Democracy is the source of Israel’s strength

Democracy is the source of Israel’s strength. It has been since its creation. Israel’s founders understood that with such diversity, and so many opinions, they had to entrench democratic principles so that the system worked. Because democracy’s about disagreements…it’s a system which allows you to deal with your disagreements non-violently.

As Naomi Chazan spoke to us about the threats to Israel’s democracy, her words resonated with me. When I decided to spend six months of this year living in Israel it was in part because I wanted to experience living in a Jewish, democratic state. Given both the occupation and the raft of anti-democratic legislation coming before the Knesset, I didn’t know for how much longer that option would exist. Diversity had also been on my mind, in the sense that the reality feels more like division than diversity.

As we toured, we saw that Tel Aviv feels like a different country to Jerusalem, the deprivation in South Tel Aviv feels a world away from the beach bars of the north of the city, and Jerusalem’s Charedi Mea Shearim, secular Zion Square, and Arab Salah-e-Din Street seem a million miles from each other rather than a few minutes’ walk. In Israel, you are defined by whether you are Muslim or Jewish, Ashkenazi or Mizrachi, Religious or Secular, Rightist or Leftist. Democracy should allow the different groups to work together in a peaceful and constructive way, but what happens when democracy is under threat and the distances between the groups are growing? In these circumstances, how do you build a broad coalition to defend democracy?

During our intense week of tours and meetings, we were privileged to meet many inspiring activists who are dedicating their lives to creating positive change in Israel. I want to mention two whose work focuses on building bridges within Israeli society.

Eilon Schwartz is the director of think-tank and leadership incubator Shaharit, which brings together Israelis from diverse backgrounds – Arab, Jewish, Bedouin, Druze, Ultra-Orthodox, Modern Orthodox, Secular, Mizrachi, Ashkenazi, Ethiopian, Russian, and more – to craft new, inclusive, approaches. Eilon argues that the traditional message of the Israeli left, being derived from and therefore inextricably linked to an elitist Ashkenazi perspective, cannot resonate with those with different histories. What we need to do, he argues, is not seek to persuade others to adopt our world view, but be open to the creation of new approaches, using new language, embracing what he calls “modest liberalism” – a liberalism that accepts it can learn from others, that recognises it must coexist with others, that has empathy. Take people seriously, Eilon advised, have curiosity about their views. Don’t try to convince, try to understand. Don’t give up your values, but wear them modestly.

Gadi Gvaryahu is the founder and director of Tag Meir, “light tag”, set up in response to the Tag Mechir, “price tag”, crimes of the Jewish far-right. Tag Meir campaigns and educates against racism and hate crime and visits victims of terror. On a moving tour, Gadi took us to the sites of two terror attacks. First we visited the synagogue in Har Nof in which six people, five Jewish worshippers and a Druze police officer, were killed in November 2014, in an attack by Palestinians armed with knives, guns and axes. Bullet holes in the synagogue windows and a plaque on the wall commemorated the deaths. We then went to the Jerusalem Forest where Mohammed Abu Khdeir, a 16 year old Palestinian, was burned alive by Jews in July 2014. Here, no memorial marked the site. We gathered stones and built a circle as a marker; such circles have been built before, Gadi told us, but they’re always gone when he returns. Tag Meir works to break the cycle of violence and hatred, and address the reality that, in a country full of monuments for the fallen, the spot where Mohammed was killed is unmarked.

Tag Meir is a coalition of 48 organisations, religious, secular, Jewish and Arab, working together to combat racism and hatred. Like Eilon, Gadi spoke to us about the need for empathy when reaching out to other sectors of society. Mickey Gitzin, NIF’s dynamic new executive director, did the same. Mickey emphasised the need to make personal connections, to go out and speak to people face-to-face, to make eye contact, listen, build relationships. Broadcasting our messages over social media is not enough; nor is reeling off logical arguments. We must engage with people on an emotional level, bond over a shared love of Israel.

Despair, Naomi Chazan told us, is not a strategy; what we must do is create spaces of freedom, dignity, pluralism and justice, building up democratic spaces, propping up Israeli democracy from below. As Eilon, Gadi and Mickey told us, we must engage in genuine dialogue and empathy if we are to build bridges and ask others to be open to our views. It may not be easy, especially when we feel that others are not willing to extend the same courtesy to us, yet we can draw inspiration from Naomi, from Mickey, and from the many NIF grantees who so successfully incorporate this approach in to their work.

Anna Roiser is an NIF New Gen Activism Fellow 2017-18