Can’t we get along?

Israeli president launches new dialogue project to get country out of current ‘nosedive’

Program will use national network of community centers to foster healthy discourse within and between different groups

In April, Israeli President Isaac Herzog launched a new initiative, Kol Ha’am, to address growing tensions between Israel and Diaspora Jewry. Now, he is looking inward with a new program meant to mend the expanding rifts within Israel itself.

“If we can only know how to prepare the infrastructure that will allow us to meet with each other, talk with and listen to each other, we will be able to exit this nosedive into which we have fallen, and to build up the country for generations to come,” Herzog said in a speech at a launch event for the new program at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on Monday.

“This initiative is a real revolution. I believe in all of us, it’s in our hands,” he said.

Herzog said the initiative – dubbed “Dialogue in the Community” in English, and “Mahlifim Mila BaKehila” in Hebrew – was meant to create a “a laboratory of constructive disputes and dialogue, a laboratory in which tens and hundreds of thousands of Israelis, who face challenges every day, will take part and know how to formulate answers for our shared future.”

This five-year program will be done in partnership with the Israel Association of Community Centers, a government body that runs a network of community centers – commonly known by the Hebrew acronym Matnas, standing for Culture, Youth and Sport Centers – throughout the country.

“Kol Ha’am was outward looking. This is looking within the house, here in Israel,” Adaya Leibovitch, director of the President’s Office, who is spearheading the effort, told eJewishPhilanthropy.

It is an expansion of an existing program being run by the president, “Mahlifim Mila,” which literally means “exchanging a word.” Until now, those efforts have been run out of the President’s Residence and only on a small scale. This new stage is meant to encourage dialogue and “build national social resilience” more broadly.

“[The president] doesn’t have the ability to reach everyone, so we are using our partnership with the matnasim,” Leibovitch said. “They can reach different populations, in different areas and of different ages.”

In addition to reaching a wide array of people, relying on the community centers, whose leaders are tapped in to local issues, should allow the program to be better adapted to the needs of the participants. “The leadership of the community centers will work to identify social difficulties within the community and between neighboring communities and provide adapted solutions to restore respectful mutual discourse between populations, work for deep rooted social change and initiate meaningful connections within the community and outside of it,” the President’s Office said in a statement.

This was echoed by the CEO of the Israel Association of Community Centers, Tal Basachs, who also spoke at the launch event. “We live and feel the ‘pulse’ of Israeli society and deal every day with learning about each other and about the challenges of our shared lives here,” he said. “We are embarking on a huge social project today, and in five years we will be able to look back with pride at the many hundreds of projects and actions that we will have led all over the country, in order to nurture a more moderate, more accepting and more inclusive Israeli society.”

Leibovitch said the President’s Office plans to expand its partnerships for Mahlifim Mila beyond the, to the Education Ministry, Israel Police and Israel Defense Forces. 

“We want to reach as many people as possible. To do that we have to take advantage of all the big organizations that we can,” she said.

The “Dialogue in the Community” program will include “hundreds of initiatives, events, and meetings to encourage respectful dialogue within and between communities” over the next five years, the president’s office said in a statement.

According to Leibovitch, this includes dialogue sessions held by and at community centers, branded mobile “connection vans,” which will function “like food trucks, but instead of food… we can use them to set up activities,” as well as a new program, IsraelGraffiti, which uses graffiti to address social issues.

The dialogue sessions are already underway and will be the easiest to roll out as the community centers already offer similar programs, Leibovitch said. The graffiti program and “connection vans” will take slightly longer, but Leibovitch said the plan is to have them up and running by the end of the summer or at least within the next few months.

The program has a government budget of $809,000 for the next five years, but Leibovitch said the President’s Office expects the local community centers to do additional fundraising for some initiatives and programs.