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Adi Arbel
Director of the Civil Society Forum

Civil Society as a Powerful Undercurrent

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Naftali_Bennett_CET_conference_2.jpg
Naftali Bennett (Wikimedia Commons)

The Disengagement plan is just one of innumerable examples conceived and pushed by civil society organizations on the right and left. Four Mothers pushed the Israeli government to unilaterally withdraw from Lebanon, the Nation State Law was drafted by the Institute for Zionist Strategies and advanced by the Kohelet Forum, the New Israel Fund trained progressive jurists and placed them in key positions in the legal system, while Im Tirtzu saw to exposing the activity of the New Israel Fund. A range of other examples support this basic thesis: Almost every law proposal you hear of is backed by some civil organization you likely never heard of.

We could bring many more examples pointing to how civil society influences government policy and the law books, not just in the contexts of the fundamental debates between right and left in Israel, but also regarding a range of other fields: education, welfare, economics, law, health, and more. Suffice to mention just one such: “Give five”, the plan to double the number of students taking the math matriculation exam at the highest level of 5 learning units. This initiative is clearly identified with then-Education Minister Naftali Bennet, though it was originally advanced by a coalition of civil society groups two years prior to his appointment to the position.

Civil society’s ability to influence decision makers is not something magical or conspiratorial. It is due to a number of reasons I will list here briefly.

First, elected representatives are chosen for a set term and need to create an agenda on a range of issues which are not necessarily their field of expertise. Any politician – no matter their ideological affiliation – understands that working with an organization that helps him promote an agenda will grant him public credit, and he will therefore work with activists with an agenda that aligns with his or which might increase his public support.

Second, the activity of the organizations does not depend on elections or follows the cycle of changes in government. This allows them to focus on the longer term accumulate expertise in their chosen field, and create continuity and stability in advancing the various initiatives they promote, even when the decision makers are changed. In addition, civil societies are much more flexible and nimbler than government institutions and professional bureaucrats, and this gives them an enormous edge in the eyes of the elected representative. Finally, civil society organizations can advance efforts which the politician often can’t or doesn’t want to promote: from bringing people together for discourse purposes, creating agreements across sectorial lines, and producing events and campaigns to increase support for the joint initiative.

When I chose to turn from being an “armchair righty” to a civil society activist, I effectively chose to become one of the teams on the field rather than stay a passive observer in the audience with millions of other viewers, who could express their displeasure solely through the time-honored practice of booing the referee. I owe this lesson to my teacher Israel Harel, founder of the Institute for Zionist Strategies: Those who really wish to have an influence cannot suffice with mere protest activity, which is merely barking while the caravan passes. The ability to influence depends on taking the initiative and presenting a usable alternative for decision makers. This decision took me into the Institute for Zionist Strategies – one of dozens of national civil society institutions seeking to influence government policy, and which were founded since Sharon declared the Disengagement plan and in its wake.

In recent years I understood – in no small part thanks to my position as Director of the Civil Society Forum which exposed me to the welcome work of many organizations – that civil society has an important role in creating ideas and forming policy; advocacy is just one of its roles. A second and perhaps central role is to serve the society in which it functions, offering services through non-profit organizations in the fields of education, culture, health, welfare, religion, and more.

A civil society which can provide competitive services of education, health, welfare, religion, culture – as well as that of other ministries we tend to complain about, with efficiency and professionalism, gets the public used to the idea that we can – and should – maintain a well-functioning society in which government intervention is minimal, without neglecting weaker populations or those with special needs. This alternative, which in addition to its effectiveness fulfills the freedom of individuals consuming the various services in accordance with their worldview, may promote broader agreement as to the essence of the state’s necessary functions.

Indeed, my sense is that despite the wealth of possibilities, Israeli civil society is far from realizing its full potential. The reason is lack of awareness and understanding, among other things – both on the part of the broader public and decision makers – as to the great advantages of civil society and the way it operates.

This post is the second part of an article published in Hashiloach journal.

Here are all parts of the article

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About the Author
Adi served in the IDF for six years as a programmer, officer and team leader, completed his BA in psychology, economics and geography and studied for an MA in conflict resolution at Bar-Ilan University. After four years of working at the Elbit Systems as a software programmer, he decided to quit the hi-tech industry and embark upon a new career as a project manager at the Institute for Zionist Strategies. During his work in the IZS, Adi initiated the proposal for “Basic Law: Israel the Nation-State of the Jewish People”, involved with Blue & White Human Rights, a human rights movement that holds a Zionist perspective and founded the Beit Midrash for Zionist Thought. Adi has written a weekly column for Makor Rishon and has published a number of op-eds in Haaretz, as well as other media outlets. In 2011, the Jerusalem Post selected Adi as one of the top ten Jewish Future Leaders.
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