American donors turn to New Israel Fund to support progressive Israeli initiatives

Since the Hamas’s attacks on Israel on Oct. 7, donations to the New Israel Fund have poured in, well above the normal levels, the organization said. 

The fund had raised some $6 million in an emergency campaign from over 3,500 donors, a third of whom were new to the organization, and then, this past Monday, the group received an anonymous check for $1.5 million. Even before the attacks, donations and interest in the NIF were hitting new highs as protests against the government’s judicial overhaul raged throughout Israel, officials from the fund said. Although they don’t yet have all the statistics in for their annual campaign, as of the end of Nov it has already brought in well over 12 million dollars in addition to the emergency funds, up 34% compared to last year’s, with 60% more donors.

“It’s a really odd moment for a group like ours, because we’re always all about growth, but we would never want something like this to be the reason why,” Libby Lenkinski, NIF’s VP of public engagement told eJewishPhilanthropy. “And yet, it is gratifying, in that we really are delivering a message of shared humanity and we really do believe that that’s what it’s gonna take to make more people safe.”

Since its inception in 1979, NIF has supported progressive Israeli causes, often taking on “unpopular issues,” Lenkinski said. These include offering grants to other nonprofits supporting freedom of speech, religious tolerance, gender equality, and equal rights for Arab Israelis.

“We’ve always seen ourselves as being on the side of the Israeli people, especially the most marginalized groups of people living in Israel and under Israel’s control,” Lenkinski said; but this past year, while they continued to be critical of the Israeli government, their stances have become more mainstream. A Dialog Center poll taken soon after attacks found that 80% of Israelis felt the tragedy was caused by government blunders.   

The attacks personally hit the NIF community as many of their supporters and grantees lived near the Gaza border, especially in the liberal-leaning kibbutzim. Staff members from grant programs were besieged, some murdered. Vivian Silver, a former NIF board member and the founder of the Arab-Jewish Ajeec Nisped nonprofit, who lived on Kibbutz Be’eri was murdered in the attacks.

The fund and its grantees didn’t have time to mourn as they hit the ground running after the attack, providing basic needs to those who were displaced, survivors and those whose family members were taken hostage. A system was already in place to turn grants around within 24 hours, perfected during the protest movement, allowing them to leap into action quickly after the attacks.

Many of those who received NIF services after Oct. 7 were not their typical recipients. Some may have disagreed with the fund and its programs. The NIF has often been maligned by right-wing politicians and activists, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Lenkinski noted. Yet when tragedy struck on Oct. 7, the fund provided Israelis with hotel rooms, food and medical care, at a time when many Israelis felt the government had left them behind.

The rise in support for the NIF also makes sense, CEO Daniel Sokatch told eJP, especially for American Jews who historically skew liberal.

“Many American Jews have no interest in supporting the policies, vision and agenda of this Israeli government, which they see, quite correctly, as antithetical to their own values and vision, but who are desperately connected to and deeply concerned with the well-being of Israel and Israelis,” Sokatch said. “For those people, many of the more traditional kinds of venues for philanthropy to Israel during crisis are less appealing now because [other nonprofits are] so connected to official Israel at a point, [but these donors] don’t trust official Israel to be doing the right thing, like a majority of Israelis feel about this current government.”

NIF has found that many of the new donors giving the largest sums are people who once gravitated towards traditional philanthropy to Israel. They were nudged towards the NIF by young members of their families who care for Israel but want to support it with charity in line with their progressive values.

“I’ve spent the last 14 years of my life worrying about everyone my age and younger and their connection with Israel,” Sokatch said. “That has been an existential concern for me and for most other people in this business, and it was unbelievably heartening to see people who we don’t know stepping up with the next generation”

Many American progressives are also looking for ways to help because they feel farther disconnected from American political movements which are increasingly polarized. NIF offers a more complex view on issues that offers hope, said Sokatch.

“Part of the funny thing about the NIF is, if we could just be black or white, good or bad, it would be so much more palatable. But we’re often the people who say, ‘[You] gotta work through the complexity and the nuance and the fact that you’re right and you’re right, too, or you’re wrong and you’re wrong, too.”

While it’s often said that Israeli politics are complicated, condemning Hamas and standing with Israelis is not, Lenkinski said, because fighting for human rights isn’t complicated.

“My hope is and has always been that we would not be needed in Israel,” Lenkinski said. “But my realistic hope is that more Israelis understand that the status quo vis-à-vis the Palestinians is neither sustainable nor desirable for any of us. And that we have to do everything in our power to put governments in place who can make peace. That is my hope. My hope is that the deaths of October sevens and subsequent deaths in Gaza and of soldiers are not in vain. And that this is the wake-up call that needs to be. That a different future has to happen. That there is no time to spare.”