Civil Society is Laying the Blueprint for Social Change

4 March 2021

For many of us engaged deeply in the work of social change, at times it can feel that victories for equality are too few and far between — that the destination of a truly just society is a long ways off. If this is the way we often experience the world, this week is an exception. Israel’s Supreme Court handed down not one but two decisions that give us cause for celebration. These amounted to two major wins for NIF grantees fighting for equality and democracy in Israel.

On Monday, Israel’s Supreme Court weakened the grip of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox monopoly over religious life by ruling that for the purposes of Israel’s Law of Return, which determines who may be granted Israeli citizenship, conversions performed by non-Orthodox streams of Judaism in Israel are valid in the eyes of the state. The implications of this go beyond the matter of conversion itself. While personal status issues, like marriage and divorce, are still subject to the Orthodox monopoly, the court’s decision answers the question of whether Israel can be a home for the full range of Jews in all their diversity – religious and secular, Reform and Conservative and Orthodox—with a resounding “yes.”

For NIF grantees, like the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), the advocacy arm of the Reform Movement in Israel, this decision was a hard-won victory, which comes as a result of decades of tireless activism and public advocacy to achieve equal recognition for non-Orthodox streams of Judaism in Israel. Indeed, the decision that came down yesterday is the result of a case IRAC brought 15 years ago. For decades NIF has invested in grantees, like IRAC, fighting for a vision of religious freedom and pluralism in Israel – a vision where vibrant Jewish life can flourish outside the strictures of ultra-Orthodoxy and the monopoly of the Chief Rabbinate.

As our Israel Director Mickey Gitzin, who previously led Israel Hofsheet (Be Free Israel), an NIF grantee working for religious freedom, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency: “Israel’s Supreme Court decided that Israel should be a national home for all types of Jews. The ultra-Orthodox monopoly in Israel on conversion for the purposes of immigration has been broken.”

And there was a second reason to celebrate this week. Israel’s Supreme Court delivered another victory to NIF grantees fighting for democracy and equality – and a victory for the right to privacy.

Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, civil liberties organizations like NIF’s flagship grantee, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) have been at the very forefront of ensuring that the atmosphere of emergency cannot be used as an excuse to erode the rights of Israel’s citizens. One key arena of this battle for democracy has been resisting the deployment of intrusive surveillance technologies to monitor citizens.

Since last spring, ACRI has fought and won a series of legal battles to ensure appropriate oversight and to curtail the scope of the government’s surveillance programs. This week, the Supreme Court vindicated ACRI and the NIF grantees which joined their petition to the high court – Adalah: The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights, and Physicians for Human Rights Israel (PHRI) – by ruling that the Israel Security Agency’s surveillance program targeting civilians for the purposes of COVID-19 contact tracing violated the basic rights of Israeli citizens to privacy, especially as equally effective means were available to the state to undertake epidemiological tracing which did not infringe on basic rights.

These two key victories—for religious freedom and for civil rights—not only demonstrates the crucial role the courts can play in protecting individual freedoms in any democracy. They also demonstrate the critical role civil society plays in fighting for these rights—both in the courts and beyond.

All of that said, I can’t help but think of something my dear friend and our beloved former NIF board member Bill Goldman (z”l) often said: that social movements – whether in Israel or here at home – must be wary of overreliance on interventions of the Supreme Court to ensure equality. Durable victories must be won in the court of public opinion and in parliament, too.

But if our work at NIF teaches us anything, it is that civil society is drafting the blueprint for social change on the ground every day. That fact is clear from struggle against violence and crime that has mobilized Palestinian citizens of Israel into civic action.

Last Friday, in the latest in a mounting outcry by Palestinian citizens of Israel, the residents of Umm al-Fahm organized to exercise the basic right of citizens in a democracy – and to call upon their government to address the problem of crime and lethal violence in Arab society.

According to NIF grantee, Aman: the Arab Center for Safe Society, last year was the bloodiest year on record for Israel’s Arab population. In the first few months of 2021, 19 Arab citizens have already been killed. Many Palestinian citizens of Israel see the scourge of violence in Arab towns and cities as the result of a lack of concern on the part of Israel’s police, as well broader systemic marginalization and racism. As Chairman of the Joint List Ayman Odeh put it in Haaretz back in 2019: “Arabs [citizens of Israel] who have been murdered are not only the victims of violent crime, they are victims of government racism. When our streets are bleeding and the government sees us as enemies instead of citizens, we have no choice but to change the rules of the game.”

That is what the residents of Umm al-Fahm were doing on Friday—trying to change the rules of the game by voicing their collective demands. “Are we not citizens? Do we not deserve protection?” the protestors in Umm el-Fahm asked. But instead of protecting their fundamental right to protest their government, their outcry was met by the boot of police brutality.

Live coverage of the event streamed over Facebook showed a scene familiar to Americans who watched as the mobilizations for racial justice and equality in America last summer were met with excessive force; footage from last week showed Israel police open fire on non-violent protesters with rubber bullets and water cannons, stun grenades, tear gas and skunk spray. The same special forces units that are called in to violently disburse protests in the West Bank, arrested, tazed and beat up Arab protestors – Israeli citizens (including the city’s mayor and a member of Knesset) in Umm el-Fahm, an Israeli city.

Indeed, it was as if they were trying to prove the point of those demonstrating for equal treatment: that police see Palestinian citizens not as coequals, but as a threat. Umm al-Fahm’s mayor said clearly what so many others saw in this violence: “The police see Arabs as an enemy and Jews as citizens.”

That is the root of the problem. And it is clear that the only answer is a recommitment to a shared vision of citizenship. And it’s that solidarity – sustained Arab-Jewish partnership on every level of society – which is the most powerful blueprint for social change.

Following the violence last week, the Prime Minister’s Office announced that the government has approved a budget of NIS 150 million – the equivalent of $45 million – in a new plan to address violence and organized crime in Arab cities and towns. After years of government inaction, the plan Prime Minister Netanyahu announced on Monday is, in fact, based on long-standing cooperation between the government ministries and the Committee of Heads of Arab Local Authorities, a project to combat crime and violence in Arab society – supported by the New Israel Fund.

It’s the work of people like Mahmood Nassar who are the backbone of change. Appointed a year ago to lead the Campaign to Combat Violence and Crime in Arab Society, his work has brought together voices from Palestinian civil society to work with the government to address the problem of violence in the Arab sector.

That is the inspiring, constant work that is the key to change.

As Mickey put it in light of this week of victories and of violence, even as we celebrate news at the Supreme Court, we know that “the road towards equality for all – especially those who are not Jewish – remains long.”

That vision of equality and justice is what drives the work of the New Israel Fund – both in moments of setback and in moments of victory. The civil society activists, citizens, and demonstrators making that future a reality, can know they will find a partner and ally in the New Israel Fund every step of the way.