Avigail Kormes, a kibbutznik, daughter of a social activist and descendent of Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev, is, in her words, a Zionist who works for the sustainability of Israel as a democracy and the homeland for the Jewish people. Her job as NIF Grants Officer for Democracy and Human Rights, gives her the opportunity to bring her value and ideals to her daily job.
“I feel really privileged to be working in a place where I don’t have to leave my conscience at the door,” says Avigail, 41.
After two years at Shatil, where she started as an administrative assistant, and 10 years as an NIF grants officer, Avigail left this week for a year in the Far East due to her partner’s relocation. She will continue to work at NIF remotely for the next few months.
Avigail comes from a long ling of Zionists, including founders of Moshav Sejera (today Ilania.) Her father’s only two brothers were killed in Israeli wars, so Avigail spent a lot of time in cemeteries and around sadness growing up. The first demonstration she remembers attending was a torchlight march after peace activist Emil Grunzweig was killed when she was five. Since then she has participanted in countless demonstrations and protests, one of the reasons she was so closely connected to the field of democracy and human rights activism as an NIF grants officer. Her master’s degree in international law gives her human rights expertise from a different perspective. And her passion for a “sustainable Israel based on democracy and human rights” lights the fire of her motivation to spend her days bringing this dream closer.
Her carefree kibbutz childhood included a stint as an exchange student in Rhode Island, where she was exposed to American Judaism and in a youth peace camp in Cyprus, where she worked on a peace agreement with Palestinian participants. “We almost got there,” she says. “We just couldn’t agree on Jerusalem.”
As an NIF grant officer, Avigail kept her fingers on the pulse of the field by meeting with activists and organizations, analyzing, strategizing and recommending priorities, goals and grants to the NIF board together with Shatil colleagues, as well as monitoring and evaluating the activities and progress of the grantees.
“Avigail is more than a grants officer to us, says Alma Biblash, director of NIF grantee, Human Rights Defenders Fund (HRDF.) “She helps us think; whenever there’s a difficulty, she’s always available and willing to help. She’s connected to what’s happening in the organizations and in the field and she has a wide view of things. She deeply understands our needs and is able to think creatively about how to solve problems that seem unsolvable.”
One of her important accomplishments, in response to the deterioration of the right to protest in Israel, was developing NIF and Shatil’s Freedom of Protest program together with Shatil and the organizations. This work resulted in many more activists knowing their rights, in beneficial court decisions and in changes in police policy.
“Working at NIF is exciting and gratifying,” says Avigail. “I feel I’m in a place that has influence. Because I’m an activist myself, I’m in a good position to understand the needs of activists, to try to respond to them and to connect between NIF and the field. It’s also challenging because when I began at NIF, the attacks on the progressive camp had already begun. Every week there was a new challenge. I believe these organizations do holy work and I tried to help NIF invest its limited resources in the right places and in the most effective, strategic way.”
Focusing on being strategic, Avigail feels she usually has to use her head rather than her heart in her work, but sometimes she went with her instincts. After attending a meeting of refugee and South Tel Aviv residents on a neighborhood rooftop in 2012, Avigail, felt something important was brewing. She suggested a grant to the group, which became known as Power to the Community and which reflects a face of South Tel Aviv that shows compassion to both refugees and South Tel Aviv residents that is not usually portrayed in the media. The group turned out to be an important voice in the successful protests against the deportation of refugees in 2018.
Does she have hope for the future?
“In the short term, I’m pessimistic,” Avigail admits. “But in the long run, I believe things will improve. I believe the occupation, which is at the root of so many problematic things, will one day end. I see more and more people, such as academics and journalists, who are also coming under attack, understanding the importance of defending democracy and human rights.
“I define Zionism as the aspiration for the national, democratic home of the Jewish people and for that there have to be equal rights, individually and collectively for minorities inside Israel and of course a Palestinian state. Everything I did – and we do – and NIF is for this: a sustainable Israel.