Adi Arbel
Director of the Civil Society Forum

Civil Society: Historical Background

The Disengagement plan advanced against the will of most of the Israeli public. Photo: Mark Neyman, GPO

Civil society is a solution backed up by Jewish tradition and history, as seen in the lives of Jewish communities throughout the diaspora since the beginning. During two thousand years of exile, without governmental institutions with police power, the Jewish community saw to the welfare of its members, the education of its children, the support of its needy, the maintenance of its religious services, and even maintained an autonomous legal system and conducted tax collection. Moreover, throughout history, Jews around the world united to make the world a better place, whether by helping their Jewish brothers in other places around the world, or by trying to push all of humanity ever slightly forward. Our heritage includes lending a helping hand to those who need it and an uncompromising stand against injustices both near and distant.

This heritage was also the basis for the establishment of the national institutions and the founding of the Zionist movement which pushed for the establishment of the State of Israel. When the need arose, Jewish civil society even managed to establish armed underground organizations to fight for the establishment of a national home for the Jewish Home. In other words: Even the State of Israel is the product of Jewish civil society.

But things ended up turning upside down when the state entirely paralyzed civil society in Israel. With the founding of the state, and under the rule of David Ben Gurion and MAPAI, the flag of statism was raised. In its spirit, this statism was influenced by the socialist ideology, and it sought to bring together all the remnants of Israel coming to Zion and establish the sovereignty of the state. But this had serious consequences: a high degree of concentration which repressed private initiative, both economically (and beyond the scope of this article) and in terms of civil society. The transfer of the center of gravity from the communities and various groups in Israel to the state institutions and its MAPAI offshoots almost made civil society and its institutions disappear.

To demonstrate just how little civil society interested the MAPAI government, it should be noted that even legislation in the field was hardly advanced during its time, and was based instead on the Ottoman law which allowed individuals wanting to organize for non-profit purposes, only one legal framework – known until today as an “Ottoman association” – an outdated, non-transparent form of organization which mostly aids archaic groups uninterested in oversight. Only in April 1981, four years after the end of MAPAI rule, did the Associations Law come into force, which included the advanced legislation needed for modern civil society. We can say that what MAPAI did in the thirty years of its rule to the civil society in the name of statism, is analogous (though not identical) to what communism did to religion in the name of equality for seventy years in removing all traces of religious values.

The Appropriation of Civil Society by the Left

The end of MAPAI rule and the rise of Likud to power in 1977 were not just the catalyst for advancing the appropriate legislation but also marked the beginning of the left’s reorganization – having lost the reins of power for the first time. This included a range of civil society organization which sought effectively to “replace the people”, create public pressure preventing rightwing governments from advancing their causes and to bring the left back into power.

Among the prominent organizations established during Likuds’ ruling are the Peace Now movement (founded in 1977), the New Israel Fund (1979), Shatil (1982), the Israel Women’s Network (1984), the Center for the Defense of the Individual (1988), the Council for Peace and Security (1988), the Women of the Wall (1988), Physicians for Human rights (1988), Betzelem (1989), the Movement for Quality Government in Israel (1990), Adam Teva V’Din (1990), the Israel Democracy Institute (1991), the Adva Center (1991), the Mizrahi Democratic Rainbow Coalition (1996), Adalah (1996), Green Course (1997), the Open House (1997), the Mossawa Center (1997), the Hotline for Foreign Workers (1998), Machsom Watch (2001), and many more.

What all these organizations share, among other things, is their intensive advocacy efforts to change Israeli policy and the Israeli public agenda. When it comes to some of these groups, we can see clearly that they advance a post-Zionist agenda aimed at undermining the character of Israel as the nation state of the Jewish People. When it comes to others, some seem to advance worthy causes, which are sometimes appropriated and abused in order to bash the policy of the elected Israeli government, such as their recent efforts against new settlements as long as they are meant for Jews. Either way, we cannot ignore the existence of a civil society that works for the sake of a progressive and confrontational agenda vis-à-vis the will of the people as can be seen in election results.

The fact that this is not mere baseless conspiracy thinking, can be seen – more than anything – in a letter written by then-New Israel Fund Director Eliezer Yaari in 1999 to his American donors, entitled “Initial Thoughts in the Wake of the Elections” (in which Ehud Barak won):

A great thing happened in Israel yesterday. Israeli society, in an amazing display of democracy, succeeded in achieving two goals: removing a bizarre coalition from power which embodied political stagnation, moral degradation, and religious and social clericalism; and granting Israeli society a second chance… in the wake of the elections, every one of us – members of the board of executives, staff, volunteers, and thousands of donors – can feel satisfaction at the values realized in the elections… One cannot look at what happened and not see the clear and prominent fingerprints of the New Israel Fund and Shatil.

