Israel 2021: The People Find Their Voice

Last Thursday evening, round tables were set up throughout Israel, where disparate groups of people met, shared complaints and ideas - and discussed how to seize the day and make real change.

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In Jerusalem, the hard of hearing kept track of the discussions by reading subtitled real-time transcriptions on computer screens. In Safed, the round tables were packed with snacks and in Tel Aviv, one discussion centered on bicycles instead of cars. In Katzrin the participants spread white tablecloths on the tables and in Beit Shemesh they didn't want to leave, eager to expand still further on the main topic that united people up and down Israel on Thursday night: taking the long-term view, to the year 2021 and beyond - how to make life in Israel better.

Round-table discussion in Tel Aviv, December 8, 2011.Credit: Haaretz

There were glitches and disappointments. Yet the 2021 Round Tables event on Thursday night attested yet again to how hungry the people are to work together to bring change.

Two years after TheMarker launched the 2021 Initiative, to involve the people in improving life in Israel and change the public debate, the concern remains acute. People are worried about their economic and social future in the Israel of tomorrow.

Thursday evening's simultaneous round-table discussions up and down the country were arranged by a coalition of 40 partners. Their purpose was to encompass as many segments of the population as possible in the debate - and encourage the participants to formulate initiatives on the burning topics of the day, find partners in their vision and build a platform to turn their visions into reality.

More than 10,000 people joined the discussions: men and women, religious and secular, Jews and Arabs, young and aged, city and village dwellers. They share a common element: dissatisfaction with the current order and the desire to take practical steps.

A yearning for solidarity is palpable. It turns out that when thinking together about how to improve quality of life, it is easy to find common ground. That is evident too from the vast array of organizations that helped organize Israel 2021 this December: Not only are they geographically diverse, their goals are too. These organizations helped find venues, provided tables and chairs, helped recruit mediators for the debates and broadcast the events on the Internet.

Round-table discussion in Jerusalem, December 8, 2011.Credit: Haaretz

For years the public sat back and let a small clique of people control the public discourse - elected officials in government and unelected people in business. No more. The time has come to add "the public" to the phrase "the public discourse."

Empowered in Yeruham

At 5:30 P.M., half an hour before the scheduled beginning, I thought it would never happen. It began to rain and the electricity kept blacking out. Yet at 6:15 the community center hall began to fill and a quarter-hour later there wasn't a seat left at the five tables. From age 14 to 80, new immigrants and sabras, city workers and academics and blue-collar workers sat and shared ideas.

"Rotten politicians," "waste of time," "nothing will ever change" were replaced by a new discourse: What we can do, and how.

A girl named Sivan who works for the government in a training job led a discussion on young leadership, starting with the difference between leadership and management. Everybody had an opinion. The discussion took a practical turn: Would Yeruham benefit from external, professional management or a local leader? The decision: Management and leadership skills are paramount and if located in a local, all the better, but that isn't a must.

Round-table discussion in Beit Shemesh, December 8, 2011.Credit: Haaretz

What is the main barrier to a better life? Government? Budgets? After a debate on deprivation and the responsibility of Jerusalem, the narrative in Yeruham took a new direction: Whoever is to blame, the question is what to do to make things better. Most agreed that the absence of common denominators among the residents leads to narrow-interest politics that divide the people.

Conclusion: Formulate common goals.

Yeruham, with 9,500 residents, is Israel: diverse groups, divided politically. Any number of external elements make life in the town difficult. Yet its residents chose on Thursday night to look inward and think how they can make a difference. Helplessness and apathy vanished on Thursday night in Yeruham. The social cost-of-living protests in the summer helped empower the people: If the local Super-Sol charges too much, the people know now they can organize.

Come to Umm al-Fahm first

The real debate in Umm al-Fahm began after the round tables were packed up, by the door. The intellectual moderates were disturbed. Dozens of five-year plans have been written for the Arab Israeli city. Promises have been given out like candy. Yet nothing ever happens, they mourned.

Round-table discussion in Acre, December 8, 2011.Credit: Haaretz

Finding the community center was challenging in a town where not everybody speaks Hebrew. Three groups clustered around the round tables: teachers, social workers, representatives of nonprofit organizations, welfare officers, students, high-tech people and more. Fewer women came than men, but their voices were heard.

One table discussed employment, a second old age, the third discussed the young. All maintained restraint, and all agreed that solving Umm al-Fahm's problems should start with better regulation of the industrial zone; setting up an employment center to help the young find jobs - and help them throughout the first year, so they don't give up when the going gets rough; and raise awareness of financial assistance for starting businesses.

