A few days ago, I returned from Israel where the New Israel Fund just held our annual board meeting. Board meetings are always a time when our senior leadership has the chance to hear from “the field,” to meet with grantees and experts on the ground, and to learn and adapt our strategies to meet the demands of swiftly shifting landscapes.
This year, we gathered as Israel was on the cusp of its third election in a year. Elections can be a time of great potential and hope for change. I must admit that I observed a nation that seemed exhausted by unending political deadlock. I worried about a sort of democratic exhaustion.
Israelis voted this week — and they turned out to their polling places in the highest numbers in over twenty years. Despite the high turnout, as the ballots were counted, it appeared that the results produced a situation similar to the previous two rounds.
Again, no party has emerged from the contest with enough electoral strength to form a coalition. Israel remains a divided country.
Pundits right now are pontificating about the implications of the election results, parsing the significance of Israel’s political deadlock. While they are asking who are the “winners” and the “losers” from these uncertain results, many Israelis are asking themselves a different question: Where do we go from here?
I know who has the answer.
I left Israel with a determined sense that the answers to the most essential questions facing Israel may come from a different quarter, outside of formal politics — from the leaders of Israel’s civil society. The women and men taking up the helm — these are the partners and friends dedicated to a shared vision for a just and democratic future.
These Israelis are building an alternative to political deadlock. Even more importantly, they are building an alternative vision of what Israel could be. They are not tired, they are not asleep, and they are undaunted in the face of setbacks.
They are fighting hard for a shared future, one grounded in the values of equality and justice. And we have their backs.
In Tel Aviv last week, I met with leaders from civil rights organizations, like the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) and Adalah: The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, our partners in the fight for civil rights, who work every day to secure Israel’s future through a bedrock commitment to equality before the law. We sat with the leaders of Israel’s human rights community, the brave activists who are fighting day-in and day-out to bring an end to the occupation.
Yes, Israel’s democratic discourse is being fashioned in the public sphere. But it’s also being shaped by a dedicated cadre of citizen activists who are fighting to keep Israel’s democracy on track.
During election time, Citizens’ Headquarters, a hub of civil society organizations and digital activists, were busy guarding against incitement and voter intimidation, working to ensure that every Israeli was able to exercise the fundamental right to vote.
New people-powered movements were busy broadening the scope of civic partnership, forging the type of broad-based alliances that are essential for any future democratic breakthrough and breaking down the taboos of effective Jewish-Arab political partnership.
These are the builders of a future and they are laying the groundwork, brick by brick.
Many of us, understandably, may have pinned our hopes on a political breakthrough, hoping it would finally bring us out of the morass. Perhaps we even indulged in the hope that a breakthrough was around the bend.
Don’t get me wrong. Israel still needs brave political leaders to break the cycle of fear and corruption. But what is beyond clear to me, as I get back to work here in the office after two weeks in Israel meeting with our most intrepid and inspiring grantees and board members, is what I’ve always known: Israel’s democratic future depends, first and foremost, on those courageous “regular” Israelis who are willing to fight for it.
We need a strong, resilient, brave and visionary civil society to create the democratic tailwind.
That is not the work of a single day. And the New Israel Fund will be here, supporting justice and equality and building power, so that one day, the democratic pushback will break through.