By Daniel Sokatch, International CEO of the New Israel Fund
I often say that the New Israel Fund’s work to build a better, fairer Israel is a marathon, not a sprint. And I’ll say it one more time, now.
This year, our action arm Shatil, dedicated to the often-below-the-radar-screen-but-always-vital work of strengthening Israeli civil society, is turning 40. We couldn’t be prouder.
Day in and day out, Shatil staff do the vital work of movement-building, training the next generation of leaders, and supporting the organizations working to make change in Israel. As you might expect when it comes to deep democracy-building work, we usually see Shatil’s success not in quick wins or big, newsy moments. We see it in the strong progressive civil society infrastructure that enables activists and organizations to make change.
NIFC will be honouring Shatil at this year’s 12th Annual Shira Herzog Symposium on October 23rd — save the date!
There is no way to understand what Shatil really does without looking at the activists it works to train and empower.
Najma Abbas is an incredible example. An Arab Israeli public health professional who, in 2018, was elected to her local city council, Najma is a woman who has dedicated her life to improving the health of Arab communities in Israel.
She came to Shatil for the first time after narrowly losing her first election for city council, signing up for a Shatil course for healthcare leaders. Together with fellow public health workers convened by Shatil, she went through a deep dive into the social and political roots of the disparity in healthcare outcomes between Arabs and Jews in Israel.
As a result of the course, she established a health committee for her town, Shefa-Amr, and ultimately became a leader of the Shatil-backed Citizens’ Forum for the Promotion of Health in the Galilee.
Najma then went on to win her seat on city council, and now sits in a position where she can actively leverage the resources of her city to promote better health for all who live there.
This is the kind of story that makes me so proud. Najma epitomizes the spirit of Shatil — she is an empowered community leader who took advantage of our resources to build deeper skills, broader networks, and gain traction so that she could push for change in her own community.
Najma is also one of 40 activists Shatil is honouring for its 40th anniversary – you can peruse the digital exhibition we put together of all 40 of them here.
Shatil also understands that to have a thriving progressive ecosystem, civil society organizations need to live up to the values they espouse. After conducting extensive research on the status of women in leadership of Israeli civil society organizations, Shatil learned that 70% of established Israeli civil society organizations are led by men and only 38% of organizations’ board members were women.
Shatil staff responded by launching a series of workshops to promote better gender equity practices for NGOs. These trainings put gender equity experts, organizations that have successfully implemented gender equity policies, and Shatil organizational consultants in front of dozens of staffers from leading NGOs facing these challenges, helping them strive for more equal gender balances in their hiring and operating practices. The individuals who attended these trainings then began to develop gender equity plans for their organizations.
This is the essence of Shatil — it’s not enough for organizations to advocate for the world as it should be, the organizations themselves should reflect that vision of equality and justice. Our movement for positive social change should look as good from the inside as it does from the outside.
Shatil’s philosophy is grounded in the understanding that the best advocates and spokespeople for a cause are those most directly affected by a social problem. Last May, when the Jewish National Fund-Keren Kayemet LeYisrael (JNF-KKL) and the Israeli government attempted to expel Bedouin residents of unrecognized villages in the Negev, the Bedouin residents protested. The protests were nonviolent, but some political leaders and commentators labeled the protestors “lawless” or “terrorists”. As this unfolded, Shatil partnered with NIF partner Sikkuy-Aufoq to support members of the Bedouin community in telling their stories to mainstream Israeli media.
The training ranged from practical skills like writing press releases and conducting outreach to journalists, to a behind-the-scenes visit to Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth’s newsroom to better understand the journalistic process.
The idea was to help Bedouin spokespeople fight the dangerous stereotypes being espoused by Israeli public figures who were portraying the Bedouin in the Negev as “violent” – the idea was to let Bedouin people tell their own stories.
As Mickey Gitzin, our Israel Director, put it then in an op-ed for Haaretz at the time:
When we call it terrorism, we turn it from a social, cultural, criminal, and economic issue into a security issue, into a bomb that fell on us one day out of nowhere … ignoring the (years of) planning discrimination, extreme inequality, complete lack of infrastructure, lack of access to basic education, high unemployment, and severe poverty [that constitute the root causes of the violence.]
The work of Shatil might be described as hidden on the frontlines. From gender equity in NGOs to training spokespeople in Israel’s most marginalized communities to empowering public health leaders, Shatil is behind the scenes, but on the cutting edge – training and supporting civil society leaders in the deep way that we know is necessary for the change Israel so desperately needs.
Largely because of its successful discretion, Shatil’s vital work so often goes unrecognized, which is why I’m thrilled that we’ll be honouring them at events throughout the year.
[We hope you’ll join NIFC’s largest annual event, the 12th Annual Shira Herzog Symposium, where we’ll be recognizing Shatil staff and activists — stay tuned to hear who will be joining us in Canada this year!]