eventually leave. These draconian measures were mostly put on the table by Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked of the Yamina Party—but the pushback against her proposals came from many corners.
The first to fight back against these hard-hearted policies was, of course, a dedicated and tireless group of NIF project partners.
When government policy denied Ukrainian refugees access to Israel’s health care system, Physicians for Human Rights Israel advertised that they provide clinical services to “any stateless person who comes to Israel” and plastered the address and phone number of their open clinic all over social media. Zazim – Community Action developed a campaign called “We Are All Refugees”; they pushed a petition with 12,000 signatures urging Shaked to accept refugees with no strings attached. So many other NIF voices spoke out, too: ACRI, Kav LaOved — Workers Hotline, and ASSAF — the Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel. The list is long.
But pushback also came from the broader Israeli public. Popular TV show Eretz Nehederet (Israel’s version of SNL) depicted a border agent (who bore some resemblance to Shaked) repeating the refrain “our heart is open; our border is closed” and then, in black-and-white, portrayed her as a British official turning Jews away from Israel. Politicians also pushed her to stop demanding entry criteria for refugees. According to reporting by Haaretz, Yair Lapid texted her a handful of times from Ukraine’s border as he toured it on Sunday. Last week, Diaspora Minister Nachman Shai called her rhetoric “baseless” and said that Israel should accept these refugees since it is “a Jewish imperative.” After all of this, Shaked amended her proposals and agreed to allow refugees—at least those with relatives already in Israel—to enter freely.
Shaked’s xenophobic and ultra-nationalist sensibilities have been deemed unacceptable by most Israelis–because the limelight is on Ukraine right now. But most Israelis aren’t seeing what’s happening in places that are just next door—places like Masafer Yatta.
On Tuesday, Israel’s Supreme Court held a hearing to determine the fate of Masafer Yatta, a group of Palestinian villages home to 1,300 people in the South Hebron Hills of the West Bank. In the early 1980s, the Israeli military declared the area to be “Firing Zone 918”—in other words, a military training ground. Decades of home demolitions and settler violence have followed that declaration.
In 1999, the army attempted to forcibly expel the residents, an act that is illegal under international law. The Association for Civil Rights Israel (ACRI), NIF’s flagship project partner, filed a petition on the residents’ behalf, winning an interim court order that allowed residents to return to their homes. That temporary measure has been in place for over two decades.
In the hearing on Tuesday, the military argued for an outcome that would make it nearly impossible for the 1,300 residents of Masafer Yatta to continue to live there.
Attorneys from ACRI are representing the residents of Masafer Yatta. A group of organizations and movements including NIFC project partners and organizations funded by the NIF global network Zazim, Omdim Beyachad (Standing Together), Breaking the Silence, and our friends at Peace Now organized a protest outside the courthouse during the hearing.
As always, NIF’s project partners bring me hope in dark times. Whether it’s ACRI attorneys fighting for Masafer Yatta residents in court, activists protesting for an end to the occupation, or Hashomer Hatzair supporting a network of safehouses for refugees in Ukraine, each one is laying a brick in the foundation for a better future for all.