Donald Trump’s presidency has already led to levels of polarization, mutual recrimination, and societal fragmentation not seen in the US for some time. This is a phenomena that we sadly know all too well in Israel. As a professional community organizer who has lived and worked in both countries, I believe that the work of community organizing offers a compelling path forward. While we should be cautious in drawing too many comparisons between Israel and the US, there are parallels to be considered.
To point out the bubbles we live in would be redundant. Yet after 16 years of building organizations that fight against these echo chambers while building shared agendas, I notice a striking similarity between the predicted victory of Democrats in 2016 and the Labor party in Israel’s 2015 elections. There is a growing consensus in some urban areas, which affects our major media outlets, and we all get caught up in these echo chambers only to find out how disconnected we all are.
How do we respond? There are fights worth fighting. Yet if all we do is talk to the people inside our bubbles I fear we will only see more of these extreme shifts we’ve been seeing. Too many politicians and political interests are happy to exploit, manipulate and sensationalize hot button issues into crises in order to maintain power, with scant regard for the interests of the people they purportedly serve. If we allow these manipulative political interests to play off our worst fears, and allow ourselves to become predictable caricatures of ourselves, the lines on all sides become darker, the distance greater.
Take, for example, the never ending stalemate on US gun violence. We know such divisive issues are never just about the “facts.” Gun control and gun rights activists can argue until they are blue in the face over the facts. To some, the amount and kinds of guns that are in circulation in the US is inconceivable. To others, it’s a matter of the cosmopolitan ‘elites’ imposing their culture on others. That’s why in my years of work on gun violence, no matter how gut-wrenching the tragedy, I and my colleagues avoided symbolic protests. Instead, we built intersections of concerned communities and gun enthusiasts that closed down gun trafficking operations and organized gun safety technology shows.
Last spring I was invited to help a community organizing program spearheaded by Shaharit, a bold Israeli organization building the ideas and leadership to bridge divides and offer a different future. Shaharit asks: can we bring together Israelis from diverse backgrounds to create a different kind of politics based on the common good?
This work does not begin with the hot button issues that might divide. It begins with conversations and the concerns of residents in the peripheral neighborhoods where we are working. It builds trust between people who, in some cases, have never come together, and assumes there are issues that citizens can work on together despite the differences in their political persuasions or outlooks on life. Through that work, people build bonds and transform together. It argues that real change begins where people live their daily lives.
In Rehovot, we’re building a base of Ethiopian, Mizrachi, and Ashkenazi residents who have already successfully convinced their city to expand after-school programs for 600 children. We have also developed working relationships with local police commanders and cleared the records of Ethiopian men wrongly caught up in an unforgiving criminal justice system.
In Jerusalem, instead of focusing on the usual liberal strongholds, we sent our organizer into several peripheral neighborhoods. There, we’ve empowered a group of parents from different sociological, religious and political backgrounds to come together to protest that more than 2,000 children sometimes spend more than 90 minutes riding to and from high school every day. Fifty-five community members came out this January to meet with then City Council Transportation Committee Chair Fleur Hassan-Nahoum and Education Committee Chair Rav Aaron Leibowitz; more work is planned.
In another area, a group of ultra-orthodox social entrepreneurs have created a group for mutual support and action as they strive to educate and integrate thousands of men and women as self-supporting members of society while remaining rooted in the strict observance of their faith.
This kind of work forces us to step away from the internet and forego catchy slogans, ideological orthodoxy and flash mob political activism. It is based on a notion that if communities can talk to each other, building a shared agenda on common concerns, they can together build political power for the common good. To do it right we must seek out, listen to, and work with people whom we might otherwise avoid. This kind of eye-level engagement forces leaders to see each other as decent people with sometimes mutual concerns and fears. It begs for training in how to best invest in effective citizenship and political involvement. The power of this work may just create a national model for creating change — change that starts where people are.
A better future requires a steady focus on the community, with trust-building work to solve the complex logjams in which we all find ourselves. Through that work, I believe we can build the power to stand up, fight for our shared future, and win.