Interview: Nicholas Saphir

The New Israel Fund has been supporting anti-Zionists, claim its right-wing critics. Rubbish, says the organisation’s UK head, we’re just safeguarding democracy

By Simon Round, March 11, 2010
Nicholas Saphir

Nicholas Saphir

Nicholas Saphir considers himself a proud Zionist. He is descended from the Hebrew poet Bialik, he is passionately committed to Israel and holds former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in high regard.

He is also the UK chairman of the New Israel Fund (NIF), an organisation which has been pilloried by right-wingers. They allege that the NIF supports organisations which work against the interests of the state of Israel, and that groups supported by the NIF supplied much of the evidence used in the Goldstone Report, which severely criticised Israel's 2009 incursion into Gaza.

Saphir, a Sussex-based farmer who is also a trustee of the Kessler Foundation which overseas the running of the JC, rejects any suggestion that the NIF was responsible for 94 per cent of submissions to the Goldstone Committee as asserted by right-wing group Im Tirzu.

"That is absolute rubbish. Only 1.4 per cent of the evidence of the UN fact-finding mission came from organisations funded by the NIF. Of the four organisations which did give evidence, one gave evidence on behalf of Sderot residents on the missile attacks they were subjected to by Hamas, and the other three gave evidence on other matters, including the use of white phosphorous by Israel. The vast majority of the evidence which made up the Goldstone Report came from IDF soldiers, published material and from government ministers, even though the Israeli government did not officially co-operate.

"We have been vilified by an organisation [Im Tirzu] which is discredited. You can't take money from an American evangelical preacher who has said that Hitler did a good job and still be considered legitimate."

He adds that the NIF is not a political lobbying organisation and therefore does not have a view on the Goldstone Report. As an individual, he does not think its conclusions were completely negative. "This is the first time that the United Nations human rights organisation has ever put a criticism of Hamas on paper."

The NIF has also been severely criticised for funding organisations which are considered hostile to the state itself. Saphir counters by saying that NIF distributes funds to organisations which do valuable work in countering inequality.

Does this apply to Palestinian human rights group Mada Al-Carmel? The group was awarded £100,000 of NIF money which helped to fund a poster appearing to show an Israeli soldier touching the breast of a religious Muslim woman. The poster read: "Her husband needs a permit to touch her. The occupation penetrates her life every day."

Saphir believes that behind the sensationalist headlines, Mada Al-Carmel is doing good work. "The poster was pretty aggressive but the substance was that Arab citizens of Israel married to people living in the West Bank cannot bring their partners to Israel. From a human rights view it is a terrible policy and it is inconsistent. The law doesn't state that you can't bring you partner in if they are foreign, but it singles out the West Bank. That is clearly wrong."

Saphir is keen to defend the NIF's funding of Palestinian-Israeli causes, as well as other organisations seen as controversial within and outside Israel. "Twenty per cent of Israel's citizens are not Jewish. Do we ignore them? We certainly do not believe in ethnic cleansing. I truly respect the rights of Palestinian Israelis to say what they want to say. Israel is a fact, but a lot of blood has been spilled. You can't deny them the right to talk about their story, to talk about their pain and their loss. Allowing them to do so is the first step in building bridges between the communities."

Saphir is also full of praise for Breaking the Silence, another organisation which has come under sustained attack for publicising the experiences of soldiers who have served in the West Bank and Gaza. "To me, the young Orthodox men who run Breaking the Silence are passionate about Israel. They are Zionist to the core. What they say is, if you experience life serving as an IDF soldier in the Territories, you need to talk about what you do. If you go to Hebron you see just how awful it is for IDF soldiers to defend the settlers. Even Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks said that the occupation is brutalising Israel. There is no getting away from that."

Saphir is interested in defending what he sees as Israel's soul. He also believes that by doing so NIF can stop the drift away from Israeli causes in this country. "We have redefined philanthropy. Whereas in the past it was all about building or funding hospitals etc, what we do is to support the people. We are working with immigrant populations, supporting women's rights and religious pluralism. More and more people I know are beginning to say that this is interesting and important. It's about our Jewish conscience. I find a lot of young people have been drifting away from Israel because they don't agree with what's going on there. We need to re-engage them. We want everyone in the community to feel comfortable to debate the issues."

And far from being a thorn in Israel's side, Saphir says he believes strongly in the country. "One thing that really upsets me is the hijacking of the term Zionist. My son did his basic training in the army and I met my wife in Jerusalem. But Israel to me is not about the centre-right definition of the term. We believe in a state where the Jewish character is central. We must not forget there is also a significant minority of Israelis who are not Jewish. We need to deal with them openly and fairly if we are going to create what was always intended - a model democratic state."

Last updated: 11:07am, March 11 2010