Adi Arbel
Director of the Civil Society Forum

What is civil society?

Alexis De Tocqueville. Wikimedia Public Domain. no credit neede
Alexis De Tocqueville

A document published by the Center for the Study of Civil Society and Philanthropy in Israel, based in the School of Social Work at Hebrew University, provides a clear and comprehensive definition of the term “civil society”:

Civil society is defined as an “independent sphere including institutions, organizations, social networks, and individuals (and the values they bring with them, lying between the scope of activity of family, state, and market, and characterized by an array of civil rules in which people voluntarily associate in order to advance shared goals and interests”. Civil society is seen as an alternative public space in which different parties can work collectively in shared matters of interest, initiate shared services, and influence government policy.

As we can see from this definition, civil society includes both institutionalized organizations (below: third sector) and also unofficially organized initiatives (communities, social entrepreneurs, and more).

A third sector organization is a private organization whose members organized voluntarily, act independently, and where members do not profit. Legally, such organizations are registered as associations, public benefit companies, or forms of trusteeships. The meaning of third sector organizations being non-profit organizations is that if their activities lead to profits – these are reinvested in the organization to ensure its goals (and in this context we should distinguish between non-profit organizations and the broader term non-profit institutions, which includes the central government, local government, and statutory bodies, and the like). Third sector organizations are institutionally separate from the public sector and are not subordinate to government units, even if they receive funding from them. It’s important to note that a third sector organization can operate with the aim of advancing publicly beneficial causes, but it can also serve as a closed shop meant to help its members (e.g., members of a specific community).

Civil society organizations have a range of tasks which they take upon themselves: provision of services, increasing of civic awareness, expression of values and beliefs, support for social initiatives, promoting changes in policy, and so on. In general, this broad spectrum can be broken down into two central forms of activity: services and advocacy. The concept of advocacy refers to a broad range of civil society activities meant to influence public policy.

For the purposes of the Civil Society Forum, we chose to simplify matters and provide the following definition:

We consider every initiative of social value, “above” the level of family and “under” the level of state institutions, to be part of a thriving civil society, helping in places where the state cannot provide the needed response for the good of its citizens.

In his book Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville described the development of the flourishing American democracy, attributing much of its success to institutions which allowed individuals and communities to freely associate outside of political parties. According to de Tocqueville, these organizations increase the success of governments:

They argue, that the weaker and more unable the citizens are to act, the more the government should be granted ability and scopes of activity so that society in general can do what individuals cannot do… but I think they are mistaken. A government may be able to replace some of the biggest American associations… but what political force can ever continue all those innumerable small actions, which American citizens work on all day long with the help of those associations?

The individual citizens do not believe that their duties end because the representative of the public has risen to act. To the contrary: All are ready to instruct him, guide him, and support him.

What Tocqueville understood already in the early nineteenth century, we see ever more strongly today: governments in advanced countries increasingly understand that without civil society, they cannot meet all the missions they have taken on or in whose name they were elected. Civil society is needed to serve as a complement for the legislators and other decision makers, either through focused and well-grounded research, accompaniment and assistance in the field, or in enlisting activists for the sake of some cause. Indeed, it is hard to believe that an important discussion will be held at any committee in the Knesset without civil society representatives. A thriving civil society is a guarantor of a thriving state, and a necessary tool for any government interested in responding quickly to the rapid changes occurring in modern times.

A dynamic civil society also includes a wide range of service providers which should be adapted to the communities they serve: from health funds (originally civilian cooperative organizations), to community centers (the many such centers in Israel operate as non-profit organizations), to religious institutions (the large number of associations in Israel is connected to the fact that almost every synagogue is registered as one). This is also true in broader contexts, such as the granting of broad autonomy to schools so they can operate in accordance with the changing educational developments, which move at a faster pace than the state educational system with its central planning.

According to Tocqueville, the possibility of maintaining a flourishing civil society has a great deal of influence on the good citizenship of various individuals:

When citizens are forced to deal with public matters, they are necessarily removed from their circle of interests and are sometimes uprooted from observing themselves.

The free institutions in the possession of the residents of the United States, and the political rights they so often use, remind every individual, and in a thousand ways, that he lives in a society.

Civil Society in Israel

Some 20,000 non-profit organizations operate in Israel. 90% of them are registered as associations, and the rest are community interest companies and trusteeships. It’s important to note that this is only a partial picture, because civil society in Israel includes many other organizations – communities, social media groups, and a slew of initiatives and groupings which are registered nowhere.

Data provided by the Israel Associations Yearbook on their activity from 2018 shows that the great majority of registered organizations work in the fields of religion (36%), culture, sports and leisure (24%), education and research (18%), welfare (11%), and health (4%). In fact, we can say that the main activity of civil society organizations in Israel focuses on service provision while advocacy is just 2% of that activity, involving just 0.5% of workers in civil society organizations. However, the importance of advocacy is obviously not based solely on the relatively small number of organizations which work in the field.

There are a few reasons for this. First, the influence of advocacy activities for the general population is very great. While services provision only influences those who receive them, advocacy, by its very nature, influences government policy, which in turn generally influences broader populations. One indication of this is the relatively high visibility of advocacy organizations compared to service organizations whose activity rarely hits the headlines.

Second, my experience tells me that we can assume – with a high degree of certainty – that the effective number of organizations working in advocacy is much higher. Many organizations choose to define themselves based on their main field of activity – education, health, environment, and so on – even if their main goal is changing policies, since they do not consider advocacy to be their main activity but rather a tool they use for their goals.

Another justification for this preference exists primarily among organizations receiving donations from foreign governments and citizens. The latter avoid donating to causes which may be seen as foreign intervention (at least explicitly so) and which do not grant local tax breaks. Moreover, there are many service providing organizations who engage in advocacy at least some of the time. One example is Paamonim, known to the broader public for its welcome activity in providing families with financial mentoring, while working to influence a policy which warns people about taking out loans.

This post is the third part of an article published in Hashiloach journal.

Here are all parts of the article

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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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