Pamela Geller is a bully of global standing. And recently she turned her sights on our community.
Geller is an American writer, blogger, activist and president of the American Freedom Defence Initiative, which the respected Southern Poverty Law Centre calls an anti-Muslim hate group. Her provocations came to greatest public attention when she opposed construction of an Islamic community centre in New York City that was criticized for being somewhat adjacent to the World Trade Centre site.
Somehow, earlier this month, a local Shabbat dinner discussion that was to be facilitated by a New Israel Fund of Canada representative drew her attention.
On July 8, Geller posted on her blog an article titled “United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism supports boycott against Israel.” Like almost everything else on her website, the short piece is deceptive, manipulative, unfair and false. In it, she accuses Congregation Har El in West Vancouver, which was set to host the event targeted to the under-40 crowd, of supporting “the boycott against Israel” and writes that “the traitors of New Israel Fund give information to the United Nations to harm Israel’s soldiers.…”
The New Israel Fund describes itself as the “nation’s leading organization committed to democracy and equality among all Israelis.” It supports human rights organizations in Israel, among which people of almost any political persuasion could probably find something objectionable. But NIF unequivocally does not support the boycotting of Israel. Whatever one might think of its political orientation or those of the frontline groups it funds, it is a legitimate nonprofit agency functioning under the laws of Israel. If it weren’t, the Israeli government would have shut it down.
But the legitimacy of the New Israel Fund is, at best, secondary to the larger issues here. Never mind that Geller extrapolates one event at a single synagogue to represent the views of the entire global Conservative movement – that is silliness that doesn’t warrant refutation – the fact is that Geller was able to kibosh an event in our community. Given the power of bullying in general, and the power of this bully in particular, we cannot blame the organization involved for shying away from the event, though we regret that it happened.
Two other New Israel Fund of Canada events are scheduled to take place in Vancouver in the fall. On Sept. 9, a symposium featuring Ronit Heyd, executive director of Shatil, and Jonathan Kay, editor-in-chief of The Walrus magazine, will engage with the audience on the topic The Backstory: Behind What You Know About Israel. On Nov. 16-17, Anat Hoffman, executive director of the Israel Religious Action Centre, will tackle the topic From the Back of the Bus to the Top of the Agenda.
Any external threats to these events proceeding should be met by our community with a united voice – regardless of our political views. It is our community’s right to discuss whatever issues we deem important – and to determine where the limits, if any, of that discussion lay.
The Dafna Fund is Israel’s only women’s foundation, funding programs and partnerships with women’s groups across sectors in Israel. According to Hamutal Gouri, the fund’s director, “Our mission is to promote women leadership and women agents of change. We promote the agency of women from all walks of Israeli life, whether it’s public or political life, academia or the economy. We want to reach women from different walks of Israeli society, and help them to become agents of social change.”
Gouri will be in Vancouver on March 11 to speak at a New Israel Fund Canada event at Temple Sholom titled Trailblazing Women. The combination isn’t incidental. The Dafna Fund was founded in 2003 by then NIF board member Prof. Dafna Izraeli (z”l), who gave the fund its initial $1 million endowment. However, while the organization remains constituted under NIF and the two organizations share the same values, they have separate fundraising sources and are independent in decision-making, explained Gouri in her interview with the Independent.
Dafna Fund’s resources include the endowment, gifts from board members and strategic partnerships with foundations outside of Israel. Gouri noted that one of the main goals of Dafna’s resource development strategy is to introduce and promote giving through a gender lens to Israeli philanthropists and the Israeli public.
While Israeli society is deeply divided by religion, ethnicity and class, there are international metrics on the status of women in Israel, which place it mostly on par with other European nations. Gouri said there are two challenges that, while not unique, are specific to Israel compared to its Western counterparts.
“First, the lack of separation between religion and state – Jewish law in Israel prescribes personal status, marriage and divorce,” and the legal strength of certain religious laws lends strength to traditional religious notions that “women should be limited to the private sphere and not to the public sphere.”
Second, Israel is a society in conflict. “This also affects women,” said Gouri, “because women are not seen as having an equal stake in issues of peace and security. Security in the narrow military sense of the world is seen as a man’s thing; men usually hold positions of power in these areas. Women also have a different definition of security, but, in conflicts, the narrow military definition of security is seen as most important and is, therefore, emphasized.”
Dafna is currently supporting a project that addresses the second challenge via United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325. The resolution, which was adopted unanimously in 2000, emphasizes women’s participation and rights in peace negotiations and post-conflict settlements. In Israel, the spirit of the resolution was also anchored and expanded in legislation. Gouri said the goal of the project, titled 1325 Women Leading Peace and Security, is “to develop a comprehensive statement for a full implementation of the 1325 resolution. It’s about actually implementing the inclusion of women in all decision-making around peace and security.”
In collaborations with policymakers in Israel on women’s issues, Gouri is cautiously optimistic. “It’s a mixed bag,” she said. “There are politicians that are very open. First of all, we have more women Knesset members in this Knesset and more of them have feminist agendas. On issues of religion and state, and also on issues of employment, there are several vocal Knesset members that are very supportive: Aliza Lavie (Yesh Atid, an Orthodox woman herself), Merav Michaeli (Labor), Michal Rozin (Meretz), Orly Levy-Abekasis (Likud Yisrael Beitenu), Zahava Gal-On (Meretz), Adi Koll (Yesh Atid). I think the most important change was that Aliza Lavie, the chair of the Committee for the Status of Women, has changed the name to the Committee for the Status of Women and Gender Equality. This reflects the success of women’s organizations by the introduction of the concept of gender equality, and mainstreaming it.”
Dafna Fund is, of course, active in the political arena. Said Gouri: “We have established and are supporting a project called Women in the Public Sphere based at the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem. They do research conferences around women in elected positions that work on a gender-equity agenda. We are also routinely supporting the work of women’s groups that are working on a regular basis with policymakers on gender equity.”
Gouri – who created the website Consult4good “to share information, thoughts and ideas about the things [she] is passionate about: social justice, human rights, equality and social transformation” – told the Independent that she is encouraged by some of the developments that have arisen from the social justice protest movement that swept Israel in the summer and fall of 2011. Apart from personally meeting with and supporting one of the protest leaders, Stav Shafir, in her successful run for the Knesset, Gouri noted a more general change in attitude that took place. “One of the important things is that women had role models, and it was women who were in leadership roles in the protests. Afterwards, people understood that if they lead change, they also need to be in the political arena – whether as elected officials, or working closely with elected officials.”
Remembering Shulamit Aloni, the Israeli MK, pioneering feminist and human rights advocate who recently died, Gouri said, “She was a great leader and a great politician. There were not many women politicians in her generation. She was also among the founding mothers of the human rights movement in Israel. She was among the first people to coin the concept that women’s rights are human rights. For women and men, she was a role model of a politician with a very broad agenda. Shulamit Aloni evolved, and saw the connection between different issues; her politics were not compartmentalized. She was a fascinating politician.”
In her talk at Temple Sholom on Tuesday, Gouri said she will be sharing stories of feminist leaders from specific and non-stereotypical cultural groups in Israel: Shula Keshet of the Mizrachi feminist group Achoti; Hanna Kehat of the Orthodox feminist group Kolech; and Fida Tabony Abu Dbai of the feminist Jewish-Arab community Mahapach-Taghir. To register for the event, which begins at 7:30 p.m., visit nifcan.org.
Maayan Kreitzman is a freelance writer living in Vancouver.