Veteran Activist Wins Shared Society Award

26 November 2019

This week, Batya Kallus, director of the Social Venture Fund for Jewish-Arab Equality and Shared Society, received the Shared Society Award from Givat Haviva – The Center for Equality and Shared Society. Originally from Sudbury, Massachusetts, Kallus has been dedicated to advancing a shared society in Israel for the past 25 years.

Upon receiving the award, Kallus emphasized the critical connection between shared society and equality: “Together with the work to advance a shared society, change is required in order to achieve equality in government and philanthropic resources. This requires access to resources, and it means breaking down every barrier that keeps Arab citizens as outsiders in Israeli society.” Shared society has been a central area of NIF/Shatil’s work for years and Kallus has been an important guide and friend in this work.

Kallus explored social activism early in life. At 14, she participated in the historic 1970 peace march on Washington with her activist mother and younger sister. She showed an early aptitude for leadership, organizing the first Jewish youth group in her town, and later becoming founding co-chair of the progressive New Jewish Agenda.

At 15, on a summer trip to Israel through the National Federation of Temple Youth, Kallus spent two weeks living with a Yemenite family of nine children. The trip was an exciting eye opener for Kallus. She returned to Israel two years later to do a summer ulpan and immigrated in the early 90’s.

Early in her career, Kallus realized she was well suited to advance social change by working in the field of philanthropy. She volunteered for and served as chair of the progressive Haymarket People’s Fund, was a fundraiser for Elul and eventually became the first grants officer for the Abraham Initiatives, an NIF grantee that fosters shared society projects in Israel.

“At the time, I thought, well, this is second best to working on the Arab-Israeli conflict,” says Kallus with a laugh. “I knew very little about Arab Israeli citizens. I can’t believe how arrogant I was.”

She learned fast, with the help of teachers like Abraham Initiatives founder Alan Slifka, Sikkuy co-founder Aluf Har Even, and Ahmad Hijazi of the Neve Shalom School for Peace. “After 10 minutes of talking to me, Ahmad told me I was being paternalistic – and taught me the importance of speaking to grantees eye-to-eye. All people who work in philanthropy have to go through a learning curve of humility,” she says. “I learned to put my ego aside and to become a bridge that represents projects to funders and vice versa.”

The killing of 12 Arab Israelis during the October 2000 riots deeply influenced how Kallus and those she worked with saw the field of shared society. “It was an earthquake for me,” she remembers, “a profound shock. I cried for a week. . .This brought home to us the deep understanding that equality on every level and in every part of Israeli society has to go hand in hand with efforts to build a shared society. Equality is a prerequisite and a pillar.”

Today, Kallus says she understands that “shared society programs are insufficient in and of themselves. The first step is to clarify for yourself, yes, I want to work together. For that, you need exposure, contact, connection. But that’s just the beginning. When Jews and Arabs build enough trust to be able to work together on a common goal, they can really move forward. We need to create more opportunities for Jews and Arabs to connect around areas of common concern. Shatil’s Jewish-Arab Forum to Promote Health in the Galilee is a perfect example.”

When the Abraham Fund became a social change organization and no longer needed a grants officer, Batya worked for the Moriah Fund and then the Fohs Foundation. The latter funded the popular TV series Arab Labor after Batya convinced the fund’s founder, Howard Sohn, to listen to the creators’ pitch even though it was a sitcom.

“I feel so blessed to have had the opportunity to work with Howard,” says Batya. “He is a big believer in the media’s ability to shape attitudes…The show was transformational.”

Later in her career, Kallus decided to further devote herself to building the field of philanthropy in shared society and equality in Israel. This dovetailed with the desire of funders who were members of the Inter-Agency Task Force on Arab Citizens of Israel to pool their resources to build this area in Israel. They founded the Social Venture Fund for Jewish-Arab Equality and Shared Society in Israel, which Kallus now directs.

She is hopeful about Israel’s future as a truly shared society.

“More and more Arab citizens are moving into the work force and studying at university, which has a transformative effect on other workers and students…and it’s also good for business,” she says. “Government decision 922 (which equalizes budget allocations between Israeli Jews and Arabs) was a big leap forward. The government’s interest is to build Israel’s economy for the future and that will only come when you have more trained, educated, socially mobile people who have the capacity to produce income. More busses, more day care and better educational opportunities in Arab communities will result in more Arab citizens contributing to the economy.”

Kallus says she feels honored to receive the Shared Society Award: “I feel like my role in the world is to be the connector between civil society and philanthropy in the area of equality and shared society. What I can offer is the ability to understand both sides and connect between the best of them all.”

Mohammad Darawshe, the director of Givat Haviva says that “Batya is one of the veteran fighters in the arena. The scope of her activity over many years has been enormous. It is an honor for us to give her this award.”