Photo: Yulia Binyamin
By Suzanne Cannon, Shatil Director of Development
It’s January. A new year. As I watch people take to the streets to protest the policies of the new government, I remember January 1988 when I moved from London to Jerusalem. Israel was different in those days. The leaders felt more reliable, there was less corruption, and I honestly believed the occupation would end sometime soon. I was young and foolish. Now, when I listen to the news, I feel this government has sold my soul – as a woman, as a Reform Jew, as a citizen committed to democracy and human rights for all. Gender equality is going backwards – there are only nine women in the 64-member coalition. Religious freedom is under attack. Racism and discrimination are the new norm. But despite the barrage of destructive declarations by newly appointed ministers, I see signs of hope around me. Social change NGOs are pivoting to respond to the situation, concerned citizens are organizing new initiatives to oppose specific policies, and ordinary people are coming out to protest.
Working at Shatil and the New Israel Fund is another source of hope. It gives me the opportunity to express my personal, professional and political aspirations in the same space. I am strengthened by my hard-working, like-minded colleagues who are doing everything they can to ensure efforts to restrain and oppose this government’s path are coordinated and effective. This has been particularly evident during the last two months as Shatil’s Leadership team analyzed the situation following the election results to plan activity for 2023. The threats are serious and constant. The proposed override clause that will restructure the relationship between the Knesset and the Supreme Court is nothing short of a potential constitutional earthquake. Changes in regulations that will make it harder for human rights organizations to function and receive funding may reduce our ability to act. Increased interference of religion in state institutions could have far-reaching consequences for personal status issues and national infrastructure projects. Just this week, the head of the United Torah Judaism party Yitzhak Goldknopf demanded the country cease routine maintenance work on the public intercity rail system on Saturdays, claiming this is an unnecessary violation of Shabbat and breaks a ‘status quo’ that the Prime Minister promised to uphold.
Shatil’s unique competence in encouraging and supporting social change organizations to work together to promote common goals is vital in the current atmosphere. Going forward, we will be focusing on three main tracks in line with the most urgent needs of civil society NGOs at this time. The first is creating and offering one-on-one consultation and group trainings to support activists and organizations under attack. Specific organizations and individuals are already being branded as illegitimate and disloyal by members of the government, and it is likely this trend will intensify. The second is bringing together a wide umbrella of NGOs to protest and challenge the government’s anti-democratic and discriminatory policies in one clear voice. It’s often hard for specific interest NGOs to step beyond their regular agendas to participate in wider struggles. This requires high levels of agreement on ideological messages and practical details. Shatil organizers will be there to navigate challenges as they occur. The third is ensuring activists and organizations maximize opportunities at the municipal level. Asaf Goldfarb, Director of Shatil’s Center for Policy Change told me: ‘Local authorities are super important now as the national government becomes more and more hardline. We want to help NGOs access funds available at the municipal level and expand cooperation with local forces who share our liberal values.
This is not an easy time. I get on the train with my NIF tote bag and wonder if a guard will stop me; last week, a guard at a Tel Aviv train station stopped a protester wearing a shirt from a grassroots organization and said she was wearing ‘provocative clothing.’ When people ask me how I am, I no longer reply just ‘fine’ — I mention my existential worries for the future of this country. But those concerns are mitigated knowing that Shatil and NIF are here to support the NGOs giving it their all on the front line. As Ella Yedaya, Shatil Director of National Programs says: ‘Now we all must make clear to every person we know what’s at stake and implore them to actively protest the government’s policies. The country and its politicians need to hear this voice loudly and clearly.’ I’m going to be as loud as I can.