TORONTO — Now that Israel is 60 years old, it’s “definitely time” for some soul-searching and tough questions regarding social issues, Rachel Liel says.
The director of SHATIL, the New Israel Fund’s empowerment and training centre, was in Toronto to speak at Congregation Darchei Noam on Sept. 22 about “Meeting Israel’s Greatest Internal Challenges.” Her talk was co-sponsored by the synagogue and the New Israel Fund of Canada.
Among the issues that Liel cited were treatment of Arabs, the role of Ethiopian kessim (Jewish spiritual leaders) and the gap between rich and poor.
Social and economic justice issues constitute “a time bomb” in Israel, Liel said.
“Very poor people live right across the street. It’s not like America, where you have to drive to see them.”
She noted that people tend to “go to the heavy [political] issues before we go to these issues.” But she said there is much that can be done to address socio-economic issues, and she believes that, while “nobody denies that we are in a state of threat,” the issues are interconnected.
Israelis have a per capita income of about $30,000 a year, which is better than that of Belgians, Liel said. In the last three years alone, she added, there were 7,000 new Israeli millionaires.
However, she said, 20 per cent of Israelis live below the poverty line, among them every third child. As well, she said that half of the low-income Israelis are the “working poor,” a new category.
“The data about gaps and poverty in Israel is not something we can accept… We are number 1 in the western world in social and economic gaps. We need to fix it.”
An Israeli-born child of Holocaust survivors who grew up in Herzliah, Liel said her three children don’t even remember the “Zionist dream.”
Her daughter, she said, is interested in “the green agenda,” an issue that she said is closely tied to social justice. “How come they build refineries in poor neighbourhoods?” Liel asked. “How come rich people get clean air and poor people don’t?”
Liel, who began her career working for the Israeli government, became interested in working at the grassroots level when her husband served as Israeli ambassador to South Africa from 1992 to 1995 and they witnessed the fall of apartheid.
“This was a transformative period in my life,” she said.
“Being in South Africa in those times was really seeing people who were oppressed, who didn’t have a voice, suddenly voting for the first time and getting organized. It all happened in front of my eyes. When you see old African women standing three days in the sun waiting to vote – women who couldn’t read or write – there is something so inspiring about it.”
SHATIL – a Hebrew word that means “seedling” and is also an acronym for the organization’s Hebrew name – proved to be the opportunity Liel was looking for on her return to Israel.
The organization’s efforts to improve society include “helping groups get organized and advocating for their rights.” SHATIL facilitates partnerships and teaches groups how to lobby government effectively.
Liel said it’s a privilege to work with disempowered groups, including immigrants and Arab Israelis who make up 20 per cent of the population. Her organization’s aim is to help them to help themselves. “This is how dignity is maintained and strengthened.”
Despite all the challenges, she said, “there isn’t a place like Israel in the entire world. It’s dynamic and vibrant. There are young people with fantastic ideas. There’s never a dull moment – for better and worse.”