This past year – so confusing, discombobulating and, in many respects, disheartening – also provides the seeds of hope for the one that has just commenced. Despite the regional insecurity and economic uncertainty that has engendered a prevailing sense that the future bears more of the same, there has emerged a new, concerned and involved Israeli who is beginning to reshape the country and demand a part in molding its destiny. Beneath the all-too familiar veneer of formal politics, an array of individuals and groups, far from indifferent or apathetic, holds promise for real change. They are the harbingers of what may yet make 5774 the year of the citizen.
The gradual reengagement of many Israelis in the public arena began two summers ago, when the social justice uprising galvanized large portions of the population into a collective demand for a vision that would provide a horizon for themselves and successive generations. Despite the paucity of short-term tangible gains, the social movement did make a major contribution to altering the discourse in the country (with political aspirants quickly adopting the language of change and innovation and many citizens honing their critical facilities in response). It also signaled a significant shift in attitude. No longer content to sit passively by while steps detrimental to their well being were adopted, people started to take note of everything, from the price of vegetables and electricity to the content of education, and from reduced pensions and discrimination in the workplace to debates over Iran, Syria and the resumption of negotiations with the Palestinians. During the past year, fueled by the new media and by the rapid expansion of social networks, this revived interest has begun to assume concrete form.
The first evidence of civic resuscitation may be found in the palpable rise of public monitoring. Several initiatives now regularly oversee the actions of each and every member of the Knesset. The most notable are the Open Knesset (Knesset P’tuhah), whose Internet site provides updated information on everything from attendance in the plenary and committees to votes on critical issues. Its materials are used widely by journalists and activists, as are those of the Social Guard (Hamishmar Hahevrati), which offers detailed analyses of the activities of elected officials on everything to do with socioeconomic matters. The Freedom of Information Movement, dedicated to ensuring citizen access to official data, scored several important achievements last year, including the exposure of the (controversial) details of the expenditures of the Prime Minister.
These – and many more – networks supply a plethora of information vital to the systematic scrutiny of public affairs. Their impact, although not always measurable, is nevertheless everywhere apparent. Members of the Knesset are acutely aware of their scores on various measures and, as their websites indicate, quick to respond and correct their actions when taken to task. Their Facebook activities and those of ministers – most notably Yair Lapid – have had an immense impact on their image and their standing. Increased transparency – including the planned release of minutes of cabinet committees, such as the Ministerial Committee on Legislation – is the order of the day. An effective system of popular accountability has been launched – one which could substantially affect policy and the conduct of public life in the future.
The second major testimony to the reawakening of Israeli citizens may be seen in the sphere of civic empowerment. Marginalized groups, so often shunted to the sidelines, have recorded some notable successes in the past twelve months. Tebeka, an organization devoted to seeking justice for immigrants from Ethiopia, won a major case against an establishment which refused to employ five Ethiopian Jews because of their color. The Bedouin residents of al-Arakib, an unrecognized village that has been razed multiple times, got some succor from the High Court, which granted them the right to argue the case against their displacement. The state of Mizrahim, Jews of Sephardic origin, whose meager representation in the centers of economic, social, educational and intellectual life in the country is legion, was brought to the forefront by Amnon Levy’s series on Channel 10, arousing more debate than any documentary broadcast in recent memory. Arab citizens of Israel, the butt of too many acts of systemic exclusion, continued to demand full equality in access to, and allocation of, public resources.
The most significant strides for recognition of the weak in the past year were recorded by women. A broad coalition of feminist groups led the struggle against attempts to perpetuate their invisibility. The contestation for gender equality in public spaces – in the streets, on buses, on public billboards – mobilized women and men alike. Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein declared his intention to present a law making the marginalization of women a criminal offense. The Women of the Wall claimed some progress in their quest to make the holiest of Jewish sites open to all. And, following significant lobbying activity by Kolech and other orthodox groups, women took part in the election of the chief rabbis and the members of the rabbinical courts.
These disparate cases are far more than localized events. They illustrate the growing willingness of individuals and groups to stand up for their rights and to rebel against attempts to control segments of the public domain at their expense. Contestations over the form and character of common civic spaces are essentially struggles for equality and justice in Israeli society. The renewed efforts on the part of the objects of prejudice and intolerance bode well for a more equitable Israel down the road.
The most important sign of rejuvenation of citizen action, however, is in the sphere of actual change. Here is but a small sampling:
- Uncompromising and prudent work by a coalition of social justice advocates led to the capping of gas exports at 40 percent of production – an improvement over the much higher percentage suggested by a government committee. The struggle for a further reduction is still in progress.
- At the behest of women and a variety of organizations, the threat of the imposition of a national insurance tax on housewives was cancelled.
- The newly formed Women’s Journalists Group came out against sexual harassment in the media, leading to the investigation of some of the most prominent personalities in the field.
- A petition brought by a couple of residents of Harish and Ometz ensured that the town-in-the-making would be open to all.
- Another petition, by IRAC – the action arm of the Reform Movement in Israel – has led to a renewed effort to insert the core curriculum into Haredi schools.
These examples show that citizens do have the capacity to prevent deterioration and to promote positive change. The sense of efficacy instilled in those who have tried – and succeeded – gives tremendous strength to advocates for a better Israel. More significantly, it also gives substance to the feeling that citizens – individually and collectively – can make a difference.
The last twelve months, with all their trials and tribulations, were thus also a period of civic vitality. A mixture of lobbying, litigation, protest, advocacy, mobilization, monitoring, information dissemination, consciousness-building and self-help has shed light on problematic aspects of Israeli life and brought relief to many. The new-found vibrancy of Israeli citizens, acting separately and in concert, has laid the groundwork for a different, inclusive society based on the values of equality and justice for all its inhabitants.
The capacity to make change – and the spirit of commitment that goes with it – is a legacy that must be carried over, with increased vigor, into the coming year. The bubble-up effect of civic action can continue to affect not only daily life, but also the shape of Israel’s future in the region and the world. This depends on the belief of a growing number of citizens that it is in their hands to bring about the change they want and their willingness to take the necessary steps to show that, even more than in the outgoing year, indeed they can.