By Daniel Sokatch, CEO of the New Israel Fund.
We’re just over three weeks into 2020, and it feels like months have passed. The slow-burn constitutional crisis in Israel is in full-swing, as the indicted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Knesset allies face off against the Knesset’s own legal adviser over the question of immunity for the prime minister. The New Israel Fund, as ever, will be watching this election closely.
When it comes to the future of Israel’s democracy, this third round of Knesset elections will determine a great deal. It’s easy to think about democracy simply in terms of that blue ballot box — that place where we exercise our fundamental civic duty, maybe once — twice — okay, even three times in a year.
But as this year begins in earnest, I can’t help but think of the ways so many are working to build and strengthen Israeli democracy — every day. That’s the work that waits before us. It’s the work of NIF’s New Initiatives for Democracy. And this work brings a wellspring of hope for Israel’s democratic potential that leaves me undaunted as we head into this election year.
So then what does democracy in Israel looks like in 2020?
Democracy looks like the student activists from NIF grantee Omdim Beyachad: Standing Together at Sapir College in Sderot coming together for a conversation on inequality with Israel civic leaders from across the spectrum of society. Among the those brought together that day was Efrat Yarday, Chairperson of the Association of Ethiopian Jews in Israel – and a fellow of the NIF-supported leadership incubator, the Alliance Fellowship, a program focused on training the most diverse cohort of up and coming progressive political leaders working to create civic equality in Israel. Yarday addressed the problem of over-policing of Ethiopian youth as stemming from the same root as the inverse one facing Arab communities — under-policing. The core of the problem, she said, is the same: racism and discrimination. She joined Bedouin civic leader and Director of Shatil’s Be’er Sheva office, Sultan Abu Abaid, who spoke about the systemic discrimination that Palestinian citizens of Israel face as a minority in a Jewish-majority state. And director of Rabbis for Human Rights, veteran activist Avi Dabush asked “Why is life expectancy in the Negev on average 5 years less than in the center? Because on the periphery people suffer from a policy of discrimination.”
Finding the shared roots of such seemingly distinct problems is precisely what becomes possible when we bring diverse leaders together. This is at the core of both civil society and of democratic politics — citizens assembling to chart a vision to address their common struggles.
In 2020, democracy looks like citizens organizing to demand their most basic rights and needs. When heavy rains flooded South Tel Aviv and Jaffa, overwhelming its inadequate infrastructure, NIF grantee Zazim – Community Action organized over 3,000 citizens and residents of South Tel Aviv to demand the rehabilitation of these damaged communities, which have been subject to a long-term pattern of neglect
Democracy can look like a rainy day in January, when a diverse cohort of young political leaders committed to building a democratic future grounded in a Jewish-Arab cooperation met in the mixed Jewish-Arab city of Lod. These fellows who comprise the Alliance Fellowship, a part of NIF’s New Initiatives for Democracy, were there to encounter the local civic leaders changing the equation of power in a city wracked by inequality. If democracy means taking collective action and expanding the right to education to all of Israel’s citizens, then democracy must include the transformation taking place in Lod, in a school system where excellence itself is an act of resistance.
Likewise, in 2020, democracy looks like Bedouin communities in Israel demanding — and winning — basic equality in education. After sustained organizing, Bedouin leaders announced they had reached an agreement with Israel’s Ministry of Education securing 18.25 million shekels ($5.26 million) per year for the next two years to provide education for the 19,000 students in unrecognized Bedouin villages in the South. We know a victory of this magnitude is the result of unceasing efforts by an entire constellation of allies because NIF’s action arm in Israel, Shatil, and NIF grantees like the Association for Civil Rights in Israel and Bimkom: Planners for Planning Rights, have long worked with Bedouin leaders in the South on behalf of recognition and basic rights, including the right to education that every child in Israel deserves.
These are the fights of which democracy is made.
The fights to ensure that fundamental rights and the needs of communities are met are what bring communities together around a shared vision of change. We know these struggles won’t suddenly end come election day. Israelis from every part of this diverse society are working hard to build a more equal future – and the New Israel Fund will continue to stand, shoulder to shoulder, alongside them.