Shared Views on a Shared Society

Exactly one year ago, Reuven Rivlin – a veteran Likud Knesset member, and the Knesset’s former Speaker – was elected as Israel’s 10th president. With his inauguration, Rivlin vowed to shift his focus from Israeli politics to Israelis. All Israelis. Jews and Arabs, religious and secular, Mizrahi and Ashkenazi, in the periphery and central Israel. President Rivlin has been extremely busy this year advancing his agenda, championing civil rights, and supporting a just and democratic state of Israel.

This should sound familiar to Jewish community members who have been following our Federation's mission in Israel for nearly three decades: to strengthen Israel as a pluralistic, democratic, and just society with equal opportunity for all its citizens. In fact, President Rivlin’s vision of the “New Israeli Order” as outlined in a speech delivered last month aligns seamlessly with our vision, affirming our work and effort over many years. In his speech, Rivlin describes what he perceives as the real threat to Israeli society today: not the changes in demographics that many have cited, which show a shift from a large secular Zionist majority to one more evenly split among four primary groups (secular Jews, religious Zionists, Arabs, and Haredim), but, rather, the denial of these very changes.

Without preparing ourselves for this major demographic shift in Israeli society, Rivlin argues, these four sectors will continue to grow apart instead of coming together. More than half of the population will no longer serve in the Israeli army or National Service Corps (the equivalent of the U.S. Peace Corps), nor will they contribute to the national economy, and the populations will continue to be siloed into their separate education systems. The points of interaction between these groups are dwindling, and when a society becomes fragmented, its core weakens.

President Rivlin outlines the “New Israeli Order.” Photo by Mark Nyman.

Now for the good news. The Federation and its partners in Israel have identified these issues and are already working in preparation for the “New Israeli Order,” which is simply a new paradigm of Israeli discourse and unity. On one front, we are working hard to close the gaps in the nation’s employment and education sectors, striving to offer genuine equal opportunity to all Israeli citizens, whether a recent immigrant from Ethiopia, a Bedouin child in the Negev, or a Haredi university student.

Our continued work this year with Olim Beyahad is a prime example of how we are achieving this. The organization works to integrate Ethiopian Israeli university graduates into Israel’s economy and has succeeded in creating a group of leaders who are paving the way for other graduates in the community. In light of the many challenges facing Ethiopian Israelis today, CEO Sigal Kanotopsky, herself an Olim Beyahad alumna, is taking the organization to the next level together with many of her fellow alumni, who are already in key positions in the workplace.

Sigal Kanotopsky, CEO of Olim Beyahad, celebrating 8 years of hard work and success.

On a second front, the Federation is looking ahead and investing in organizations that are preparing Israel for a new Shared Society of inclusion, equality and justice for all its citizens. In his speech, President Rivlin laid the groundwork for this Shared Society, stating that we must abandon the notion of majority and minority and replace it with the concept of partnership, with four prerequisites for the work ahead: 

  • Assurance that each group’s basic identity is not threatened and will be respected;
  • Shared responsibility for the nation’s security and economics;
  • Equity and equality among all Israelis; and,
  • The creation of a new shared Israeli character.

Our work with the Abraham Fund is an example of how we are actively taking part in constructing this new Shared Society, here in one of the rare intersections of Jews and Arabs in Israeli society today – Israeli universities. The Fund is developing a model to be replicated at other college campuses that is intended to increase the partnerships between Jewish and Arab university students, break barriers, and build bridges.

The Federation’s flagship program, Gvanim, is another important example of how we are building a civil society is Israel. Fifteen years ago, the Federation proactively created Gvanim with the conviction that the greatest threat that Israel currently faces stems from deep divisions within Israeli society. This one-year leadership development program is designed to train representatives from every sector of Israeli society, who, in turn, promulgate the principles of civil discourse, religious diversity, and unity to their own communities. A hallmark component of Gvanim is the action projects that it spurs – projects that disseminate pluralistic values through a variety of activities. 

One such project is the Gvanim program at Ono Academic College, in Kiryat Ono, which explores Israeli identity, the redefining of which is perhaps the most challenging of President Rivlin’s prerequisites for creating real partnerships. A first of its kind, the program develops an academic curriculum that exposes students to the cultural, religious and ethnic complexities in Israel and the challenges to pluralism in a modern, democratic, Jewish state. The course is taught to advanced students from diverse backgrounds, including Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Druze, and Ethiopian, as well as the range of religious backgrounds, from secular to ultra-Orthodox. These encounters, which represent exactly the type of work our Gvanim program is intended to generate, are extremely unique in Israeli society, and are the necessary ingredient for an Israeli future that is inclusive, fair, and thoroughly democratic.

Ono Academic College Gvanim participants.
Categories: Israel, Grantees, Overseas


June 29, 2015