Mike Prashker
Mike Prashker
Israeli Shared Citizenship Educator, Social Entrepreneur and Writer

Strong webs of shared Israeli citizenship

A Strong Web of Shared Citizenship --- by permission of Johnnie Hughes

Just a week ago, with the missiles beginning to fly between Gaza and Israel and violence erupting between Jewish and Arab mobs on Israel’s streets, I described my “Vision of Victory”.

I urged everyone committed to building a more successful shared future for all 9.2 million citizens of Israel to step up. For fellow professionals to work harder and smarter and for philanthropists to invest more. Above all, that we play to win, not just to participate.

A week later, I stand by every word.

But after this week of hell, I already see compelling evidence of the progress made over recent decades. Progress, driven in large part by the ever stronger, sophisticated, and interconnected civil society community (NGOs and philanthropy) to which I am so privileged to belong.

A remarkably strong and inclusive human web has been spun.

It connects in different ways and degrees literally millions of Israelis. It has been woven with tireless endeavour and enterprise and —compared to investments in those with less inclusive visions — on a shoestring budget.

I think and hope that this web will be hard to unravel and intend to work hard with others to be proven right. We will face assured, well-funded and extremely determined efforts by extremists on all sides, and from both without and within, to rip it apart. For all of them, our shared success is their collective failure.

This upbeat assessment comes after a week of experiencing, listening and trying to comfort Arab and Jewish Israeli friends and colleagues who have all had a week from hell, whether only here in Israel or also fearing for family and friends in Gaza.

Jews scared to leave their homes — primarily in mixed Jewish-Arab towns — for fear of attack or even death at the hands of Arab gangs. These small mobs — though not small enough — are largely comprised of two long-ignored sub-groups. Hopeless and hate-filled youth at risk, both to themselves and society. Violent and armed organized crime-gangs, who have until now satisfied themselves with terrorizing their own communities largely unchecked by the police despite desperate communal appeals.  These gangs emerged from their hide-outs to “defend” their community and build their brand.

An aside; I am old-enough to remember the stories of my grandparents about the Jewish organized-crime gangs of the East-End of London who in the 1930s came onto the streets armed with whatever they had, to fight off Oswald Mosely’s fascist mob thirsty for Jewish blood, to restore communal pride and burnish their brand.

Arabs scared to leave their homes, villages and towns and go to work for fear of attack or death at the hands of small — though not small enough — Jewish mobs. These are comprised of two other long-ignored sub-groups: hopeless and hate-filled youth at risk — both to themselves and society. Right-wing extremists, including some extremist settlers. These were either bussed-in from their frequently illegal hilltop homes in the West-Bank or make up extremist elements among those who “settled” in mixed-towns like Lod, Ramla, Jaffa and Akko over recent decades, to “reinforce and defend” the Jewish community.

Of course, such broad sociological observations miss notable exceptions. One is the Jewish school principal filmed throwing rocks at Arabs in Lod and at the time of writing, still on the state pay-roll.

While crude moral equivalency is to be condemned — there were not “very fine people on both sides” in Charlottesville — it is clear that violent racist thugs, whether Jewish or Arab , deserve equal condemnation and treatment by the authorities.

It was tragically inevitable that over the past week large numbers of Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens regressed when it comes to mutual fear and trust.

This further entrenches one prevalent, tragic-ironic, and self-sustaining component of the Israeli psyche.  As I frequently relate, I have observed and spoken with very many thousands of Israelis of all backgrounds over more than thirty years and rarely met an Israeli who is not scared of some other group of Israelis and categorically never met an Israeli who thinks s/he is frightening.

So, who could have imagined that after such a catastrophic and tragic week, there would already be strong early evidence that Jewish-Arab relations are stronger than ever before? Evidence that a significant majority are committed to forging a better shared future — even if many have still not thought through all this will entail.

Civil society — NGOs and philanthropy — has stepped up. A colleague reminded me that research a year after the outbreak of the second Intifada in 2020 revealed that about 100 of the 130 previously estimated Jewish-Arab enterprises had collapsed. We recalled spending a year trying to convene previously committed colleagues, unable to speak let alone meet.

This time round there are many hundreds, probably thousands, of endeavors both local and national, from small to very large and more and less structured. If you want to schedule time to book a shared society conference any time soon — book today!

