A founder of an Israel volunteer program for Diaspora Jews has vowed the group will keep going after its benefactor, Masa Israel, cut its funding over revelations that some of its participants took part in a pro-Palestinian protest in the West Bank.
Speaking with The Times of Israel on Tuesday, Achvat Amim program director Daniel Roth said that Masa — a joint government-Jewish Agency initiative — had “caved to right-wing pressure, which seeks to narrow the bounds of acceptable discussion and discourse on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
Achvat Amim’s fall semester cohort arrived in Israel on September 4, as scheduled. Roth said the young participants were “shocked and disappointed” by the news of the funding cut but said the organization would continue to move forward.
On Monday, Roth and co-founder Karen Isaacs launched a crowdfunding campaign to cover the costs of the scholarships that Masa will no longer be providing to the participants. As of Thursday evening, the initiative had reached over 20% of its $30,000 goal.
Roth added that Masa’s decision was based on a “false” report from Ad Kan, a right-wing NGO, that seeks to expose what it sees as illegitimate activities by Israeli human rights groups.
Ad Kan director Gilad Ach said that members of his organization “infiltrated” the pro-Palestinian protest camp known as Sumud throughout the six weeks that it stood in the South Hebron Hills. Posing as a rights worker, one of Ad Kan’s activists asked a fellow demonstrator to share her background.
“The young female responded that she was from Britain and currently participating in a five-month Masa program in Israel,” Ach told The Times of Israel. “And from there, the whole story unfolded.”
Referring to Sumud as a “provocation,” Ach added that “the state should not be supporting organizations that come to hurt us.”
On August 15, more than a month after Sumud was dismantled by Israeli security forces, Channel 2 aired a report based largely on Ad Kan’s findings. It charged Roth and Isaacs with sending their participants — who each received up to $3,000 in scholarship money from the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency — to take part in the protest camp in an official capacity.
Leaders of the roughly 300 activists present at Sumud’s May 20 building said they were there to reestablish the Palestinian village of Sarura, located near the Israeli outpost Havat Ma’on.
Some 10 Palestinian families had lived in caves in Sarura, but were forced to evacuate when the IDF declared the area a closed military zone in 1999. That evacuation sparked a legal battle that continues to this day.
On several occasions, the IDF entered the Sumud camp to dismantle “illegal structures.” The Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) — the Israel Defense Ministry unit that administers civilian issues in the West Bank — said “the outpost was established within a firing zone (918) where there is significant risk, and it is therefore forbidden to enter.”
The Channel 2 report said that Achvat Amim participants were present during the IDF raids that spiraled into clashes between soldiers and demonstrators.
While Roth confirmed that all eight of the program’s participants were among the hundreds of Diaspora Jews from around the world that came to Israel in order to take part in the protest, he emphasized that none had been present when confrontations with the IDF took place. In addition, Roth asserted that the Achvat Amim participants had attended the camp during their own “free time.”
Nonetheless, Roth said that right-wing pressure eventually led to what he referred to as an “ultimatum” handed down last Thursday to the socialist-Zionist Hashomer Hatzair movement that supervises Achvat Amim, telling them to remove Roth and Isaacs or lose funding.
Oren Zukierkorn, the head of Hashomer Hatzair, rejected Masa’s demand, saying that participants came to Israel to engage in issues such as the Sumud protest and called the decision to withdraw funding a “lost opportunity to broaden the circle of Israel supporters.”
However, Zukierkorn admitted that the presence of the participants put Masa in a difficult situation or “grey area,” and said he had proposed that in the future they would do a better job coordinating with Masa.
However, Masa rejected this and pulled the funding.
Speaking with the Times of Israel on Tuesday, Masa spokeswoman Sara Eisen explained that her organization “loves the fact that [Achvat Amim] does coexistence work, but the fact that program directors would take participants to a place where there are likely to clash with IDF soldiers crossed a line into political activism that went beyond what a consensus organization such as Masa could accept.”
Roth characterized Masa’s response as “very worrying.” He argued that “real coexistence work is inherently political because it is about breaking down barriers built by systems of injustice.”