New Initiatives for Democracy: Our Strategies

18 May 2015

Liberal forces in Israel — intellectuals, activists, political leaders, and members of the public who share progressive values — are currently struggling to influence the national discourse on the issues of the day and mobilize support for progressive approaches to addressing them.

It is the right wing narrative, emanating from the political echelon, from the media, or from new media campaigns, — which shapes too much of the current “conventional wisdom.” The power of the right in advancing its own agenda has been amplified through a set of coordinated functional organizations — think tanks, media centers, and organizing vehicles — which they have built and funded over the past two decades.

The ability of progressive forces to effectively advance our agenda depends on our ability to create a much stronger set of organizations that cross-cut individual issues and unite and expand our sector. NIF has identified a set of strategies to build the infrastructure and game-changers that Israel needs now:

With new partners who can articulate a progressive vision and policy.

Emulating the American conservative movement, Israel’s ultra-nationalist camp developed a well-funded network that dominates Israeli discourse and works to influence politicians and policy-makers, while selectively elevating like-minded organizations and leaders.

Israeli progressives, meanwhile, have failed to articulate an overarching vision that could yield real change. As a result, they are too often viewed as ineffectual, or as the voice of a chastising conscience.

However, the success of the right-wing machine in Israel does not reflect the political beliefs and values of broad segments of the Israeli public. Recent polling suggests that more than half of Israelis want real change on core issues facing the country including security, pluralism, social-economic equity, and Jewish-Arab relations.

We believe that an applied think tank — in some ways similar to the Center for American Progress — that focuses on changing the public debate in Israel can play a foundational role in building a cohesive set of progressive, democratic initiatives. It can generate new ways to think about old problems; facilitate mobilization through communication and outreach; and put forward clear policy recommendations based on those ideas. Producing strategic research, analyses, and communications, it can respond to and reframe issues dominating the public discourse.

By promoting solutions at the local level.

The local arena, including municipal government, provides an avenue to promote civic engagement. Not only are local issues more likely to impact people’s everyday lives, but citizens advocating and organizing for policy change on the local level have a higher likelihood of success than in comparable country-wide campaigns. With the left-right schism less acute, alliances across groups and communities are more likely, and the ability to engage diverse constituencies is much greater.

NIF’s operational arm, Shatil, has developed an approach to organizing on the local level that deepens roots for democratic change-making in communities around the country. These efforts establish relationships between national and local players. By identifying and leveraging local campaigns with national ramifications — particularly around issues related to shared society, pluralism, racism, and discrimination — we can influence the national direction.

By using online engagement to build an activist community.

Over the past two decades, the Internet has redefined our reality in almost every aspect of life – media consumption, consumer activity, political and social interaction, and more. It has provided an entirely new set of tools that, when used well, can facilitate civic engagement, organize and mobilize people around causes, and build constituencies with power.

After California’s Silicon Valley, Israel is the most concentrated hub of technological innovation in the world. In addition to their technological savvy, Jewish Israelis enjoy a sense of ‘civic entitlement’ — they believe that their voices and votes matter.

NIF’s new investments in online organizing seek to capitalize on the potential for smarter use of new technologies to better empower progressives:

1) Online Organizing from the Bottom Up:
A major component of NIF’s new investment will be seed-funding an Israeli multi-issue platform. The mission of a multi-issue group is to find as many people as possible who agree with a broad range of progressive issues — and then expand their power and influence through strategic, consistent collective action. In this bottom-up model, the grassroots themselves decide which issues will spark the public imagination and garner significant support online.

2) Bolstering Non-Profits Online:
NIF’s action-arm Shatil — alongside ANU, an organization specializing in digital campaigning — will be providing strategic expertise to grassroots organizations to enhance their expertise in online organizing. Shatil will provide a range of trainings and seminars to bring together activists and leaders around online engagement tools and opportunities.

3) Supporting Issue Organizations and Campaigns:
Single-issue campaigns provide a unique opportunity to bring together activists (including unlikely bedfellows) around a specific cause. In their work fighting for freedom of religion, for example, NIF grantee Be Free Israel mobilized over 25,000 people — including a mix of progressives, conservative secular Russian immigrants, and others who object to ultra-Orthodox hegemony — using mostly online tools. NIF intends to further invest in and support single issue campaigns and organizations in implementing effective digital strategies.

By reaching Mizrachi communities in ways that emphasize shared values.

The Masorti-Mizrachi sector — Israelis of Middle Eastern origin who adhere to traditional Jewish observance — are a key constituency in Israel, and one that cares strongly about many issues of social justice and inclusion. For historic and traditional reasons, however, this constituency has often rejected affiliation with progressive groups and movements.

Founded in 1860, KIAH is the most veteran and distinguished organization operating in this Israeli sector today. In response to increased racism and polarization in Israel, KIAH is expanding beyond its traditional focus on education, and moving to establish itself as a strong public voice for tolerance and democratic values in the Masorti-Mizrachi community.

Together, NIF and KIAH will amplify a Masorti-Mizrachi voice to counter racism, intolerance, and exclusion. We aim to strengthen the dialogue between human rights and other social change organizations that are part of the progressive camp and the Masorti- Mizrachi community. We believe that there can be symbiosis between traditional Jewish and progressive values, and that segments of a community that has long seen itself as marginalized can become valued and valuable allies.

By partnering with a think-do tank that creates new alliances and possibilities.

