Having returned to Israel, I finally have some time to reflect on my experience as a participant on the IVLP program in the United States.
While the program focused on “Promoting Human Rights,” and my blogs have emphasized the professional component and various meetings that took place during the trip, the journey was much more. In addition to these meetings, we were truly exposed to the “American way of life” – through dinners at the homes of Salt Lake City locals, to a baseball game in Washington, D.C, and a half-day at Disney World in Orlando.
I have noted a number of themes that seem to me to be present in the world of human rights organizations in the United States. Most of the NGOs we met with work in broad coalitions – including with other organizations, religious groups, and state actors. Many organizations, regardless if they are critical towards government activities, receive federal funding. It will be interesting to note whether this changes under the new administration (a concern expressed by many of the groups we met with). Finally, unlike in Israel, many of the human rights and civil rights organizations are more acutely able to recognize a problem and develop a plan in order to address it. The NGOs, therefore, appear to be run by a “business-model” rather than by a “political-model,” and do not operate with the same emotional fervor seen in Israel. The agenda is thus more about problem-solving than about “problem-maintaining.”
The Americans we met with were able to learn from us that the human rights discussion in Israel does not belong to one political party or ideology. On the contrary, it is a vibrant debate with many players from all sides of the political spectrum. NGO Monitor, where I am the Director of the Israel Desk, provides information and analysis, promotes accountability, and supports discussion on the reports and activities of NGOs claiming to advance human rights and humanitarian agendas. Many of the individuals that I met were surprised to learn that although I am very critical of human rights organizations operating in the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict, I am at the same time involved with groups engaging in interfaith dialogue, raising awareness about Syrian refugees, and am personally interested in closing the gaps between Israeli Jews and Arabs.
In addition to meeting with Americans, the trip was also an opportunity for us participants to get to know each other. Despite the fact that we come from the same small country, due to our vastly different political ideologies and work, we never have the opportunity to exchange ideas. From my fellow participants, I learned more about their concerns regarding the police and the Arab minority, the African migrants, freedom of religion, and the definition of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. I want to believe that they similarly learned how I view these issues and the various problems that the Israeli public has with Israeli human rights organizations.
Finally, I hope that both the Americans we met with and my fellow Israeli participants heard my message about the complexity of Israel. One of the issues in general, and on the program itself, was that Israel is only presented in the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict. I stressed that Israel is facing so many more challenges that are distinct from the conflict – such as economic, religious, and cultural. I describe myself as a “Jew of color,” which emphasizes the underrepresented diversity in Israel and also the issues faced within the society, but outside the conflict. Furthermore, I stressed that the centers of power in Israel – including human rights groups, the media, etc. – are condescending towards the majority of the Israeli public, and are completely unaware of how to then deal with people that think differently. This is the same phenomenon seen in the US before the election of Trump.
I have no doubt that my experience on IVLP provided me with new tools to maximize my work as part of Israeli civil society, such as how to frame arguments for diverse audiences and best practices in putting together a campaign.
I am thankful for this opportunity, to the US State Department for putting together the program, and to my fellow participants for making my trip interesting, and allowing me to make their trip less boring.