As head of the New Israel Fund, Daniel Sokatch has one of the most difficult jobs in the Jewish nonprofit world: encouraging Jews and others outside Israel to support the NIF’s grassroots tikkun olam and civil rights projects within Israel for both Jews and non-Jewish citizens.
This includes its human rights projects in the West Bank, which many people worry may encourage anti-Semitic and anti-Israel groups in their own countries.
His new book, “Can We Talk About Israel? A Guide for the Curious, Confused, and Conflicted,” is part condensed history of Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and part lexicon of important arguments and terms that appear in the headlines.
It is his attempt to answer, or at least lay some foundations for discussing, some of the questions he’s asked most often.
Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
What made you decide to write this book?
We—those of us who are older than 30—grew up with a certain Israel in mind. I have kids in high school and college, and they see the disconnect between what they know is the story our community tells and what they’re reading on the news. When my kids say, “Dad, how come 1,000 Palestinian civilians died and only two Israeli soldiers?” we can say, “Because they’re evil and we’re good,” or we can say, “It’s really tragic and complicated and let’s try to talk about it.”
The gap between what we learned and what we see in front of us–in a way that’s why I wrote the book. Within that gap is the potential for people to just say, “I’m done with it,” or “I’m going to believe one side,” meaning “Israel is always right” or “Israel is always wrong,” when like anything else, it’s complex.
Why such a short book then?
For years my wife would say, ‘You should write a book about Israel,’ and our friends would say there’s an absence of a guided tour from a nonpartisan and trusted guide. There are a lot of books about Israel, but they tend to fall into two categories, advocacy pieces that take sides with one or another party to the conflict or have an agenda, or else books written by scholars for other scholars.
I try to be very clear in the book about what parts are my own position, which is that there’s enough room for both parties. I also didn’t want to write a book for my friends who were professors, I wanted to write a book for my friends who I go out to dinner with, and for my kids. So that’s how this book came about.
Of course, one of my daughters said, “Dad, why don’t you just write the lexicon? Who needs to read your whole book?” Very high school request!
How did you grow up thinking about Israel and how did you get into the work you’re doing now?
I was a teenager in Cincinnati and first went to Israel in 1984 as a 16-year-old with my family on a United Jewish Appeal trip, went back the next summer on a NFTY program and fell totally in love with it. [NFTY was the North American Federation for Temple Youth, now known as the Reform Jewish Youth Movement.] I’d sort of imbibed the romance of the story; we just weren’t brought up to be critical thinkers about Israel. I was a Middle Eastern studies and history major at Brandeis in 1987, when the first Intifada broke out, and I remember Woody Allen wrote an impassioned letter to the New York Times saying, “What’s going on? Am I really seeing Jewish soldiers breaking arms of unarmed kids?” and everyone was condemning him. I was thinking, “I feel exactly the same way,” but I didn’t dare say anything.
Then I went to Northern Ireland for junior year and the same scenes I was desperately trying to rationalize and justify in Bethlehem, East Jerusalem and Hebron, I’m seeing with my own two eyes in the streets of Belfast, Londonderry and Derry, 13-year-old kids throwing a rock at an armored personnel carrier. And I agonized, how do I justify and rationalize these two things? And at the end of the day, I couldn’t.
I looked around for that place where my love for Israel, my dedication to social justice and to an honest conversation—where do those things meet? I couldn’t find anything until someone pointed me to the New Generations of the New Israel Fund. I was 22 or 23 years old when I got involved, and I never stopped until I was the CEO, decades later.
I went to graduate school and then law school, and I ended up as the founding executive director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance—now called Bend the Arc—in Los Angeles. That was an incredible thing to do for a decade, and it’s how I met Peter Dreier and Rabbi Josh Levine-Grater. Once, in a campaign on behalf of hotel workers in Santa Monica, we were asked by the union to take on this hotel because it had a kosher kitchen. Rabbi Jon Rosove said, “We love your hotel, but kosher means more than the way you prepare your food, it also means the way you treat your workers.” And within 48 hours that hotel backed down and let its workers unionize.
A few weeks later, I got a call from the office of John Pritzker, of the Hyatt Hotel Pritzkers, saying the next time I was in San Francisco that I should talk to him. When I did, the first thing he said was, “What is it with you and hotels?” but he was joking. He actually wanted to recruit me to head the San Francisco area Jewish Federation.
Learning to run a bigger organization was incredibly important to me. Before the year was out, I was being headhunted by the New Israel Fund, which was my first love, and I had to go. I’m still proud to this day that my board chair then at the Federation is now on the board of NIF and the past president of NIF was a legendary exec at the Federation. But in the Bay Area, where NIF was founded, it doesn’t seem radical to say you can lovingly critique Israel and lovingly try to help it change.
The New Israel Fund website says it has a budget of $30 million that funds very practical grassroots projects in Israel. What does NIF do and how?
