The New Israel Fund has faced criticism for its choice of nonprofits to support, some of which are critical of the Israeli government, but if anyone wants to attack Janice Rothschild Blumberg for accepting the NIF Atlanta Regional Council’s first Tzedek Award, she’s ready.
“I’d like to fight back. I really would,” the 93-year-old former rebbetzin of The Temple said in an interview about the award she’ll be accepting at a ceremony at the Midtown synagogue Thursday, May 25. “I’ve been fighting uphill all my life with what I thought was the way to go instead of doing what was comfortable and what was popular.”
Blumberg, the widow of Rabbi Jacob Rothschild, who led The Temple in standing up for civil rights and supporting Martin Luther King Jr., said sees parallels between the work of NIF-backed nonprofits working for the rights of Israeli Arabs today and the efforts in Atlanta and the rest of the South to turn hard-won civil rights into equal access to government services.
“There’s something going on there with Palestinian neighborhoods,” which aren’t getting their fair share, Blumberg said about Jerusalem, the part of Israel she knows best. She said Israel’s Bedouin citizens face the same disparity.
She supports NIF because it is pushing Israel to do a better job of fulfilling its founders’ admittedly impossibly high ideals. Whenever an NIF-funded organization crosses the line from working toward a civil society to attempting to damage Israel, NIF cuts it off, Blumberg said.
Critics say NIF’s backing for peace groups and Arab rights organizations undermines the Israel Defense Forces and endangers Israel. But Blumberg said NIF is “very, very patriotic” and just thinks Israel’s leaders have strayed too far from what the country should be.
“The Americans involved … are such staunch supporters of Israel,” she said.
She became aware of NIF in the 1990s, while she was living in Washington, after the organization successfully sued El Al on behalf of a pilot who had been denied the benefit of bringing his same-sex partner to spend the holidays with him — a benefit the airline provided to overseas employees and their next of kin.
In the two decades since, Israel has improved its respect for LGBTQ rights, just as it has corrected the Jim Crow-like treatment of Sephardic and Mizrachi Jews the past half-century, Blumberg said. But she’s still frustrated at the treatment of non-Jews and of non-Orthodox streams of Judaism and of non-Jews: “The black hats have taken over.”
What she sees as a deteriorating situation in Israel comes 50 years after she doubted the country would survive.
During The Temple’s centennial year, when she wrote the first history of Jewish Atlanta and was the president of the Women’s Theater Guild, a predecessor to the Alliance, she hosted a visit by Habima Theater actor Misha Asherov. It was May 1967, and everyone gathered around a TV during the nightly news to hear the latest on Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser.
With the report that Nasser had closed the Straits of Tiran, the party was over.
The was effectively the start of the war, Blumberg said, and “we felt like this might be the end of Israel.”
Half a century later, as much as she’s honored to receive the award from NIF, Blumberg said, she’s eager to hear keynote speaker Sharon Abraham-Weiss, the executive director of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, the country’s equivalent of the ACLU (a comparison Blumberg said might not be a positive in Atlanta, at least for NIF’s critics).
Abraham-Weiss is expected to speak about the role of civil rights organizations at a time when democratic values are eroding in Israel and the United States, according to NIF.
Blumberg said the free event is the perfect opportunity for people who don’t like or have concerns about NIF to ask questions and learn about the group so at least they know what they’re criticizing.
“We’re not asking for any fights. It’s an opportunity to get straightened out,” she said. “Is somebody feels we need to be straightened out, it’s an opportunity to disagree in a civil way. … We can disagree without being disagreeable.”
What: NIF Atlanta Tzedek Award ceremony
Where: The Temple, 1589 Peachtree St., Midtown
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, May 25
Cost: Free; RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org or 212-613-4426