Israel’s Civil Society is Rising to the Challenge – And So Must We

2 April 2020

In the United States, in Israel, and in countries across the world, we are grappling with the global crisis caused by coronavirus. Our cities and states are struggling to stem the virus’s spread, care for the sick, and mitigate the unprecedented economic damage of this pandemic.

We’re all thinking about the frontline healthcare workers taking enormous risks to battle this virus. This past week, NIF’s Senior Director in New York, Rabbi Ayelet Cohen, shared a prayer for the healers, which I think movingly captures how humbled we all feel right now in the face of their heroism. A few lines from the prayer have stuck with me:

Tend to those they have sworn to help…
Ease their fear. Sustain them.
Strengthen them, that they may bring strength;
Keep them in health, that they may bring healing.

Those in Israel’s civil society who have sworn to help are those that the New Israel Fund is working to sustain.

I know that you are committed to sustaining them, too.

Israeli civil society has turned on a dime responding to this pandemic. Everything is changing to meet the needs of the most marginalized people in Israeli society, ensure equal access to government services, safeguard civil liberties, and build resilience for the future.

That is why in the coming weeks, NIF will be announcing a way for you to directly sustain this critical work as Israel’s civil society responds in this time of crisis – the NIF Crisis Action Plan.

This virus has revealed the cracks and injustices in our societies. We know the most vulnerable members of our society are the most at risk — the elderly, the marginalized, the incarcerated, and the undocumented. Their ability to access care and timely public health information is not merely a question of justice —f it’s a matter of life and death. And it is essential to our ability to contain this pandemic.

Equality cannot be an afterthought in our public health response.

That’s why 23 civil society organizations, including the Regional Council for Unrecognized Villages in the Negev, the Negev Coexistence Forum, Adalah — Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, and NIF’s flagship grantee, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, demanded that the government stop demolishing homes and razing cultivated fields in the Negev and the West Bank — and the government has now committed to not demolishing any residential structures.

These past few weeks, we have watched Israel’s interim government use the COVID-19 pandemic as cover to further erode the heart of Israel’s democracy —— delaying the prime minister’s upcoming criminal trial and attempting (ultimately unsuccessfully) to prevent the Knesset from convening.

While the moment of constitutional crisis has passed for now, every day, the defenders of Israel’s democracy are fighting to protect citizens’ basic rights and to hold the authorities accountable to democratic safeguards.

Amid this crisis, the threats to democracy remain acute.

When the government passed emergency regulations allowing Israel’s internal security service, the Shin Bet, to harvest the private cell phone data of Israeli citizens to track infected individuals, ACRI filed a petition with the Supreme Court protesting the violation of civil liberties. As a result, the interim injunction barred the security services from using this technology without sufficient Knesset oversight.

Israel’s progressive civil society is essential in advocating for a just and equitable government response to provide a social safety net. Israel’s government has rolled out an emergency economic plan designed to stem the economic devastation of the pandemic. NIF grantees, like the Berl Katznelson Foundation and the Adva Center, are pushing to ensure that any plan provides relief equitably for those bearing the brunt of the economic downturn.

As Israel’s civil society sector faces the stark economic realities resulting from this global crisis, NIF is working to understand and meet the needs of our partners and grantee organizations. NIF and Shatil, our action arm, are working with organizations to help them plan and adapt to the crisis. Finally, NIF’s emergency grants program is allowing organizations to respond urgently to the crisis in real time with the flexibility they require.

NIF is committing to supporting the Israelis working day and night to alleviate the worst effects of this crisis.

As long as this crisis lasts, we will work to ensure that our grantees have the resources they need to advocate for equal access to healthcare and resources for everyone who needs them. For NIF, responding to this emergency means making sure that those defending civil liberties and protecting Israel’s fragile democracy can continue their heroic work. It means sustaining the advocates in Israel working to ensure that Israel’s plans to mitigate the economic impacts of the pandemic cover all Israelis, including those who are the most vulnerable.

We will rise to this challenge by doing our critical work of helping civil society organizations adapt in these times. This is the essential work we are called on to do now.

In times like these, we will need you there by our side.