For the aged, they agreed on creating a protected employment environment to enhance their small pension stipends, typically less than NIS 2,000 a month. That's a common problem in the Arab sector. Construction workers and agriculture workers tend not to accrue pension savings and come old age, they live in poverty, depending on family - which have difficulties of their own - for help.

At the table discussing the young, they talked about the importance of volunteer work to beautify the city (and cool down the adolescents ), and suggested creating common clubs from different neighborhoods to overcome violent territoriality.

Yet the real show began at the snacks table, some 90 minutes after the talks began. A bitterness took shape, after 60 years of discrimination. "We have plenty of plans," says Ftahiya Agbaria, who works for city hall. "But we don't have the basic resources to implement them. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee has been very helpful but there are hardly any government budgets."

Round-table discussion in Yeruham, December 8, 2011.Credit: Haaretz

Just promises of budgets, chimes in Abu Ayman, a local elder. "I tell people, come to us. Thousands of people drive through Wadi Ara every day but none come in. Do come in and then drive on to Afula. We won't have to explain anything any more."

TheMarker: People don't come in because they think Umm al-Fahm is hostile.

"Like in the Jewish sector, we have everything here," Ayman answers. "Women and men, aged and children, religious and secular, more educated and less educated, radicals and moderates. We have a bad name, but it isn't warranted. How can you blame people who have no public park for families that want a weekend outing? Where the industrial zone has been paralyzed by bureaucracy, where there is no public transport because no company wants to work here?"

Every family has two cars because they have no choices, but they're air-befouling clunkers. Even building the community center took 12 years from plan to execution, he says.

City hall has a budget of NIS 200 million a year, but only NIS 40 million originates in municipal taxes because the population is poor. Some 40% of the population is school age and because they study in Arabic, not Hebrew, they have difficulty getting work.

Umm al-Fahm is emblematic of the problems plaguing the Israeli Arab community. The city has plenty of people who would like to learn and work, and live a normal life, insofar as is possible in a country like Israel. For a weak population to help themselves, they need crutches, budgets and expert advice.

Legal aid in Taibeh

Taibeh has about 100 lawyers. Eight of them attended the Round Tables event on Thursday night and agreed that the city badly needs to be shaken awake. One suggested taking 10 lawyers and instilling them with the motivation to change the reality. Lawyers know how to use the system.

It won't be easy: "Despair rules here," explains event organizer Rada Jabar. People have despaired of the petty politics, nationally and locally. Social solidarity has been eroding year by year: Crime is rampant and the schools are poor, he says.

That last point is what the lawyers finally focused on: The classrooms are crowded and the means inadequate. "Every Jewish school has a guard at the entrance protecting the children and teachers. We have no guard. Every morning I would see what the junkies left behind," says Tibi Mohammed Amin, who taught school for 26 years. "We want our children to be good citizens of Israel. But the education system here puts out crooked people, not honest ones."

The participants were reluctant to personally undertake to spur change, though they agreed it's needed. They don't have much free time: They need to make a living and what volunteer work they do is at the expense of the family. But Jabar is optimistic. The Israel Bar Association has a meeting place for the town's lawyers: It could be a model for other professions, who could meet and lead change, he suggests.

Emotions run high in Beit Shemesh

Ten men and women stayed at their table as the rest of the hall packed it in. They were teachers and parents discussing the state of education in Beit Shemesh schools. "We will sit here till the table turns round," one stated.

The Israel 2021 initiative has made the people involved in solving Beit Shemesh's problems, says Richard Peres, head of education and community centers at city hall. "I mean to take the papers produced here. They will guide me in executing my authority to make policy in the city," he says, and challenges: "Watch me. See me do it."

Zevulun Orlev was there and attended the parents-teachers round table: "If I'd been sitting with five professors I wouldn't have learned what I learned here," he told TheMarker. "They discussed issues such as equality in the education system, opening registration areas and after-school day care."

People were discussing the real problems they have in real life, the Knesset member said.

Education, however, is secondary to another burning issue: the "Haredization" of Beit Shemesh. Whole neighborhoods are turning observant, leading to conflicts with the secular population. Yet on Thursday night, Haredim and non-observant sat together at the round tables. Voices did rise high: "How can you want me to do anything social with Haredim?" shouted one man. "They don't even recognize me as a Jew."

"Emotions ran high," reported Rabbi Shmuel Pappenheim, former editor of the Haedah newspaper of the extremist ultra-Orthodox Edah Haharedit organization, which doesn't even recognize Israel. "But we have to sit together. I don't know why we haven't done it before today ... it could lead to change in the way the groups view each other. We have to learn to live together."

With reporting by Nathan Lipson, Oren Majar, Guy Rolnik, Tali Heruti-Sover, Hagai Amit and Nati Tucker