Mike Prashker
Israeli Shared Citizenship Educator, Social Entrepreneur and Writer

Israel’s Civil Society – Beyond Democratic Crisis

Israel's Civil Society - Prioritizing for a More Democratic and Cohesive Tomorrow

Israel’s innovative and largely democratically and progressively-leaning civil society – non-government organizations and philanthropy – has played a historical role in driving Israel’s rocky but significant society-building progress over recent decades. Precisely the kind of progress which has contributed to the ferocity of this government’s authoritarian back-lash.

For as long as Jewish-Israeli women were at home making dinner and babies, Arab citizens were cleaning Jewish-Israeli homes and hospitals, progressive Jews prayed behind closed doors, and the LGBTQ community was buried deep in the closet; there was no need for aggressive misogyny, racism, militant orthodoxy or homophobia.

But now, after decades of concerted efforts driven in significant part by Israel’s civil society, (ironically for the most part in significant partnership with Netanyahu-led governments) all of Israel’s diverse communities are rightfully asserting fair and first-class citizenship.

Progress has been patchy, spluttering and is nowhere complete. Some areas, most prominently and dangerously ending the conflict, have been stagnant or in retreat. But the progress made has already clearly proved too much for some. Much like an African American in the White House, an Arab-Palestinian Israeli Minister was simply a bridge too far for those with an inflated sense of white, or in Israel’s case Jewish, entitlement.
As the prime enabler of this progress, the Supreme Court was bound to be one natural target. As a major catalyst, civil society is another. For this reason, Israel’s civil society and all those international agencies and governments that support democracy and civil rights, are being targeted. This is being done with the same authoritarian zeal and tactics deployed with devastating effect against civil society in Russia, Poland, Hungary and other now extinct democracies.

But inspiringly – not miraculously – after the initial shock and panic, it is daily becoming clearer that whether crazed by legal jeopardy, hubris, religious or ultra-nationalist zealotry, this government has revealed and over-played its hand. A significant and growing majority of Israelis, world Jewry and international partners, now know precisely what the coalition partners want and that they will stop at nothing to grasp it. As long and painful as the struggle ahead will be, there is every reason to believe that the growing pro-democratic majority – many more and much more powerful – will prevail.

This being the case, it is now time to consider the role of civil society in the years ahead in repairing the damage and shaping a more cohesive shared future for all of Israel’s citizens. A future that can only be grounded on a more robust and widely consensual understanding of the imperative of a mature democracy serving all of Israel’s diverse communities.

There is a great deal of work to be done in many areas and different organizations and funders are rightfully beginning to think about strategies that serve their goals and build on their strengths.

To encourage this thinking, what follows is a far from comprehensive list of 14 issues, approaches, priorities and initiatives. Each with the potential to contribute strategically to strengthening aspects of the cohesion of Israeli society in the short, medium and long terms:

– Cross-Cutting Partnerships to Soften Traditional Divides: Israeli society and politics remain trapped in vertical tribal divides. Building cross-cutting partnerships that address shared challenges and advance common interests is critical. Prominent cross-cutting communities include women, disabilities, environment, education, health and more than ever, democracy.

– Grass Roots Democracy Education: Democracies require their citizens to have basic democratic literacy and too many Israelis lack this. After all, parliamentary majoritarianism is only one component of democracy and means nothing alone. We need a national volunteer program independent of state control to concisely impart the basics of democracy to nationally significant numbers of children, youth and adults of all backgrounds in small groups in homes, work etc.

– Diversity in Teaching: Israel’s four separate school streams, Jewish secular, orthodox, Ultra-Orthodox and Arab, presents a major structural barrier to building a cohesive society. Integrating teachers from all backgrounds in all streams remains the best proven educational strategy for strengthening the social fabric and has great economic benefits.

– Closing Socio-Economic Gaps: There is overwhelming evidence of an inverse correlation between economic gaps and social cohesion. Closing gaps through employment programs remains critical. To save costs and further strengthen cross-cutting partnerships, initiatives can be integrated, with joint training, placement and support programs for different unemployed and underemployed communities.

– Prioritize systems-organizational-behavioural change over attitude change. There is powerful evidence that inter-group attitudes are not changed by training but by structural-behavioural change. By investing in such change, we advance social cohesion in cost-effective and effective ways and increase the likelihood of improving attitudes over time. This is an issue with far-reaching implications that I have written about here.

