An Alternative to the Bowl of Soup

Two conferences that do not deal with security or the political situation are scheduled this weekend and early next week.

Two conferences that do not deal with security or the political situation are scheduled this weekend and early next week. One, a university conference, will examine the development of the "Third Sector," meaning NPOs, NGOs, voluntary organizations and ideological centers that function in between the public and private sectors. That annual conference provides an up-to-date mapping of the relationships between the three sectors, and its research is a significant theoretical contribution to the changes in Israeli society.

The second conference, dubbed "The role of civil society in times of national crisis" is being organized by the Jewish Agency's department for the region of Israel, headed by attorney Ofra Friedman, together with Yeshayahu Ben-Aharon, who heads a group called "Activists for a Civil Society in Israel." There will be representatives from several voluntary organizations that serve as facilitators and mediators between individuals and communities and the authorities. These include the Zipori Center, which focuses on environmental education; Shatil, which fosters community organizations; Sikkuy, which works for the integration of Arabs in Israeli society, and other groups.

The concept "civil society" is one of the most confusing terms of the past several years in Israel. Since Shulamit Aloni, Israel's civil rights pioneer, all sorts of organizations, politicians and just plain bandwagon riders have raised the civil society flag in every direction - starting from getting business people involved in community activity to the misleading ambition to create "a state for all its citizens."

But as the discourse about civil society becomes more commonplace in Israel, society becomes less civic. It's easy to prove that by looking at three segments of the population: the ultra-Orthodox, the Arabs and the foreign workers. The Haredim stay out of the workforce, and are perceived by the secular public as being outside civic society, mostly because they don't serve in the army. The Arabs' civic demands have been weakened since the intifada began, but more specifically since the riots of October 2000. What can be said about the foreign workers? They and their children who are born here live among us like ghosts lacking all civil rights or civil status. No dialogue, soup kitchen or well-meaning NPO will stitch together the widening gap between these three communities and what is considered the Israeli mainstream.

Moreover, there are experts convinced that the term "third sector" can serve as a broad term to cover everything growing out of the rubble of the welfare state. They rightly argue that all these well-meaning people and wonderful NGOs that mediate between the needy and the establishment, are no more than methadone for junkies. In effect, they are cooperating with the dismantling of the welfare state and the more efficient they become, the faster the demolition will occur.

Ben-Aharon responds to these claims by saying that the legitimate area of activity for the Third Sector is mostly in cultural and spiritual affairs, representing world views. But the organizations he wants to work with are not dealing with charity per se, but rather in protection of civil rights and nurturing values like equality, equitable disbursement of resources, and encouraging contacts between the community and the establishment.

The three-sector division, he says, is not meant to take away the state's functions. On the contrary, he says, the Third Sector has to strengthen the demand for equality in the distribution of resources by the state. His humanist, all encompassing approach, might be interpreted as another nice, uninfluential organization, but it is nonetheless interesting because it is integrated with the experienced political involvement of Ofra Friedman.

A cautious reading of their position papers exposes a glimmer of hope: They regard the conference as only a first stage of activity. The next stage, they hope, will be forming a civic group, a kind of round table of civil organizations - not voluntary groups, but fighting political organizations in the civic and economic arenas. If they succeed, they will continue seeking contacts with local politicians, to create an alternative political force.

The only known civil model they have, meanwhile, belongs to a movement that in its wisdom and intimate knowledge of the community and its needs managed to exploit the establishment's structure (which has been abandoned by the left) and to undermine it for its purposes, dismantling its internal democratic mechanisms. Now its bosses, in the Interior Ministry, Health Ministry and Social Welfare Ministry, are completing the work of dismantling the welfare state.

Nonetheless, there is some sort of possibility that the process proposed by Ben-Aharon and Friedman might work. Unlike other voluntary organizations, which propose circumventing politics, and unlike the ideological centers, which at great cost try to impose themselves on the political system, this new organization is using the model of local community activity in Britain or Germany. In that sense, it might succeed in creating an interesting alternative to the bowl of soup.