In order to mobilize the largest possible constituency in Israeli society for a democratic, shared future, we must build bridges to constituencies that do not identify as progressive but that share goals and values.

Shaharit, a “think-and-do tank,” promotes partnerships that span the divides in Israeli society — right/left, religious/ secular, Jews/Arabs, and Mizrachim/Ashkenazim — with the aim of creating networks vital for future collaboration across sectors. Shaharit conducts research and surveys, promotes intellectual discourse, brings disparate communities together, and facilitates partnerships.

Alongside Shaharit, NIF aims to build coalitions advocating for an Israel rooted in decency, fairness and social justice.

Expanding the Circles — From dialogue to action, Shaharit is working to create new partnerships and jumpstart social change. Russian, Arab, ultra-Orthodox and other Israelis bring fresh voices to the public debate that include their complex religious, cultural and national identities.

For example, two years of meetings between leading human rights advocates and ultra-religious educators have revealed shared values that inform both human rights and traditional religious discourse and that can underlie a budding partnership. And the first cohort in a year-long leadership program launching in the fall of 2014 will bring together emerging leaders from Israel’s diverse communities who share a commitment to a common set of core values for Israeli society.

Working in the Local Arena — Despite high tensions and increasing polarization between sectors at the national level, there is significant potential for collaboration locally. The successful joint secular/religious effort to fight women’s exclusion in Jerusalem is an excellent example of positive change at the municipal level that also impacted the national agenda. Additionally, prior to the 2013 municipal elections, Shaharit nurtured coalitions that brought together diverse constituencies in 20 locations throughout Israel, creating an inclusive vision for their towns, with some participants eventually going on to join the leadership in their municipalities. They are now expanding this network, to include work in the Arab towns of Sakhnin and Arara, and in the northern border town of Kiryat Shemona.

Building the Intellectual Infrastructure — Reframing the conversation and generating innovative ideas are at the core of Shaharit’s mission. Shaharit Fellows, a multicultural team of intellectuals/ activists, have already published dozens of articles in the Israeli press; a newly formed group is working to develop a socially conscious economic agenda; and the annual Shaharit Survey on Social and Political Values, now in its second year, will continue to examine the relationship between social and political values and map potential partners between unlikely communities.

By reclaiming national security to include progressive ideals.

National security is a litmus test for leadership in Israel, trumping other issues when citizens decide whom they trust to be in power. Despite the recent increase in attention to issues of social and economic equity, there is a perception among many Israelis that only the right can be trusted with military security.

Through our partnership with the Council for Peace and Security (CPS), a progressive association of former senior security officials in Israel, we intend to redefine the security discourse. By amplifying CPS’ resources and outreach, we can expand the current narrative, which exploits security issues for the purposes of defending the occupation. With our assistance increasing organizational resources, CPS will focus on articulating new and compelling ideas on the immediate and long-term security challenges facing the country, and on redefining the security paradigm in ways consistent with progressive values. They will provide a strong and reputable voice for moderation on security policy issues.

By refining training and engagement to create progressive leadership.

Emerging leaders dedicated to the values of liberal democracy need opportunities to collaborate, develop their skills, and grow as social change professionals. Investing in a better trained cohort of young leaders, and enabling them to network, can have a profound influence on the course of the country for a generation.

After years of recruiting and training new leaders from many sectors of Israeli society, Shatil is now developing a program to help existing or emerging leaders expand their skills. While leadership development is not new to Shatil, the initiative proposes new models and uses best practices from other democratic societies. Focusing on fostering deep knowledge and cooperation within a single issue area, while connecting leaders who share common values, the program facilitates the creation of strategic partnerships among these leaders and other decision makers and opinion-leaders.

With sophisticated Media Monitoring and Rapid Response to misinformation.

In the last decade, the Israeli media landscape has changed considerably. Many newspapers have been consolidated under right-wing ultra-nationalist ownership, skewing coverage of issues and the editorial voice. Israel’s most popular newspaper is funded by a conservative American billionaire, hews closely to the Likud line, and is distributed free of charge to hundreds of thousands of Israelis every day.

NIF is seed-funding a new organization that will systematically monitor print, broadcast, and online media outlets for falsehoods and misinformation — particularly news or commentary that is inaccurate or misinformed, and that serves to advance an antidemocratic agenda. Like Media Matters in the U.S. a professional Israeli media monitoring organization can hold journalists and media outlets accountable to the truth and help keep the media a free marketplace of ideas.

Media Monitoring: With no medium left unscrutinized —TV, radio, newspapers, magazines, and websites — researchers will meticulously scour the media for misinformation. Their work will allow for real-time knowledge of the news cycle, note broader trends in coverage, and foster research items or blog posts. The organization will aim to build a reputation as a trustworthy resource, with the capacity to rapidly respond to unfolding events by disseminating reliable facts and information.

Research: Misinformation is most dangerous when it metastasizes. The team of researchers will be critical in catching and responding to errors within the news cycle, in addition to publishing long-form comprehensive research analyzing and influencing the media landscape in Israel. Staffers will fact-check and identify instances of inciting or racist language daily.

Campaigns: Beyond rapidly responding to misinformation in the media, the organization will work with online organizers to encourage activist support for campaigns that combat hate speech. Building up a meaningful presence on social media sites will be critical in quickly getting the word out about the organization’s findings. These campaigns will also give ordinary Israelis an opportunity to participate in combating ultra-nationalist “spin” and contribute to rebutting media falsehoods.