By Linda Hershkovitz, President

2023 was not the year we thought it would be.

We started the year off worrying about Israel’s democratic future. For the first nine months of the year, we focused on supporting the ideals for which hundreds of thousands of Israelis vigorously demonstrated in growing numbers week after week.

Then came October 7th. Hamas’ unspeakable atrocities committed – against not just the direct victims but the whole country – left us all reeling. Every Israeli, Jewish or Arab, is dealing with its brutal aftermath. The ongoing agony of the kidnapped and their families is nightmarish. Many of our community have family and friends among the victims and the hostages. And now we are faced with an escalating war, the further loss of Israeli lives, the ongoing devastation of Gaza, and the humanitarian disaster for Palestinians who live there. And we are now seeing how these issues also sow hate and division here in Canada.

We have felt many different and sometimes contradictory emotions. It has not been easy to navigate all of this. There is so much pain and the needs are so great.

That is why I am so deeply moved and thankful to you and all of our supporters in Canada. So many not only gave immediately to our Safety Net response, but also gave more than ever before to support all of our work. I’m so proud to say that over three hundred new donors have found their way to us in the past two months. We are likely to surpass $1.8 million in total donations this year. I am grateful to each and every one  of us for aiding Israelis through one of the most difficult years of the country’s existence.

Here are highlights from just seven of our 15 funded partners’ awe-inspiring work in recent months:

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), the country’s largest civil liberties agency, helped and protected the most vulnerable citizens: they pushed the government to expand the criteria for financial aid to include all of the communities evacuated after October 7th; passed a fairer calculation of interest for debtors; and won a Supreme Court ruling to strike down the confiscation of wages from African asylum seekers.

Yisrael Hofsheet, in its defense of religious freedom, immediately realized with a heavy heart that bereaved Israelis burying their loved ones murdered by Hamas on October 7th would nevertheless face religious discrimination from Israel’s orthodox monopoly. Bereaved family members would find their relatives denied religious services and even burial in state cemeteries either because they were not considered “Jewish” by the orthodoxy, because they wished for cremation or organ donation, or because they preferred secular services. Heartbreakingly, Yisrael Hofsheet quickly retrained their volunteer marriage officiants to aid in funerals and burials.

These days, our thoughts are also with the many staff of our funded partners who’ve been called up to military duty, such as Yisrael Hofsheet’s Executive Director Uri Keidar presently deployed in the Armored Corps in northern Israel.

Adalah, the leading legal aid NGO for Palestinian citizens of Israel, won Supreme Court rulings forcing the government to build bomb shelters to unprotected Bedouin villages in the Negev, to re-open medical clinics shuttered after October 7th, and to open new classrooms for kindergarteners.

The Faithful Left, a new community of religious progressives, since October 7th has been involved in the return of the hostages by helping to run the emergency headquarters in Jerusalem and raising awareness among religious communities and rabbinic leadership. They have been conducting daily classes on Jewish tradition related to war and the redeeming of hostages. Their community has grown to over 600 members of an active WhatsApp group, over 100 attendees per educational event, and dozens of volunteers.

FakeReporter has grown to over 3,500 volunteers and managed to suspend major disinformation and hate speech spreaders that had tens of thousands of followers. The volume of their research is amazing – during the summer over 50 news stories featuring FakeReporter’s debunking were published in Israeli media – and since October 7th over 80 stories published in both Israeli and international press. Recently NIF also issued an emergency grant to FakeReporter for psychological counselling services for their volunteers who are immersed daily in disturbing online distortion and disinformation.

Haqel’s emergency hotline and legal aid for Palestinians in the West Bank area of the South Hebron Hills has normally received 5-8 calls a day. Since October 7th, Haqel’s lead lawyer has received as many as 100 phone calls a day and night, particularly regarding attempts by settlers to force residents out of their homes and villages. Haqel has filed hundreds of letters, complaints, appeals, and petitions to Israeli authorities on behalf of Palestinian villagers – some of which have reached the attention of the highest leaders in Europe, the US, and Canada.

The Forum Against the Exclusion of Women – a coalition of Israel’s leading women’s rights groups facilitated by NIF – has been active all year against firearm policies that endanger women. Earlier this year, the Forum won a new law blocking firearms from the hands of domestic abusers, over the objections of extremist Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir. Since October 7th, as Ben Gvir has flooded the country with easily-accessible weapons, the Forum has raised the alarm about the threat to women’s rights and safety.

I am just amazed and inspired at all of this. It gives me hope in Israeli society, when right now I am so appalled by the responses of Israel’s extremist elected leaders.

Looking towards 2024, we are facing multiple crises: meeting the complex needs of many different segments of Israeli society post October 7, helping to ensure the safe return of the hostages, bringing the war to a just and humane conclusion, maintaining trust and safety in mixed Jewish-Arab cities, addressing escalating settler violence against Palestinians in the West Bank, working toward a just and sustainable political solution for the “day after”, and continuing to preserve Israel’s democratic character.

The list is long and the challenges are incredibly daunting. We are under no illusions that overcoming them will be easy or even guaranteed. But with your support we can and will continue to fight for their resolution every day. To quote NIF’s CEO Daniel Sokatch, “we are working, as we always do, with Israelis—both Arabs and Jews—who are dedicated to human rights and a truly shared future. And even at this time of almost unbearable pain, we are supporting those Israelis who are calling on their country to address the deeper, more fundamental questions about how we arrived at this horrific dead end, and how Israelis and Palestinians can get out of it.”

Throughout the pro-democracy protests, and now in the midst of Israel’s ongoing pain, NIFC is continuing to do what we have always done – support the civil society organizations in Israel that uphold human rights and work towards a just and equal society for all.

I personally am feeling profound gratitude – to our staff, our Board of Directors, our Advisory Council, our New Generations Council, our Regional Councils in Ottawa and Montreal, our many committee volunteers, and to all of our donors and supporters. We are thankful for our community and your resolute support of the values we have always espoused.

Next year won’t be an easy year – but we are steadfastly ready to meet its challenges alongside you and our Israeli partners.