Partnering Across Divides to Promote Social Cohesion and Strengthen Israel

Photo courtesy Ruach Tova
Photo courtesy Ruach Tova

By Sharon Tal and Mike Prashker

The building of sustainable partnerships has always been as challenging as it is essential to human progress. Countless aspects of our personal, professional, communal and national lives depend on our ability to partner. This in turn relies on our capacity to communicate.

While always so, this has never been truer than today. In our unprecedentedly crowded and interconnected world the majority of us live in close proximity with “others” who look, speak, think, pray, eat, celebrate and even want to go to the beach, differently. In this reality, effective communication between diverse groups and their effective partnering, become all the more urgent even as they become still more challenging.

Given its distinct history it is no surprise that Israel shares this challenge with the great majority of modern states.

Of Israel’s 8.5 million citizens, around 80 per cent are Jewish and 20 per cent are Palestinian Arabs, primarily Sunni Muslims. However the complexity does not end there. In addition to small Druze and Christian Arab communities, Israel’s Jewish citizens are themselves highly diverse. Around 20 per cent of all Israel’s citizens are Russian-speaking, relatively recent immigrants. The majority of Israel’s Jewish citizens originate from across the Arab world and Africa, and the rest are primarily of Eastern European extraction. As highlighted in the March 2016 Pew Report reviewing relations within Israeli society; religious-secular, Jewish-Arab and other internal tensions are significant cause for concern.

In Israel these tensions are not merely theoretical, they affect freedom of worship and all major life rituals, but also day to day practicalities. One Sunday earlier this month – the busiest day of Israel’s commuting week – the entire train network was disrupted by the question of whether essential repairs can be conducted on Shabbat – and who gets to decide.

In Israel there are, fortunately, a growing number of social, economic, and educational initiatives that have made strengthening social cohesion their goal. The Good Deeds Day-Kulanana initiative is one of these. It specifically addresses aspects of social cohesion relating to low levels of inter-group familiarity, trust, sense of common civic purpose and cooperation.

Currently completing the second of a five year pilot, the initiative already constitutes a community of some 70 nonprofits that have completed 20 twinning projects and one regional nonprofit forum this year alone. Sustainable partnerships are nurtured between nonprofits that have never before cooperated and traditionally serve different communities. These are grounded on three principles: A common recognition of the value of the citizenship all Israelis share; respect for the diversity that characterizes Israeli society and; a shared appreciation that working together across divides for a fairer society is a moral imperative and critical for Israel’s long-term success.

By way of example, within the growing Kulanana nonprofit community: “Kemach” and “Tzofen” are partnering to identify shared barriers and opportunities to increase employment among Haredi and Arab citizens of Israel. Currently making up 50% of Israeli first graders, the future of Israel is intimately tied to the employment horizons of both these communities and their mutual relations.

Meanwhile, “The Yaacov Herzog Center” and “Bina” are bringing together secular and religious Mechina students to learn about Judaism and build mutual recognition. Down in the Negev, “New Dawn” and “Community Stage in Kremim” are bringing together a group of Jewish and Bedouin leaders to devise and lead joint regional projects between Rahat and Bnei Shimon Regional Council.

In Jerusalem “A Studio of Her Own” and “The Center for Independent living” – two neighborhood nonprofits with no previous connection – are helping Jerusalemites with disabilities and other under-served residents of Jerusalem’s Katamon neighborhood to get to know each other through joint art classes and activities.

Back down South, fifteen nonprofits in the Greater Chicago Partnership 2000 region have participated in a regional forum; building new levels of understanding, common purpose and local cooperation. All the while, all the nonprofits within the Kulanana community meet together regularly to strengthen Israel’s civic fabric.

The initiative is run by the nonprofit Ruach Tova in partnership with Merchavim, which first conceived Kulanana back in 2008. The growing Kulanana community is led by The Ted Arison Family Foundation together with a growing consortium of philanthropic partners. A strategic partnership with Israel’s Ministry of Social Equality, recently announced by Minister Gila Gamliel, is being established.

Happily, The Good Deeds Day community is set to expand to around 120 nonprofits in January, implementing some 40 twinning projects and five regional and mission-driven nonprofit forums; designed to dove-tail with the specific social cohesion priorities of our multiple funding partners. This growth is accompanied by ongoing evaluation and a growing body of success stories is shared on international, national and local media platforms. These stories of fruitful partnership across divides provide much needed hope for a better shared future for Israelis of all backgrounds and all those invested in Israel’s future.

While there is a very long way to go, as members of civil society we must do this work together – nonprofits, philanthropy and government, Israelis and international stakeholders in Israel’s future – based on the conviction that civil society can play an historic role strengthening the fabric of Israeli society. This really can happen provided we ourselves learn to partner in ever more effective ways.

Sharon Tal is the Director of Ruach Tova. Mike Prashker is Senior Advisor for Strategic Partnerships to the Ted Arison Family Foundation.