These Jewish and Arab Israelis Are Creating a New Type of Grassroots Activism

Citizens groups are not a replacement for a political party that speaks in the name of both communities, but at the moment they may be the best Israeli society can come up with

David Green
David B. Green
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Members of Standing Together taking part in a demonstration in Tel Aviv against Israel's actions in Gaza, May 2018.
Members of Standing Together taking part in a demonstration in Tel Aviv against Israel's actions in Gaza, May 2018. Credit: Moti Milrod
David Green
David B. Green

It sounds almost like a scenario from the end of days: One recent Thursday night before the election, a group from an Arab-Jewish, socialist, political action organization made forays into several central Jerusalem neighborhoods to hang posters expressing their solidarity with a population group that is more often an object of hostile attacks.

Printed in Hebrew, Yiddish and Arabic, no less, the posters were meant to convey the message to the capital’s sizable ultra-Orthodox (or Haredi) population that, basically, “We’re all in this together”: “Not one of us want our grandmothers to be stuck lying in the hospital corridor. … None of us want to be forsaken in old age. … All of us want a good education for our children,” the posters read.

“We had spoken among ourselves about how we were fed up with the incitement against the Haredim in the election campaigning – something that is in fact quite common on the left,” explains Carmel Givon, a 19-year-old activist with the organization Standing Together (“Omdim Beyahad”). And so the group of some 15 young people decided to reach out with the posters, which, with their stark black-and-white text, look from a distance like the pashkevilim that plaster walls and message boards of many Orthodox neighborhoods.

Givon, who has been involved with a variety of left-wing groups since age 16, says the group decided to follow up that goodwill gesture with a more substantial political struggle on behalf of the Haredi community. Consulting with people from within the community, the members of Standing Together’s Jerusalem branch – it calls them “circles” – learned about the wide gaps between the salaries paid to ultra-Orthodox teachers and teachers working in secular state schools, and stationed themselves around the city to hand out flyers about the problem.

One of the pashkevilim placed in ultra-Orthodox parts of Jerusalem by Standing Together, pointing out the similarities between secular and religious communities.Credit: Standing Together

“The salary of a Haredi teacher can range from 25 to 50 percent less than that of a secular teacher,” Givon says. “And they generally are hired as contract [freelance] employees, so that 80 percent are fired at end of the school year and then rehired in the fall,” denying them the social benefits permanent employees receive. “We wanted to raise awareness of the problem among the secular public. And we hoped for a joint battle.”

So far, although Givon says they have received encouragement from teachers they have spoken with, as yet none have been ready to go public in joining the protest for fear of losing their jobs. But Givon and his comrades intend to continue with the effort on behalf of these unlikely bedfellows.

As Standing Together’s national co-director, Alon-Lee Green, explains: “We decided to ‘stand together’ with them, and to show that the struggle is not between religious and secular.” Most of Green’s fellow members fall into the latter category.

Just around the corner from Zion Square (one of the spots where group members handed out flyers), a local youth hostel recently hosted another Standing Together initiative: a mini-course called “What Is to Be Done Now?” Over four successive Sunday nights, former Joint List lawmaker Dov Khenin and Ben-Gurion University of the Negev political scientist Prof. Dani Filc took turns offering an analysis of what’s ailing Israel politically, socially and economically, and a primer on how to collectively organize to effect change. The course was based on the eponymous book co-authored by the two men.

Virtual resistance

Standing Together is an organization of Israeli Arabs and Jews who have made common cause under the banner of “peace, equality and social justice” to bring about political action and change. Although these principles naturally mean the organization is dedicated to fighting the Israeli occupation, that and the Arab-Israeli conflict in general are just two among the many issues its members engage with.

Parties on both sides of the political spectrum define themselves vis-à-vis the conflict and security – one could even say they are the political spectrum – and voters are corralled into positioning themselves accordingly. As a consequence, most other issues get short shrift in political campaigns, even as the candidates profit by pitting religious against secular, Mizrahi against Ashkenazi, and, most significantly, Jew against Arab. What gets ignored are such problems as climate change, the growing privatization of health care, lack of affordable housing, discrimination suffered by Ethiopian and Bedouin citizens, and erosion of workers’ rights, to mention just a few.

