The Other Side of the Story

11 February 2016

In my last column, I described some of the biggest challenges facing those Israelis working to push back attempts by some in the governing coalition and their allies to narrow the notion of democracy in Israel. These issues receive a lot of attention in the media these days, and with good reason. The NGO bill (which passed its first reading this week), the sanctions imposed on Arab MKs who met with families of terrorists (but not on Jewish MKs who hire convicted terrorists as political advisors), the proposal that artists swear a loyalty oath before receiving state funding, the incitement campaign against leftists, Arabs, and cultural figures… These latest developments in Israel’s “democratic recession” are extremely worrying; that’s why so many of Israel’s closest friends – including the United States – have spoken out about their concerns over the direction in which Israel is going.

That’s also why the attacks on NIF by some of the cheerleaders and self-appointed “monitors” on behalf Israeli ultra-nationalists have become more and more absurd. In the last week, the New Israel Fund has been accused of controlling US and EU policy toward Israel and of being a “shadow government.” This panic to label any criticism of Israeli policy – especially its settlement policies – as subversive, would almost be funny if it wasn’t so reminiscent of dark times in our own country. In fact, the founder of an organization that launched a hideous incitement campaign against human rights activists just a few weeks ago recently spoke of his admiration for, you guessed it, Sen. Joseph McCarthy.

But these stories aren’t the only story. Across Israel, in virtually every part of Israeli society, incredible people and organizations are doing amazing work in pursuit of an Israel that truly reflects the values of the country’s founders. Often below the radar screen, they are creating new models for shared society, raising new voices on behalf of Israel’s most marginalized communities, and building effective coalitions for social justice.

Take the tremendous efforts by the Ethiopian immigrant rights group Tebeka. Founded by a New Israel Fund law fellow, Tebeka has been at the forefront of fighting the poverty, lack of access, and racism experienced by Ethiopian-Israelis. And just last month they appeared at the Knesset to press the Education Ministry to follow through on an educational program to better integrate Ethiopian-Israelis into Israel’s society.

Or take the struggle to ensure that women get their fair share when they interact with the Ultra-Orthodox controlled state rabbinate, which has tremendous power of many aspects of civil life in Israel. In recent weeks, legal initiatives brought by NIF-backed organizations scored three significant wins: From now on, women can serve as staff directors of rabbinical courts. The ability for husbands to withhold their consent to a get (a Jewish divorce agreement) can no longer so easily be used as leverage in negotiations over property settlement. And then there was the decision by the High Court of Justice to censure a Haredi radio station for refusing to allow women to speak on the air.

And all of us are painfully aware of the need to build better ties between Jewish and Arab citizens in Israel. There is meaningful progress here too. Years of advocacy efforts culminated in a landmark Cabinet decision at the end of December to create mechanism to ensure that budgetary discrimination against Palestinian-Israelis would not continue. If implemented, this decision amounts to a $4 billion shift in government allocations over the next five years. These policy advances also have parallels at the grassroots level, where there are dozens of initiatives at play to change the dynamic of the interaction between Arabs and Jews. One of my favorites is a program in which Jews and Arabs hand out baked goods together to the general public to demonstrate that the relationship among these Israelis need not be a bitter one.

These are just a few of the stories of the day-to-day work that is taking place, work that escapes media attention and upholds the values of equality, inclusion, and democracy that our community stands for.