One of the multiple morning roundtables

March 18th marked the date of the first roundtable in the “New Way” initiative to comprehensively evaluate and rewrite the Government’s absorption and integration policy for the Ethiopian Jewish community.

The open-government approach of the “New Way” initiative is exciting and groundbreaking whatever your ideas about the policy. Global Jewish organizations have praised the initiative, and if it is successful it could be applied in future to other issues concerning both the government and civil society.

I attended the whole day of roundtables, and I have to say, I liked what I saw.

The day was split into two parts. The discussions in the morning were in smaller groups in ten different rooms, led by a moderator. Then after a nice lunch came the roundtable, literally. An enormous circle of chairs and tables around which sat representatives from ever Ministry involved, including the General Director of the Ministry of Aliyah and Immigrant Absorption, Oded Forer JD, who is heading the process, and the Aliyah and Absorption Minister MK Sofa Landver.

But what struck me as I sat in a back row of that huge round-table was not the government presence, but the non-governmental presence. Seated among those government agencies in the grand ballroom of Bayit Ve’gan were members of the Ethiopian Jewish community, both individuals and representatives of various civil society groups. Projected on a huge screen at the front of the room were comments made by individuals on the website, www.newway.gov.il, and typists at the back of the room recorded both the morning discussions and the large afternoon discussion.

Finally, here before my eyes was direct and open communication between the government and the people. Israel’s first national town hall meeting. Community members hearing the government’s perspective and concerns, and the government learning how the Ethiopian Jewish community feels about government policies and ideas. A meeting of the minds.

It was a passionate discussion, judging by the occasional raised voices, interruptions, and heated corrections. I caught comments on educational reforms and financial waste, on the importance of teachers and family engagement.

Not everyone agrees with this program. But I can honestly say that this New Way is only capable of what people put into it. It could fall flat, another empty government program as the protesters outside seemed to think, or it could ignite real reforms that lift those Ethiopian Jews who live in poverty and marginalization into the light.

Daniel Nadawo, who spoke to the participants of my program a few weeks ago, is a field coordinator for the Ethiopian National Project, a partnership between global Jewry, the Government of Israel, and the Ethiopian Jewish Community to encourage the integration of Ethiopian-Israelis into Israel society. He was present at the round-table and agrees that the New Way initiative is an excellent opportunity to fix what has gone wrong and is a good platform to work together to find a new policy. His take-aways from the first round-table were two-fold. First, he found it interesting to see how people look at the Ethiopian Jewish challenge in different ways and find different solutions. Second, he emphasizes that it is time to acknowledge past mistakes and create something new, which must include Ethiopian Jews as part of the solution: meaning as leaders, not passive recipients of aid.

These are ideas that many Ethiopian-Israelis share, and which are the expressed goals of the New Way process. Over the next couple of months there will be additional round-tables organized by each Ministry (i.e. Education, Public Security, Economy, etc) that will once again be open to the public and offer a chance for activists to go more in-depth into particular challenges and solutions.

The New Way is a glimpse of a possible future of closer cooperation between civil society groups and Government agencies, Israel’s foray into the growing phenomenon of open government. For this reason the New Way initiative is something everyone should be following closely, whether involved in the Ethiopian-Israeli community or not.

For more information on upcoming round-tables, to see the presentations and comments made in the last session, and to contribute your own ideas I encourage you to visit http://newway.gov.il.