It was another left-wing, nonpartisan citizens group, Zazim (“Let’s Move”), that brought to national attention the fact that some 50,000 Bedouin living in unrecognized towns and villages in the Negev don’t have reasonable access to polling places, sometimes having to travel up to 50 kilometers (about 30 miles) to their assigned polling places. Working together with the Council of Unrecognized Villages, Zazim organized an operation last April that connected volunteer drivers with local residents, and provided some 7,000 Bedouin with rides to the polls for the April 9 election.

The nonprofit had ambitious plans for the do-over election in September, but those had to be scrapped when a right-wing organization, Im Tirtzu, successfully petitioned the Central Elections Committee that Zazim was a partisan organization and was contravening election rules. If it still went forward with its effort, it would lose its nonprofit status. Zazim decided not to challenge the prohibition, and the effort to ferry Negev Bedouin to the polls took place without its involvement last September and in the recent March 2 election.

According to Maayan Dak, Zazim’s deputy director, the organization operates largely in the digital sphere and has no physical office. Staffers live and work around the country, and consult virtually each day via video conferencing, in addition to weekly in-person conferences in Jaffa. The organization, which was founded in 2016, sends out regular email announcements and appeals for funds in both Hebrew and Arabic, to a mailing list of some 150,000 “members.”

Activists from Standing Together taking part in a protest against lack of efforts to address violence in Israel's Arab community, Tamra, October 12, 2019. Credit: Standing Together

Standing Together, on the other hand, emphasizes the circles it has opened up around the country since launching in 2015: By the end of 2019, there were 16 circles, most of them defined by region, but some nationwide and devoted to specific issues like the environment or workers’ rights. It has 2,500 paying members, who contribute between 5.9 shekels to 250 shekels ($1.65 to $70) a month. (Zazim does not have membership fees, but both organizations derive most of their budgets from individuals’ contributions within Israel.)

Standing Together recognizes that it will have members – generally Jews – who are Zionist, and others – generally Arabs – who are not. Says Sally Abed, a 28-year-old part-time staffer and Arab citizen of Israel: “We truly believe that whether you’re Zionist or a Palestinian nationalist, you can still find a place within Standing Together” based on “shared struggles.” At the same time, she says, “We have a very clear set of values that we don’t budge from: We are a socialist, democratic movement.”

Abed says Standing Together is modeled in part on the Spanish social-action movement Podemos, from the period before it became a political party in 2014. She says members have participated in workshops of Momentum – an American organization that provides training intended to give “progressive organizers the tools and frameworks to build massive, decentralized social movements,” as its website states.

Zazim is part of the loose international coalition OPEN (Online Progressive Engagement Network), which links a number of grassroots organizations that specialize in digital activity.

Force to be reckoned with

Such Jewish-Arab citizens groups are not a replacement for a political party that speaks in the name of both communities, but at the moment they may be the best that Israeli society can come up with. This despite the fact that there have been several points in recent years when it seemed as if the time had arrived – if not for a Jewish-Arab party, then for direct cooperation between a Zionist coalition and the Arab Joint List.

That glimmer of light was largely attributable to Joint List Chairman Ayman Odeh, whose optimistic, inclusive tone has endeared him to many Israeli Jews, in addition to growing numbers of Arabs. But the four parties that comprise the Joint List include not only Odeh’s Hadash party, but also the nationalist Balad, which doesn’t recognize the right of the Jewish people to a national home – making it an unlikely partner for a binational party.

Joining together in a single electoral list five years ago saved the individual parties from being locked out of the Knesset when the electoral threshold was raised to 3.25 percent. It also made the Arab electorate a force to be reckoned with: Today, the Joint List is the third-largest party with 15 Knesset seats.