The Right’s Share of Civil Society

At this stage, I would like to ask the conservative reader to avoid hastily accusing the left of appropriating civil society in order to bypass democracy. Even if these charges are not baseless, my conclusion is the opposite: The left did well – for itself but also for Israeli society at large – by restoring civil society after thirty years of atrophy under MAPAI. The arguments of neglecting the values and principles of civil society, since the state’s founding and especially since the upheaval of 1977, should be directed first and foremost at the Israeli right. In fact, until the Oslo Accords of the nineties and perhaps even the Disengagement plan of 2005, the right abandoned the field of civil society to the left. Until that time, almost the only effort the right engaged in politically, aside from voting, was protests. These are important and good tools for creating a public outcry, but are usually insufficient in bringing about real changes.

The Israel Associations Yearbook for 2018 provides a snapshot of associational activity based on target audience. 638 associations serve soldiers, 1,320 – elderly, 1,931 – university students and young adults, 2,631 – schoolchildren. Another 5,395 associations serve children and youth, 6,004 are devoted to yeshivah and kollel students, 901 for men, and 1,477 for women. 582 associations work for Holocaust survivors, 652 for hospital patients, 1,166 for Olim, 1,716 for people with disabilities, 266 for unemployed, 568 for non-Israeli citizens and 62 for those with different sexual orientations.

To an extent, this breakdown points to the different preferences of Israeli citizens, but it also hints to which groups know how to use the tools of civil society and for what goals – and which, less so.

Now I wish to retract some of the criticism I just hurled at the right. In truth, the right did not entirely abandon civil society; to some extent, the opposite is true. The right did abandon one central field of civil society: changing policy through advocacy (as opposed to through elections). At the same time, the right, especially the religious Zionist community has succeeded in cultivating a range of educational, charity, and settlement organizations. But none of this is enough to influence the national agenda – certainly not when existing advocacy groups reflect the left’s preferences in the Israeli political system with great effectiveness. The Disengagement plan, which advanced against the will of most of the Israeli public, is the clearest – and saddest – example of this fact.

There are two reasons the right has neglected advocacy. First, the lack of awareness and understanding of the potential influence of civil society on decision makers, to which we can add statism (if tied to Ben-Gurion or Rav Kook) which assigned responsibility on a range of issues to the state and considered elected representatives to be the proper address for their advancement, without understanding that those representatives need massive assistance from advocacy groups in order to build up a foundation of knowledge and tools. Statism led the national but-not-yet conservative right to forget the need of building a social-civic worldview.

A second reason has to do with how the right operates. For many years, the Israeli right focused primarily on matters of foreign affairs and directed most of its civic activity to advancing the settlement project. It focused on “establishing facts on the ground”, based on outdated understandings of the old ethos of “another dunam, another goat”. Religious society invested, and still invests, a great deal of civic energy to ensure commitment to Torah and Mitzvot among its members and in improving the model of the religious community and education. But this energy was not directed towards advocacy and focused instead on internal communal concerns.

“The Best to the Press”, Uri Orbach’s important article published in Nekuda magazine in 1987, was a breakthrough in understanding the importance of influence over public consciousness and shaping the discourse, but it was also busy focusing on influencing matters solely through the prism of the struggle for the Land of Israel:

There’s no reason that friends like you, who have already been filled up with something, should not edit and host programs, determine who is and isn’t invited, who gets asked and who does not. The price was paid at Yamit. If only we had broadcasters there with the right opinions. They would not keep asking nationally minded MKs: “Do you not feel you are a barrier to peace?” or “What will you do with so much compensation?” If there were two-three religious people there who were more Zionist and less cynical, they would have the chutzpah to ask the defense minister: “Sir, do you not feel ashamed at uprooting settlements in the Land of Israel?” or “How do you explain that we are uprooting dozens of flourishing settlements for a piece of paper of dubious value?” But we had no broadcaster there.

The political right’s powerlessness in advocacy (to say nothing of the non-existence of a rightwing conservative or economic views on this matter) is even more prominent given the recent changes in the Israeli left: from socialist Zionism to post-Zionism which advances a broadly progressive worldview dealing with a range of issues. This change can be seen with the laundry list of issues the left now focuses on: democracy, religion and state, LGBT’s, environment, planning, foreign workers, Israeli Arabs, feminism, as well as civil society – the same civil society which the Israeli public has increasingly come to see as synonymous with leftwing organizations.

But the truth is that this is a mistaken equation. Civil society is not a synonym for importing trendy progressive ideas from overseas. The concept can and should be given original local content: from our Jewish identity, the rich history of our people, the great deal of experience we have accumulated, and the variety of our communal experiences. To this we can and perhaps should add the values of global civil society.

Moreover, to make the State of Israel into a better place to live, we have no need of a revolution or revolutionary discourse. The conservative discourse knows how to recognize what is good and try and improve what is less good without uprooting it. Bottom line, social change need not be lead by revolutionary concepts, but by evolutionary ones.

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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