Allison in Israel: Day 2

by Allison Fine

Day 2 in Israel was jam packed and action filled!

The day began with a Tweet Up organized by Dan Brown of eJewish Philanthropy. Participants included Charlie Kalech (who very kindly tried for a long time, alas in vain, to get my iPhone working, stupid AT&T!), Margot Stern, Miriam, Schwab and Florence Broder just to name a few (apologies to folks I left out.)

They described the current state of Israeli use of social media for change to me. There is a huge amount of texting going on, and Facebook is also huge. The use of Twitter is low, they surmised, because widespread use of smart phones is just beginning. One very interesting notion shared was the idea that Americans are much more individualistic than Israelis, more likely to put their ear buds in and be in isolation in the world. While Israelis find that offensive in public. I’ve certainly noticed when I’m speaking that people (including students!) are not also looking at their screens, big and small, like their American counterparts. It’s refreshing to be with people’s whose attention is actually with me not divided into a bunch of bytes.

I then went to the American Center to speak with staff people of NGOs. It was a wonderfully enthusiastic group and I loved participating with them as they asked questions and poked around to figure out ways that they can move their organizations more into the connected age.

That was followed by a discussion at Shatil, the capacity building arm of the New Israel Fund. They provide assistance to advocates around the country. I had a huge AHA moment during this meeting. Advocates for public policy change educate and mobilize the public to persuade their elected officials to support legislative changes, right? Well, actually in a parliamentary system it doesn’t work that way. Parties are elected not individuals. And once elected they horse trade with one another to create ruling coalitions. Those coalitions aren’t really beholden to individual citizens.

I was taken aback by this changed definition of advocacy. If you can’t put pressure on individual lawmakers, what can you do? I was a bit stumped by this during the meeting. Certainly advocates can educate the public and encourage them to support parties that support the legislation they’re interested in. But it certainly does seem more removed as a strategy than direct advocacy of lawmakers. I would love to learn what other advocates are doing in parliamentary systems around the world.

We then went to the Knesset – yes THE Knesset – to talk to a few aides about the use of social media in political campaigns and government.

[Aside: We went through extensive security to enter the Knesset. The Israeli guard going through the pockets of my computer bag looked at me midsearch and said, “I see you have snakes in your bag?” Turns out she meant snacks! And, yes, I did because heaven forbid I miss a meal somewhere on the trip!]

Even though we had just had the conversation about voting for parties not people, I was still dumbfounded to learn that these aides, and their bosses, don’t feel that they [have] “constituents.” They are responsible for the party and their main goal, it seems, is to keep crawling up the ranks of the party slate to ensure that they stay as members of the Knesset. Here’s how the conversation went:

Me: It’s important to close the gap between elected officials and their constituents, and social media can help that to happen.

Aide: But we don’t have these constituents.

Me: Pardon?

Aide: We don’t have individual people out there we report to.

Me: But people voted for you. There are voters, right?

Aide: They are voters for the parties. We are members of the parties. We are trying to move up the slate of candidates so that we are most likely to get a seat depending on the votes.

Me: Really?

Aide: Yes, of course, that is how it works here in Israel. We are not so worried about voters as you are in America.

Me: Huh…..

You can see that I really help my end of that conversation up well. I’m going to chalk it up to being tired at the end of a long day that I didn’t realize this until they said it. But it was pretty stunning to hear and a bit hard to refocus my thinking and examples on using social media for elected officials who aren’t really interested in impressing a core set of voters. Cory Booker using Twitter to respond to requests to shovel snow from the driveway of voters, for instance, didn’t really resonant.

It did feel as though the members of the Knesset, and government in general, is where US gov. and nonprofits were about three or four years [ago] with social media. There are some early adopters, but, for the most part, they simply aren’t there yet. The good news for them is that when they’re ready, the examples and open source systems they can build on, like Ushahidi, are out there to be used.

My final reflection from Day 2 is that I am seeing some pattern to the questions I’m being asked. Here are the top three from the most asked to the least:

  1. Is this your first visit to Israel? I am asked this by every person I speak to, from the hotel clerk to the taxi driver to waiter to NGO staffer. Everyone want to eagerly welcome a newcomer to Israel. Alas, it’s actually my third trip, but I appreciate the enthusiasm.
  2. Where is all this social media heading? Answer: I have no idea, nobody does, and if I did, I’d be really, really rich!
  3. Do you know my cousin who works at that NGO in San Francisco? No, I don’t know that cousin, but I do know your friends first wife? And they know my colleague from Washington, DC, in fact, they’re related to that colleague by marriage! It really is a small country and everyone truly is related to everyone else. It does feel less individualistic here, it’s just different, and interesting.

Allison Fine is a social entrepreneur and writer dedicated to helping grassroots organizations and activists successfully implement social change efforts. She is the co-author, with Beth Kanter, of the bestselling book, The Networked Nonprofit. Allison spent the past week visiting Israel as a guest of the U.S. Embassy’s Office for Public Affairs. Here, in a series of posts, are her observations.

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