In the political realm, the idea of a Zionist-led coalition party relying on the support of an Arab party remains verboten, but Dani Filc, the political scientist, thinks the public is ready for this. He quotes his co-author Khenin, who likes to say that “politicians don’t jump into pools that are empty. It’s the job of initiatives outside the political system to fill the pool for them.”

Dov Khenin in Tel Aviv, May 2019. He likes to say that “politicians don’t jump into pools that are empty.” Credit: Meged Gozani

I ask Khenin – who, during his 13 years as the Hadash party’s only Jewish lawmaker, earned admiration from politicians from across the board for the 100-plus pieces of legislation he introduced, and for his ability to create coalitions to pass many of those bills into law – if pool-filling is indeed what Standing Together is trying to do.

“The goal of Standing Together is not just to fill the pool for the politicians. Its purpose is to fill the pool with water for people who want to swim in another direction,” he responds.

Prof. Lev Grinberg, another political scientist at Ben-Gurion University, notes that the creation of the Joint List actually “destroyed any possibility of significant cooperation between Jews and Arabs. No Zionist party was going to go together with Balad or the Islamic Movement. What happened was that the law forced all of the Arab parties to turn into the representative of ‘the Arab public’ in its entirety.”

Indeed, by hammering away at the message that a vote for Kahol Lavan would be a vote for a government including the Joint List (with the perennial bogeyman Ahmad Tibi serving as a synecdoche for the entire Arab slate), Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu maneuvered the Kahol Lavan leader Gantz into vowing never to do such a thing ahead of the March election.

When parties spend all their time trying to get elected, the minimum of time is spent dealing with issues. “You don’t see the parties active among the people,” says Maisam Jaljuli, a Standing Together activist and Hadash representative in the Na’amat women’s organization. “They don’t try to recruit a civilian force beyond the elections, one that will be involved in long-term processes, in demonstrations. … You don’t have youth movements that are connected to parties. There aren’t strong local branches that can spark activity in the field.”

Jaljuli believes this is evidence of the need for “a strong popular movement that can begin to get things going from below, at the citizens’ level. The change only takes place if it’s shared,” he says. “You need to bring in as many people as possible from every part of society: Jews, Arabs, religious, secular, Ethiopians, Russians. Everyone has to be involved in the process.”

Protesters at a Standing Together rally in Israel.Credit: Standing Together

Neither Standing Together and Zazim, it should be said, endorsed a party in the recent election. That’s not what they are about. For one thing, says Abed, “it’s illegal” for a nonprofit to do so. But mainly, he observes, “our holistic view prevents us from affiliating with a particular party.”

They are by no means the only grassroots organizations for Arabs and Jews in Israel. One can also add many dozens of nongovernmental organizations, such as the New Israel Fund, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel and B’Tselem. These groups bring professional expertise to bear on many of the same issues as the two citizens groups. Abed, who identifies as a Palestinian Israeli, is from the village of Mi’ilya, near the Lebanese border. She discovered Standing Together after returning to Israel in 2015 from the United States, where she studied at Earlham College in Indiana.

“I was very frustrated, very frustrated,” she recounts of her return, “because there was nothing for me here. Not as a woman, not as a Palestinian. Not as an Israeli citizen. I didn’t have any framework where I could actually work, a platform where I could meet other people who shared my interests, or my aspirations.” When she discovered Standing Together, it offered “this hub of activism, where you can find people who have shared interests with you, and it’s like being under this one big umbrella that organizes you officially.”

Sally Abed at a Standing Together demonstration in Israel.Credit: Standing Together

Abed emphasizes the movement’s refusal “to have or to claim moral superiority, that we do what we’re doing because we think you’re wrong or are racist. Obviously, we don’t have a problem calling out people like [Yamina lawmaker Bezalel] Smotrich when he’s racist or homophobic or whatever. But when you’re trying to build a popular movement that’s actually going to make a radical social change along the way, you cannot assume moral superiority. You can only invite people in and work with them on shared interests that you have, hoping that you will create a true partnership along the way.”

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