NIF airport flap part of wider NGO war
Detaining of group’s vice president comes as debates over country’s democratic nature flare up
Jerusalem — Jennifer Gorovitz had visited Israel numerous times starting in her childhood, then while at Stanford University as a Zionist activist and later as the executive director of the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco.
So, when the 52-year-old lawyer and vice president of the New Israel Fund arrived at Ben-Gurion International Airport last Wednesday after a direct flight from San Francisco, she wasn’t anticipating any problems. But when a passport official started grilling her about the left-of-center nongovernment organization and her work with NIF, and accused her of working on behalf of the Palestinians, Gorovitz began to realize that her welcome to Israel wouldn’t be routine.
“I started thinking, ‘Uh oh.’ That’s when I knew I was in trouble,” she said in an interview. “Clearly, I was singled out because of the work that I do and because of my involvement with NIF.”
Gorovitz said she was told to step out of the line she was standing in so she could be interviewed by a security officer. During two more rounds of interrogations in a separate airport holding area, airport staff asked again about her work at the NIF, and added personal questions about whether she was Jewish and where her father and grandfather were born. After about 90 minutes, her passport was returned and she was allowed to enter the country — but not before enduring anxious moments of vulnerability.
“I was scared because I didn’t know where this was going to go,” she said. “Would they put me in a plane and send me back to the U.S.?”
The detainment of Gorovitz comes as Israel’s government steps up years of pressure on NGOs that right-wing and centrists accuse of aiding Palestinian efforts to boycott Israel and bring lawsuits against leaders in international courts. Last year, the parliament passed a law requiring nonprofits and NGOs with more than half of their funding from foreign governments to declare that fact prominently in business dealings.
On the same day that Gorovitz was held up at the airport, Israeli government officials targeted two prominent organizations that have been supported by the New Israel Fund — Breaking the Silence and B’Tselem — both of which publish critical reports of Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank.
Breaking the Silence, which publishes testimonials from Israeli soldiers about their tours of duty in the territories, held a lecture at a Jerusalem art gallery that Israeli Culture Minister Miri Regev sought to have cancelled. Last month, the parliament began debating a bill that would give the education minister the authority to ban from schools organizations and speakers who are deemed as putting Israeli soldiers at risk of indictment in the international courts.
Yehuda Shaul, the founder of Breaking the Silence, said the pressure from the government hasn’t isolated the organization: It’s still getting speaking invitations, soldiers are still volunteering to share testimonials, and donations from Israel are up. But the campaign is nonetheless eroding Israel’s democracy.
“This is a full-frontal assault on basic democratic values and liberalism,” Shaul told The New York Jewish Week. “In order to keep the occupation going, the right has to change Israel. It’s about making people who speak about human rights into traitors.”
Also on Wednesday, the Israeli Foreign Ministry reprimanded the Belgian ambassador after the country’s prime minister, Charles Michel, met with Shaul and B’Tselem’s director Haggai El-Ad during an official visit.
Israeli politicians have accused the NGOs of using foreign money for work aimed at undermining support for the government.
Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University and the president of NGO Monitor, a research institute critical of the left-wing organizations, said the incidents last week reflect growing frustration from Israelis who support the government over the work of left-wing NGOs.
“There is grass-roots anger in Israeli society that these organizations are a form of manipulation. They are saying, ‘We know better than you Israelis about what is good for the country,’” he said. “There’s no other society subject to this empowerment of political NGOs in order to counter the political process.”
Israeli immigration officials apologized to the New Israel Fund that the questioning upset Gorovitz, but insisted the procedure was routine. In a statement, Population and Immigration Authority spokeswoman Sabine Haddad said that during the course of Gorovitz’s conversation at passport control, a need arose for a more “professional” questioning.
Talia Sasson, the president of NIF who called up the immigration authority to convince them to release Gorovitz, said she was informed that the NIF vice president had been taken for a security interview.
“The persecution of left-wing nongovernment organizations has crossed a new line,” wrote Michal Rozin, a parliament member from the left-wing Meretz Party, on her Facebook page. “Exactly how does promoting a peace agreement constitute an obstacle to national security?”
The New Israel Fund has been harshly criticized in Israel for years. It was attacked by a right-wing nonprofit, Im Tirtzu, in 2010 for supporting NGOs cited in a United Nations report on the 2009 Gaza war criticized as biased against Israel. About three years ago, it was accused by Ben Dror Yemini, a leading Israeli columnist, of funding organizations that are “radicalizing” Israel’s Arab minority while promoting international “condemnation, delegitimization, and demonization” of Israel. Right-wing groups pressured Israeli President Reuven Rivlin into cancelling an appearance at a conference so as not to appear on the same stage with the NIF’s president at the time.
At the airport, Gorovitz said that she noticed that her questioner had a sheet on which “BDS” — the abbreviation of the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement — was underlined. NIF maintains that it does not support BDS.
A day after being delayed at the airport, Gorovitz said her detainment was part of an “atmosphere of suppression” of human rights groups. With her voice still shaking, she said the experience was personally insulting as someone who has advocated for Israel in the U.S. and raised money for Israeli causes in the Jewish community.
“My Zionist credentials are something I’m very proud of,” she said. “To have that tossed aside as if it meant nothing at all was a shock.” n