We have learned so much; how to comfort each other, how to listen, share and focus on understanding our profoundly different perspectives and emotions — rather than attempt to win unwinnable arguments.

And big business has stepped up as only it can. Undeterred by proudly racist and extreme politicians and the social media mob, “Harel”, Israel’s largest insurance company has posted huge billboards stating that “the best insurance against hate is coexistence”. Who could have believed that? And to be clear — I am not referring to the surprise of an insurance company asserting that the best insurance against anything is something other than more insurance!

Harel is not alone. Many of the biggest corporations have stepped up. Not only because the economic argument for fuller Jewish-Arab partnership has largely been won as it has begun to boost profits. It has also begun to produce outstanding success-stories and role models. The national TV campaign for sanity by Bank Leumi, Israel’s largest bank, is fronted by Chairperson of The Board of Directors Dr. Samer Haj Yehiya. Dr. Haj Yehiya is obviously one of Israel’s most prominent business leaders and now one of its most visible Arab leaders.

So, after ten days of hell, my assessment is that despite the awful damage and obvious erosion of trust, Israeli society has made greater progress than I dared to hope addressing its most dangerous internal fault-line.

Happily, I believe that this progress holds true for all of Israel’s diverse communities who have better come to appreciate that given we all have countless and dynamic identities, we must work together across all traditional binary divides — religiosity, ethnicity, gender, skin-color, sexual-orientation etc.

This approach is essential not only because it reflects reality but because binary divides cannot be resolved by binary strategies which however well-intended, also sustain what they aspire to soften.

Back to that web and to be noted. Spiders who pound-for-pound spin some of the most resilient structures in the world, universally spin cross-cutting webs.

There is much work to be done and we can never assume that gains are guaranteed. So beyond working harder and smarter, here are some of the specific strategies that can help us push on.

  • Right now, preserve and protect good NGOs without which we cannot progress. Longer-term, invest more in their capacity, professionalism, and growth.
  • Build new cross-cutting networks at every level from personal to institutional — there can never be enough.
  • While continuing to promote and advance aspects of material and economic belonging, modern infrastructure and good jobs, place much more attention on cultivating emotional and symbolic belonging. There is a world of difference between a house and a home. If Israeli society is going to win, we must make our extremely impressive house – institutions, economy, health system and more — a warm home for all.

This is the journey from state-building to society-building. For me it is the next great Zionist challenge. But from whichever perspective — it is imperative.

  • Evidently, progress has been made persuading significant leaders — responsible politicians, civil-servants, municipal leaders, security, business, educational and health leaders and more — that advancing fairer shared citizenship is the only way forward. However, this has not yet translated into state, institutional, municipal, and organizational budgets at anything like the required levels.

In 2017 I wrote that “Just as Israel requires the best missile defences; it also needs an “Iron Dome” to protect and reinforce the social fabric”. While at least for the coming week there will be little disputing that, the argument to invest at effective levels remains to be won.

My ball-park recommendation was that a quarter of one percent of the state budget be invested in “intentional social cohesion policies”. By social cohesion I mean creating conditions conducive to forging a more successful shared future for all Israel’s 9.2 million citizens. Cherry-picking with whom one wants to be cohesive is not promoting social cohesion it is sustaining tribalism.

A quarter of one percent of the budget is approaching a billion dollars at pre-covid levels. With that, also leveraged by and leveraging higher levels of philanthropic investment, Israel can set to serious work on society-building.

But for now, if you have not yet done so, please be encouraged to take a moment to call or message a friend, colleague of even an acquaintance across the still bloody, smouldering and unspeakably painful divide of this past week.

This is not always easy to do, so in the hope it encourages even one message; this is what I sent out far and wide — and received plenty similar messages from Arab friends and colleagues:

“Just to let you know that I am thinking of you and your family. Our dreams, peoples and country are being torn apart again. For now, I can only send this long-distance hug. As this nightmare ends, we will get back to work to build a better shared future.”

I generally add an appropriate emoji.

Do that and I promise you, you will feel better and before very long, have a screen-full of those big red, strong and beating hearts on your WhatsApp.

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 www.machon-merchavim.org.il 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 www.aplaceforusall.org. 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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