On Saturday night, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) will commemorate its 35th anniversary. Singer Yehuda Poliker will perform at Tel Aviv's Mann Auditorium in front of an audience of 2,500 who have come to celebrate the existence of a profoundly influential institution. An examination of issues addressed by ACRI and similar organizations established in the last decade, provides an illustration of the evolution of Israeli society in recent years.

The picture is not bleak: There is new, palpable, widening recognition of civil and human rights, although preservation of those rights does not always match the awareness of their significance. Division among like-minded organizations not only teaches us something about the array of demands that require attention - it is indicative of the deepening rift in Israeli society, in which each sector demands its own answers.

This picture is complicated by the fact that the 35 years of ACRI's existence were overshadowed by 35 years of occupation. The occupation is always there in the background, largely dictating the list of issues to be addressed, and attaching a label to the organization. In a reality in which civil rights, in general, and those of Arabs, in particular, fall into the left-wing's domain, the right will always consider an organization like ACRI to be "leftist." Yet, in the eyes of radical leftists, ACRI will always be considered an overly conciliatory organization that fails to adequately define its positions. Prof. Amnon Rubinstein, a former member of the Meretz party, attacked the organization's commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the occupation, claiming this was not its role.

The ACRI started out in 1972 as a modest academic and elitist institution. The organization was completely Jewish and mainly influenced by changes in civil society in the United States. Now, 35 years later, the organization employs 45 workers, 12 of them attorneys, and its management includes Arab, religious, lesbian, homosexual and Russian-speaking representatives. This year, ACRI will grant its Emil Greenzweig Human Rights Award to the Kolech organization, which may be defined as both religious and feminist. That choice ruffled some feathers within the organization. There were some who asked, "who are these women?" and others who objected to the fact that Kolech included female settlers in its ranks. Though it was approved, the choice aptly illustrates the inherent difficulty of defending civil rights in Israel.

Attorney Dori Spivak, 38, has chaired the organization since January. Spivak says he caught the "human rights bug" in the Far East. During a trip abroad after his military service, Spivak taught English at a refugee camp on the Thailand-Burma border.

"I not only taught but learned a great deal," Spivak said this week, "not only about the human rights that others lack but also about the privileges I had growing up. But I also understood that pity and feeling sorry for others is not the right way."

He studied law and economics upon returning to Israel and became active in organizations that strive for social change. At the same time, he came out of the closet. As someone who also addresses human rights as deputy director of clinical programs in the Tel Aviv University law faculty (where he teaches alongside his partner of 11 years, Dr. Yishai Blank) Spivak has watched changes unfold in the definition of human rights.

While definition of the term was once limited to political rights, like freedom of expression, the freedom to vote and the freedom to run for office, social rights are now clearly within the realm of human rights and are defensible in court.

Recognition of that sparked one of the biggest arguments in ACRI history. "It took time," Spivak says, reconstructing the process. "The classic perception of human rights does not address distributional justice. It focuses on prevention of negative intervention by the state rather than imposing positive obligations in its relation to citizens - for example, the right to education, health, work and dignity. All of these are not taken for granted as human rights, and there were those within the association who objected to that broader definition. Professor [and former chairwoman of the ACRI board] Ruth Gavison maintained that the parliamentary body and political system defined the budget and goals of social policy. When the Mizrahi Democratic Rainbow [commonly known as 'Hakeshet'] turned to us for assistance in their battle against land distribution by the Israel Land Authority, they were initially rejected. Only two years later, ACRI joined their struggle and a judicial appeal with results that greatly changed the face of Israeli society. The battle has already been won and social rights have become an integral part of our definition of human rights."

This is also reflected in ACRI's ongoing educational activities. Police and Shin Bet security services personnel attend the association's course in basic human rights. "People ask me if it works," Spivak says. "The truth is that I don't know, but you have to have faith."

Spivak also invests tremendous energy in grappling with the endless divisions among human rights organizations and organizations that promote social change. Here is a mere sample of some of those organizations: B'Tselem - The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, Kav LaOved - Worker's Hotline, Bizchut - The Israel Human Rights Center for People with Disabilities, Bimkom - Planners for Planning Rights, Adalah - The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, Mossawa Center - The Advocacy Center for Arab Citizens in Israel, Physicians for Human Rights, organizations for immigrants from the Commonwealth of Independent States, and many other social organizations.

Spivak sounds ambivalent about this phenomenon. "I think that Israeli society has lost its ability to unite in a common struggle. Unions and workers' committees are disappearing, as are companies and parties. I have been active in the homosexual community for years. There was once a single association. Now, I can count six and they are likely to split to produce an association [representing] only one person. The activities of some of these organizations were perceived as sectorial. They use the dialogue of rights but may be perceived as special interest groups."

Khulood Badawi serves in ACRI as a field researcher of gender issues and coordinator of the Planning and Construction Project in East Jerusalem.

She actually praises this fragmentation: "The presence of organizations like Adalah and the Mossawa Center, in addition to ACRI, challenges both sides in every matter that pertains to the civil rights of Arabs. I'm glad there's competition. It enriches the options. Some prefer to turn to ACRI and others choose the shared identity and language of Adalah."

Adalah was founded by former ACRI member Hassan Jabarin. Veteran activists recall that one of the internal battles that caused that split was a differentiation, on the part of those referred to as "the old guard of ACRI," between Arab civil rights and the rights of the collective Arab minority. The gap between these perceptions has yet to be bridged. "ACRI is constantly striving to anchor additional, collective rights for Jews. What about collective rights for Arabs?" asks Mossawa Center director Jafar Farah. "There were those who left ACRI because of the question of its role in efforts to end the occupation. These arguments led to the founding of B'Tselem and Physicians for Human Rights.

But Farah stresses that the increasing number of independent, Arab human rights organizations does not derive from disagreements with ACRI. He believes they are the result of internal shifts in Arab society that occurred following the Oslo Accords.

Attorney Dan Yakir represented the Mossawa Center in its struggle to be registered by the non-profit organization registrar, a battle that continued for three years. Despite appearances, Jewish-Arab tensions are not the central issue ACRI officials have been asked to handle. In truth, the lion's share of ACRI's 7,000 annual requests for assistance pertain to violations of rights in the workplace and within Interior Ministry bureaucracy.

However, Spivak is currently most concerned by the ill winds blowing from the judicial system. He emphasizes that his statements do not reflect the opinion of ACRI, but he fears judicial reforms launched by Justice Minister Daniel Friedmann.

This is not the only arena in which Spivak has observed what he calls a change for the worse. The state envisioned by Russian-Israeli billionaire, businessman and philanthropist Arcadi Gaydamak would be the enemy of a state that fits Spivak's vision.

"There are large groups in Israeli society for whom non-philanthropic, civil society represents a potential threat," he warns. Despite this, Spivak dreams of a day in which ACRI's financial supporters fill not only the Jerusalem Convention Center but the Yad Eliyahu Stadium in Tel Aviv as well.