I began my internship with The Abraham Initiatives, an organization that seeks to ensure full political and social rights for Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel, at a political moment when promoting shared society and improving Jewish-Arab relations felt like a distant dream. From the escalation in violence between Israel and Gaza to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s increasingly divisive and inflammatory political rhetoric towards Arab citizens of Israel, my initial impression of the political environment in Israel was not a particularly positive or hopeful one. However, my internship with The Abraham Initiatives has allowed me to peel back some of the layers of the Israeli political scene and find inspiring stories of local political cooperation occurring all across Israel.
I recently had the opportunity to travel to Haifa to attend a panel called “Mixed Cities, Different Circumstances,” which highlighted the importance of The Abraham Initiative’s new Shared Cities program. We circled up chairs in the Beit Ha’Gefen, the Arab-Jewish Cultural Center in Haifa, with panelists mixed in alongside audience in an informal way that I’m quickly learning is the norm in Israel. The panel brought together Arab representatives from several major mixed cities in Israel many of whom sit on municipal councils as a part of mixed coalitions.
The idea of a mixed governing coalition was not entirely new to me. As a Yahel Social Change Fellow living and volunteering in Lod, I’ve heard about the coalition of Jewish and Arab political parties that formed around their shared interest in strengthening the city’s development following last year’s local elections. However, I soon learned from the panel that the emergence of a mixed coalition was not unique to Lod. In the 2018 municipal elections, every mixed city in Israel, including Jaffa, Haifa, Acre, Ramle, Upper Nazareth and Ma’a lot Tarshiha, saw Jewish and Arab political parties coming together to form these shared governing councils. Hearing the panelists speak about these coalitions provided me with a message of hope and a model for political cooperation at a moment when political discourse on the national level, especially between Jewish and Arab parties, has felt increasingly divisive and toxic.
One of the central themes that came up again and again in our circle was the importance of placing shared interests ahead of ideology. Haifa City Council member Raja Za’atry spoke about being a part of a coalition that includes parties as ideologically diverse as Likud, Hadash, Meretz, and Yisrael Beitanu, all of which had elected to put their communities’ local issues first. Ayeesha Morsi, a councilwoman sitting in Acre’s mixed municipal coalition, discussed the shared education initiatives being implemented in her city’s schools. Other city representatives identified similar trends whereby mixed coalitions have begun to recognize that city-wide development is contingent on investment in shared society and in the well-being of their Arab populations.
Despite this progress, there is still a long way to go before mixed cities will become truly shared cities. As Adham Jamal, deputy mayor of Acre, aptly pointed out, “it takes time to erode [the] decades-worth of discrimination” that Arab citizens of Israel have faced. Nesreen Morcus, a social activist from Nazareth Ilit, discussed the roadblocks that Arab residents of her city have faced in opening Arab schools. Nesreen Shehadhe, the Lod Shared Cities Coordinator at The Abraham Initiatives, described continuing disparities between the different populations in Lod. As someone living in Lod, these inequalities remain all too apparent as I move between communities for my different volunteer placements.
Witnessing these ongoing challenges, however, only makes me feel more grateful to be working with The Abraham Initiatives this year and supporting their new Shared Cities initiative. The initiative takes a wholistic approach to transforming mixed cities into shared cities, from providing municipal leaders with the technical training needed for shared society work to sharing programs designed to strengthen shared education or police-community relations. As a part of the project, The Abraham Initiatives has already begun conducting field research in mixed cities aimed at drawing out best practices for political cooperation at both a local and national level.
At a moment when national politics in Israel, and across the world, seem to be headed in an increasingly divisive and dangerous direction, attending the “Mixed Cities, Different Circumstances” panel provided an inspiring model of how people are choosing to work together to create a shared alternative future.