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Led by questioning by Steve Berman, New Israel Fund’s Libby Lenkinski speaks to more than 100 people at Congregation Shearith Israel. – Photo by Benjamin Kweskin

By Benjamin Kweskin

New Israel Fund’s values and Israel’s values are the same, and “New Israel Fund does not support BDS,” the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement targeting Israel.

Those were among the messages conveyed by Libby Lenkinski, NIF’s vice president of strategy, as she attempted to dispel misconceptions about her nonpartisan, apolitical organization in front of more than 100 Israel supporters at Congregation Shearith Israel on Monday night, June 8.

NIF describes itself as “the leading organization committed to equality and democracy for all Israelis,” and the focus of its Atlanta event was the March Israeli elections, which were widely seen as a blow to the liberal side of debates within Israel.NIF-Lenkinski

But the program also was a chance for NIF to show that is part of the pro-Israel mainstream.

Lenkinski was asked many pointed questions by Steve Berman, co-founder of the Weber School and board member of Young Judaea, and by the audience. Recognizing that the threats surrounding Israel are real, NIF’s response is that building metaphoric or literal walls undermines Israel’s democratic strength and thus its security.

Berman alluded to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s election warning that “the Arabs are coming out to vote in droves.” Lenkinski replied: “This is very disturbing not just for Israelis like myself, but to others in the diaspora; the fact that our prime minister believes that 20 percent of Israel’s electorate are essentially a threat to Israel only highlights the need for us to pressure Israel to remain true to its values.”

She added that the leader of the Knesset’s Arab Joint List, Aymen Odeh, talks about the need for a “shared society,” and she called it a hopeful sign that Arabs voted at a high percentage compared with previous elections.

Lenkinski said certain parties on the right have introduced anti-democratic legislation — limiting voting rights and organizational rights for the “Arab sector,” curtailing freedom of speech, and limiting access to funding for organizations promoting liberal, democratic values — and NIF and its partners have fought those measures, with partial success.

Israel was a more tolerant country that welcomed or at least accepted NIF’s work in the 1990s, but after the failure of the Oslo Accords, the second Palestinian intifada and increased settlement activity, among other developments, the Israeli government has grown suspicious of NIF and made life more difficult for the group.

NIF is seen as a threat from within, but Lenkinski said NIF and its partners and supporters should be seen as pro-Israel “based on supporting Israel’s founding liberal, democratic values.”

Not supporting BDS, she said, doesn’t mean agreeing with the government that BDS should be illegal in Israel.

Lenkinski also addressed religious freedom in Israel. She said the lack of civil, nonreligious marriage remains a problem and subjects divorces to the rabbinic courts. She said groups from the left, right and middle support civil marriage, and “it is time to mobilize in opposition on this issue.”

Lenkinski conceded that NIF and the Israeli left have faced criticism about not understanding constituencies outside the “Ashkenazi Tel Aviv bubble,” such as the Mizrahim (Middle Eastern Jews), Russians, Ethiopians, Haredi and Arabs.

She said NIF and its partners are taking several approaches to expand the support for a liberal democracy in Israel and recognize the necessity to meet people where they are.

“It is a false comparison to assume only the right focuses on security and only the left is concerned with human rights,” Lenkinski said. The major issues affecting the Haredi, Arabs and Mizrahim also concern NIF: socio-economic problems, discrimination and a feeling of exclusion from society.

She said the need to bridge gaps between communities is a challenge required by the values of NIF and Israel.