– Emotional and Symbolic Belonging: A cohesive society does not only demand economic and material inclusion of all citizens. It requires making a strong house a warm home. Many of Israel’s communities currently feel under grave threat and peripheral. They must be dignified, embraced and supported emotionally and symbolically: statements, gatherings, delegations, resources, campaigns and more should all be prioritized.

– Nurturing Public-Servant – Civil Society Partnerships: The effectiveness of civil-society in general and for strengthening social cohesion is very dependent on partnership with outstanding public-servants. Many of our partners are torn between their personal views and professional responsibilities. Civil-society should make a special effort to nurture these relationships, respectful of the vital role public-servants play in robust democracies.

– Building Partnerships between Civil-Society and Business: One of the already apparent positives of the crisis is the coming-of-age of many Israeli business leaders as social actors. Civil society must engage a new generation of Israeli business leaders as NGO volunteers and philanthropists. This effort should include education, networking and connecting business leaders with NGOs and the philanthropic community.

– Boycott All Hate-mongers. A large majority within each of Israel’s diverse communities is ready to live together decently. Whether in government or elsewhere, hate-mongers must be given zero attention and legitimacy. Religious and secular values that are grounded on fairness, respect and dignity are non-negotiable. Civil society must focus on expanding agreement among the decent majority and urge the media and all partners – including global Jewish organizations – to boycott hate-mongers.

– Bolstering World Jewry-Israel Relations: Israel’s democratic crisis is already having a profound effect on world Jewry, on Jewish identity, antisemitism, and Israel relations. We must communicate and make clear the distinction between the moral and pragmatic imperative of opposing the government and the importance – never more than today – of supporting Israel and Israelis. This can only happen through increased communication based on shared Jewish and democratic values, interests and endeavour.

– Protect Civil-Society: Civil society – NGOs and philanthropy – is under attack as is invariably the case when democracy is under attack. To counter this, we need to cooperate and communicate, also with foreign governments and international aid agencies who are also being targeted. Investments should grow in NGOs working in democracy, society-building and civil rights both out of need and to increase deterrence from McCarthyite persecution.

– Ending the Conflict: The current battle must be won without dividing pro-democratic energies. But the gordian knot between democracy and over 50 years of varying degrees of control over five million Palestinians has never been clearer. With the preciousness and fragility of democracy understood by many more Israelis, it will be time to advance just peace and decent Israeli-Palestinian bi-lateral relations based on a far broader Israeli democratic alliance.

– Long-term Strategic Planning: While not an exact science, planning for building more cohesive societies can and must be grounded on a significant body of knowledge across the social sciences. As I have written, more precise understanding of history, context and the socio-economic, geo-political and psychological conditions conducive to promoting more successful shared futures is imperative. Long-term planning, including analysis of the long-term economic and human benefits of investing in the advancement of social cohesion, is itself an important element in providing direction and catalysing that investment.

– Vision and Hope: Progress requires optimism and a compelling shared vision. Civil society leaders must encourage the presentation of a broadly consensual vision and plan for a better future for all Israel’s citizens. To be effective, this must be framed in language comfortable for the great majority from all communities. For all those who speak Hebrew, Arabic, Russian and English. For all those who identify with diverse religious, secular, democratic, civic and Zionist traditions. For all those who reject hate.

In conclusion, as we across civil society plan our next steps in Israel’s epic democratic journey, we are justified in taking pride in our many achievements and in our role in the current struggle. But we must do this with profound awareness of the heavy weight of responsibility and history we are privileged to bare.

About the Author
Mike Prashker is an Israeli educator, social entrepreneur, writer and public speaker. He founded MERCHAVIM - The Institute for the Advancement of Shared Citizenship in Israel in 1998 and directed the NGO for 17 years before joining the Board of Directors. In 2014 Mike was appointed Senior Adviser for Strategic Partnerships at The Ted Arison Family Foundation where he is leading social cohesion initiatives, including "The Social Cohesion Leadership Program". Prashker’s book "A Place for Us All - Social Cohesion and the Future of Israel" (Alouette 2017) is published in a single volume in Hebrew, Arabic and English The book aims to contribute to the promotion of social cohesion by providing a precise definition, identifying geo-political, social and economic conditions conducive to its promotion and presenting a range of strategic initiatives for its practical advancement in Israel. While acknowledging Israeli society is in democratic crisis and at a critical cross-roads between accommodation and fragmentation, it also offers an optimistic re-assessment of the historical trajectory of Israeli democracy and inter-community relations.
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