Editor’s Notebook: Progressive Lessons From Israel

Editor’s Notebook: Progressive Lessons From Israel

Michael Jacobs

Atlanta Jewish Times Editor Michael Jacobs is on his second stint leading the AJT's editorial operations. He previously served as managing editor from 2005 to 2008.

By Michael Jacobs | mjacobs@atljewishtimes.com

Any time the New Israel Fund holds an event in Atlanta, you can be sure it will be wrapped in controversy.

Sure enough, the NIF meeting held Monday night, Nov. 14, caused some rumbling and grumbling because of its location: the offices of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta in the Selig Center in Midtown.

Those who see NIF as an anti-Israel organization for providing grants to nonprofit groups that criticize Israel’s failure to live up to its own ideals couldn’t understand why Federation would welcome in NIF. Shai Robkin, who chairs NIF’s Atlanta council, bolstered those complaints when he thanked Federation CEO Eric Robbins and Chairman Joel Marks for enthusiastically embracing NIF.

But neither Robbins nor Marks was part of the modest crowd that gathered to hear Ronit Heyd, the director of NIF’s Israeli operations arm, Shantil, and Libby Lenkinski, NIF’s vice president for public engagement. Federation, to its credit, is serving as a community resource by making meeting space available, but that service should not be interpreted as an endorsement.

Like NIF or not, it is an organization with a significant role in Israel and significant support in Atlanta, and NIF deserves to have people hear about its “business of making the impossible possible,” as Robkin explained it.

The community also deserves to see the long-delayed debate I’ve promised over NIF and criticism of Israel. It hasn’t happened, but I hope we’ll be able to arrange something in the spring.

On Nov. 14, however, a discussion envisioned as an update on NIF’s efforts to develop the next generation of progressive Israeli leaders through programs and grants at the local level became instead, thanks to Donald Trump’s electoral victory six nights earlier, a seminar on how U.S. progressives can regroup and grow as the dedicated opposition.

“Every step that they (government right-wingers) take toward extremism opens new opportunities for organizing,” Lenkinski said, drawing on the experience of the past seven years of Likud-led Israeli governments. She drew parallels between the strengthening of the “extreme right wing” in the Israeli Cabinet after last year’s elections and the emerging makeup of the Trump administration.

She and Heyd said Israeli progressives are familiar with the shock American liberals felt this month and the split exposed between the densely populated media centers and the peripheral areas struggling to keep up with a globalized economy. Election results in both countries burst the bubbles liberals were living in.

Heyd said her American peers have come to the same realization she and her fellow Israeli progressives had to accept 20 months ago: “We don’t really know everything.”

Among the lessons Heyd and Lenkinski offered for the American left moving forward:

  • Reach out to and build coalitions with the working class. That means not dismissing people who voted differently as ignorant or bigoted or waging a last-ditch defense of white privilege.
  • Develop and promote a broad agenda, and be willing to accept allies on specific issues even if those same people are your strident foes in other areas. SHAS, a conservative religious party, helped NIF weaken legislation related to nonprofit groups’ transparency on foreign funding.
  • Celebrate successes — examples in Israel include increased government funding for the Arab sector and the strong turnout for the Jerusalem Pride Parade — while criticizing failures and bad policy decisions.
  • Build up from the local level. A simple program such as Peace of Cake — a grassroots effort to bake cakes for Arab construction workers to make them feel welcome and appreciated — can spread nationwide.

I’m not a progressive activist, but the message I heard was that progressives planning for four years of angry rejectionism are making a mistake if their goal is a better society and not just political wins.

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