In addition to fighting for public housing and water rights for all Israelis, helping Israelis in poverty pull themselves out of poverty, working for the rights of minorities, LGBTQ people, women and non-Orthodox Jews, the other thing the NIF does is we support the human rights and civil rights of Arabs both in Israel and the West Bank. Our grantees are monitoring what is done in the name of Israel in the West Bank.
Our international affiliates are basically non-governmental organizations that choose from the menu of what we fund in Israel. So if Switzerland wants to put $100,000 of what they raise into three of our grantees, say, if they love B’Tselem, or they love the Women’s Support Network or a Shatil project, they can give to that. Years ago, some of the groups might not fund the human rights groups because they didn’t want the controversy, so they’d fund just the women’s groups, but now everyone wants to make sure the priorities of the organization are the things that might have the biggest impact to salvage and sustain Israeli democracy.
Shatil started as our training center for progressive nonprofit management in Israel, but now it’s also the central convener for crisis response in progressive civil society, something I wish we had here. We have our own small policy department that works with our flagship grantee, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, and we have people working in the Knesset, doing permissible lobbying and working on progressive bills to expand individual rights.
So Shatil is part of NIF, but if you separated it out, it’s probably the largest or one of the largest progressive NGOs in Israel, existing to serve all the other ones.
You’ve said you see hope for Israel after the new election?
During the whole kerfuffle over the Nation-State law a few years ago, my No. 2 in Israel tweeted, “All Israelis should stand shoulder to shoulder with our Arab brothers and sisters because we’re all Israelis and nothing should divide us.” In response, Netanyahu tweeted, “Mickey Gantz shows the NIF’s true colors, they want a state for all of its citizens.” And all the reporters called me the next day and asked, “Is he right?” and I said, “He’s 100% right, and what has happened to you that you can’t say Israel should offer full equality to all its citizens?”
Incidentally, that was a point at which Ami Ayalon and Ehud Barak and all these people decided to give money to the New Israel Fund.
The new government is an unwieldy Frankenstein’s monster but it has left, right and center parties, one of which is an Arab party. You’ve got to have a heart of stone if you don’t see some hope there. Do you know, I had a conversation yesterday morning with a minister from the State of Israel—people we’ve worked with for years are now ministers in this government. That is hopeful.
What we’re seeing in the U.S. is a little less hopeful, especially on college campuses. Does your book have something that can help young people, their parents and communities respond to personal confrontations over Israel?
I hope so, and that was one of the things in my mind while I was writing this book. My daughter’s a sophomore in college and she’s seeing the exact same thing. I say to my girls, when someone blames you as an American because you’re Jewish for what Israel’s done, or conflates you with Israel, or assumes that you approve of Israel‘s actions, that’s anti-Semitism. When someone’s critical of Israeli policy it’s more complicated, and my book is meant to help unpack that.
You could look at TikTok—and this is what most people do—or Twitter or the headlines and assume that you know what you’re talking about and that the other side doesn’t. Or you could educate yourself so that you stand from an informed position.
Back in college, if you saw left-wing or Arab students protesting Israel and saying “Deir Yassin, there was a massacre at Deir Yassin”—if you were me, you’d have walked up and said, “That can’t be true, you are lying,” and then walked away thinking, “I can’t believe those people said that terrible thing! Whatever happened at Deir Yassin, which I’ve never heard of, it was certainly not a massacre of hundreds of women and children by terrorists.”
But of course today, our kids go and Google what happened, and that’s exactly what happened.
Now what if we had told them, in Sunday school or summer camp or informal Jewish education, “Before the State of Israel was established, there were right-wing Jewish militant terrorists who massacred Palestinian Arabs, but Ben-Gurion and the folks who were more moderate actually fought a mini-civil war with them. They even sank a Jewish militants’ ship off of Tel Aviv. You know who the commander was? It was Yitzhak Rabin when he was a young pup.”
And then try to talk to people. You never know. In L.A. I did a lot of work with the head of the Muslim Public Affairs Committee. He kept using the word “Zionist” as a pejorative. I went to him and said, “Most of us consider ourselves Zionists, and we want nothing more than to see a Palestinian state living in security and peace next to Israel.” And he said, ‘I never thought of it that way, and I won’t use that word that way anymore.”
I told my publisher this is the hardest issue in the Jewish community, and a lot of people might want to avoid it. It’s heartening that people have been saying “Yes, please, we’ve been waiting to have this kind of conversation about how to navigate and wrestle with this issue in a way that is compassionate but also acknowledges the complexity of it.”
*** Daniel Sokatch will present “Can We Talk About Israel?” at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 7 in a hybrid in-person/online Jewish Book Festival event at Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center. For more information or to register for this event, go to https://www.jewishsgpv.org/jewish-book-festival.
Deborah Noble is a contributing writer to Jlife magazine.