Our Alternative to Fear and Division

27 November 2019

Like all of you, I have been riveted by the political twists and turns going on in Israel. There is so much happening. The outcome of an inconclusive election still hangs in the balance. Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit’s announcement of the indictment of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on three criminal counts brings Israel into uncharted waters.

We may very well be seeing the end of the Netanyahu era, but it is too soon to say whether that will spell an end to “Netanyahuism,” with all of its dangers to Israel’s democratic norms and institutions.

Throughout this last decade of democratic recession, Israel’s civil society has been a pillar of support for democratic institutions and the basic rights of all individuals. And while the idea that no person is above the law is sacrosanct, the fate of Israel’s democracy hinges on more than Prime Minister Netanyahu’s legal situation.

The answer to authoritarian populism does not lie merely in hoping that Israel’s democratic institutions are resilient enough to resist the battering. The answer instead lies in defending those institutions, offering an alternative to the populist strategies of fear and division and by building an inclusive, democratic future for all.

Right now, Israelis from every background are working together to build big, beautiful, and inclusive movements for social change. And their strategies are working.

This is reflected in some of the most powerful moments of last few years in Israel.

The victory against the deportation of asylum seekers in Israel was partly the achievement of a movement that brought together communities which have been pitted against one another for decades – veteran residents of south Tel Aviv and Sudanese and Eritrean people living in those neighborhoods while seeking asylum in Israel. By joining in struggle together, these communities succeeded in halting the government’s deportation of asylum seekers to third countries where their lives would be put in jeopardy, demonstrating the power of such movements to triumph over fear and division.

The power of Israel’s interconnected movements to set the agenda for social change is evidenced by the Jewish and Arab women who joined their voices in public outcry against government’s inaction in the face of domestic violence. Jewish and Arab women led the largest, women’s protest in Israel’s history. Their efforts were supported by an infrastructure for joint Jewish-Arab organizing built by NIF grantee Omdim Beyachad (Standing Together). 20,000 women – Jewish and Arab – and their allies joined together in the central square in Tel Aviv to declare that “we won’t remain at the bottom of the government’s priorities, that we have power. The ground is burning from the grassroots.”

This same sustained public pressure from the Palestinian community and its leaders and civil society have forced Israeli policymakers to contend with this issue and has put the issue of gun violence and violent crime solidly on the public agenda. Jointly-led civil society organizations, like the Abraham Initiatives, that model the possibility of true Jewish-Arab partnership, have been an integral component of nation-wide protests against violent crime afflicting the Palestinian communities in Israel.

In the same way, systematic discrimination against Ethiopian Israelis became a major issue this summer as a result of national mobilization. After an Ethiopian Israeli youth, Solomon Teka, was fatally shot by an off-duty police officer (the second Ethiopian Israeli youth killed by a policeman since the beginning of 2019), thousands of Israelis from the Ethiopian community launched mass protests against police brutality and racism. They did not stand alone. They were joined by allies from across Israeli society, who stood alongside them in saying, “Enough.”

Ayman Odeh, perhaps Israel’s most prominent Arab leader and the chairman of the Joint List, said he considered it “natural” to stand in solidarity with Ethiopian community, “to struggle by their side until there is a more equal and just society here, in which there is no difference between black and white, man and woman, Jew and Arab.”

Each one of these moments, taken in isolation, amounts to a victory for civil society. But an approach to social change that rises to today’s challenges requires us to appreciate how the struggles for religious freedom, against racial discrimination, and against the injustices of occupation are inseparable from one another.

Israelis are building those effective, resilient and responsive movements that are already shaping the future of social change. These movements are dynamic, flexible enough to respond to injustice wherever it is found – and win.