Gil Shefler, 2nd March 2011
Group criticizes JAFI’s ‘privileged status,’ seeks amendments to Law of Return.
The Jewish Agency for Israel said Tuesday it believed Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity had put it on a list of entities that should be “dissolved or fundamentally changed,” including the Jewish National Fund and the Israel Lands Administration, because it encouraged Jewish immigration to Israel.
“The Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity movement, to the best of our knowledge, is opposed to kibbutz galuyot: the right of Jews to make their home in Israel,” said Haviv Rettig-Gur, the spokesman for JAFI. “If you are opposed to this idea, then in fact you are opposed to the Jewish Agency. We believe the organization that supports this movement, for whatever reason, should be asking itself tough questions.”
Avner Inbar, the spokesman for Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity, said its criticism of the organization tasked with Jewish immigration and absorption in Israel was related to the “privileged status” it was given, not to its mission.
“If JAFI were to become an NGO like any other, we’d have no problem with them, but our criticism of them is because they are treated like a branch of government,” he said.
At the same time, he said Israeli policy allowing Jews to immigrate freely while denying similar rights to Arabs and Palestinians clashed with his organization’s commitment to equality.
“One can infer from our manifesto that changes need to be made to the Law of Return and that those changes need to be done democratically and in the spirit of democratic values,” Inbar said, referring to the law that gives people of Jewish ancestry the right to immigrate to Israel. “We have to think whether Jews in Israel should enjoy a right that Arabs don’t, and that’s an open question.”
He said he considered it unacceptable that “any Jewish citizen can invite his aunt to come live here while a Palestinian citizen can’t even invite his sister to become a citizen.” However, he added, if a Palestinian nation-state existed beside Israel, “then granting Jews unequal rights would be legitimate because then there would be two states, a Jewish one and a Palestinian one.”
Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity was formed by Israeli activists who met regularly to protest against Jews moving into the predominantly Arab east Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. According to the group, such actions represent a violation of international law and undermine prospects of reaching a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.
While the scope of its activities was initially limited to the question of Jewish settlement in east Jerusalem, the manifesto it put out last week represents an attempt to broaden its influence and break out into the national political arena.
One of the main claims against the movement is that it believes Israel discriminates against Arabs and Palestinians in a way similar to white-minority rule in South Africa. Asked to clarify the group’s position on the matter, Inbar said it was “concerned by the rise of fascism and racism in Israeli society and the possibility that Israel shall become an apartheid state, if it hasn’t already turned into one.”
Meanwhile, watchdog group NGO Monitor criticized the New Israel Fund for funding Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity, and J Street for honoring one of the movement’s key activists, Sara Benninga, at its conference in Washington.
“The New Israeli Fund claims to love Israel and to oppose boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS),” said Prof. Gerald Steinberg, president of NGO Monitor. “But at the same time, NIF also provides funding to a group that campaigns for the ‘liquidation’ of organizations such as the Jewish Agency and Jewish National Fund.”
He added that “one of the NIF’s new funding guidelines states that funding will not go to groups that ‘promote anti-democratic values.’ NIF must end the secret funding processes and publicly disclose how they see funding of the Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity movement as contributing to coexistence and mutual understanding.”
However, Jeremy Ben-Ami, the founder of J-Street, rejected NGO Monitor’s criticism and went on the offensive.
“Efforts by NGO Monitor and others on the far Right of Jewish life to deny those whose views they don’t like the right to express themselves are pursuing a dangerous and highly un-Jewish course of action,” he said. “J Street disagrees with some of the words chosen by some who spoke at our conference – just as we share concerns of Israeli leaders like [Defense Minister] Ehud Barak, who have used the word ‘apartheid’ to describe the future Israel faces without a two-state solution.”
The NIF also rejected NGO Monitor’s claims, defending its support for the activities of Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity.
“NIF, alongside many intellectuals and public figures in Israel, recognizes the importance of the work of the Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity movement, which bravely acts against the injustice caused by the occupation and the undermining of basic human rights of Arabs in east Jerusalem and other places in Israel,” the NIF told The Jerusalem Post.
“In fighting the illegal and unjust dispossession of Arab families in east Jerusalem by the extreme settler movement, the Sheikh Jarrah protesters call attention to the struggle against discrimination, inequality and anti-democratic efforts in Israel,” it said.