By Ben Murane, Executive Director

Just two weeks ago in central Tel Aviv, I witnessed a touching moment between Israel’s President Herzog and the New Israel Fund that wove together several threads of NIF’s history.

Long-time supporters of our work know that NIF and our partners in Israel have long been the target of smear campaigns by those who oppose equality, democracy, and human rights in Israel. The past decade of arch-right governments favoured punching bags of human rights activists, Arab voters, Reform rabbis, and liberal values.

For example, former Prime Minister Netanyahu once went on prime-time television to decry NIF’s defense of Sudanese refugees. (His words immediately prompted 1,000 Israelis to make a first-time donation to us – including former Likud MKs. Thanks, Bibi!) We wore incidents like these as badges of honour.

So what a difference then when last month Israel’s President and First Lady addressed NIF’s celebration of Shatil’s 40th anniversary in Tel Aviv.

Both congratulated us for exactly the values and activities that outrage our opponents. Surrounded by a hundred of NIF’s global and local leaders, they offered words of admiration for the work of NIF and our action arm, Shatil.

In his speech, President Herzog said, “Shatil has made an enormous change in Israeli society, in civil discourse, in civic discourse, in the ability to demand civil rights and to enable underpowered groups to rise up to the occasion and take their place and helm in Israeli public life and demand their rights, which is enormous.”

Because this is indeed Shatil’s undeniable impact on Israeli life.

Forty years ago, NIF made a decision that changed the reality of 21st century Israel. NIF understood that to strengthen Israeli civil society, it was not enough to merely give funding. We needed to also nurture and foster the infant field of social change as a whole – to help start-up NGOs become powerful social change organizations.

That’s why in 1982 NIF launched our action arm, Shatil (“Seedling”), which over the past four decades has helped establish new organizations, worked to strengthen civil society and supported, assisted, and advised hundreds of social entrepreneurs and thousands of people. Throughout Israel – in the Galilee and the Negev, in towns and cities – Shatil changed how progressive change happens.

The Tel Aviv celebration featured a special exhibit “40 x 40” profiling forty Israelis shaped by Shatil whose leadership undeniably improved Israeli life. (We’ll be sharing those forty characters with you in the coming year, but you can browse them all here.)President Herzog said, “[From] the President’s House, we see so many incredible organizations – some of them represented among these 40 selected leaders – who’ve made a huge change in so many circles of life in Israel. We thank you.”

President Herzog spoke of Shatil – and of our own Shira Herzog z”l.

President Herzog is the first cousin of Shira Herzog, a prominent Jewish leader in Canada who championed NIFC until her passing in 2014.

Both Herzog and his wife Michal touchingly spoke of Shira and the importance of Shatil’s work to her:

“Shira Herzog ⁠— my dear cousin, who passed away several years ago, made a huge contribution to this plant called Shatil. She changed the face of the third sector in Israel ⁠— both in vision and in deed — and when she left us prematurely, she left a great void in our hearts, and in the hearts of Israeli civil society. She has always dreamed of building a home for social organizations in Israel and we are always happy to see that in a sense, Shatil is such a home in Israel.”

This is a moment to reflect on how far we’ve come.

The past decade in Israel has been fraught. The next decade doesn’t look any easier.

Yet what would Israel look like today without those 40 profiled leaders? They completely changed how Israeli society deals today with gender-based violence, disability access, privacy, immigration, shared society, and all the rest. These are just 40 examples from thousands of people trained by Shatil.

Without them, would we have proof that Israeli society can indeed solve today’s most difficult problems? They are the evidence that investing in grassroots, bottom-up changemakers can indeed succeed against racism, extremism, and the occupation.

Who would have imagined Israel’s head of state endorsing us so openly? Regardless of what you may think of this President or his predecessors, this moment highlighted a changed atmosphere in Israel.

What issues will our next decade focus on that were out of reach previously? While we’ve made progress in many areas, serious challenges loom.

Extremist politicians are polling stronger in this year’s elections. Religious exclusion of women and liberal Judaism turned violent at the Western Wall this very month. The occupation grinds onwards as more innocent Palestinians lose their homes. Economic inequality is increasing as young people are once again pitching their tents on Rothschild Boulevard.

These challenges are real. There is no guarantee of victory. But that’s exactly why our work — and your support to make it happen — are so necessary.

In this time of political instability, your support offers stability to those fighting for democracy and equality. Our Canadian-funded projects, alongside NIF’s global funding, are right now strengthening Israelis for the struggles to come.

Even more so, your support makes a long-term impact on building Israeli civil society and protecting Israeli democracy in the coming forty years.

Today’s nascent activists become tomorrow’s national leaders. Ideas generated today become tomorrow’s official policies. Relationships brokered now become the alliances that truly change tomorrow.

Thank you for your generosity and commitment to our work.