Israel Heading Toward a Silenced, Paralyzed Society

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The blow would be hardest for organizations whose role is to defend vulnerable groups, including; those living below the poverty line, the elderly, women, and people with disabilities.

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The proposed reforms of the judicial system, including placing limits on locus standi – the right of public petitioners to appeal to the High Court of Justice against infringements of human rights – and the enactment of an override clause, would have a serious impact on civil society organizations, and especially on their delicate and vital relations with governmental agencies and institutions.

The blow would be hardest for organizations whose role is to defend vulnerable groups, including; those living below the poverty line, the elderly, women, and people with disabilities – many of whose rights were first recognized or protected in Supreme Court rulings, in response to petitions filed by civil society organizations.

This is so, because the proposed changes would bar these organizations from seeking redress for injustices, thus preventing them from promoting justice and equality for these groups, or indeed, for all of us. But the assault on civil society organizations goes much further. The discourse against them, and the idea that they are “dangerous and hostile,” has ballooned to the point where women’s and LGBTQ organizations, groups representing different streams of Judaism, and even those organizations that work with the disabled, have come to be viewed as part of the existential threat to the state of Israel.

To this should be added the planned structural modifications, which will split up units responsible for the ties between civil society organizations and the authorities. The Unit for Intersectoral Collaborations in the Prime Minister’s Office and the External Programs Unit in the Education Ministry are two such examples.

The scope of civic action, situated on the seamline between the family, the state, and the free market, where citizens can band together to work on a voluntary basis and influence the public sphere, is an essential foundation for a democratic regime. Today there are some 20,000 registered nonprofit organizations in Israel, providing an extensive arena for various ideas and diverse perceptions of the public interest.

These organizations push for social change, initiate and develop social services, and make them available to many sectors of society, and especially to the disadvantaged. They place important issues on the public agenda and call for action to eliminate injustices. Given the understanding that it is vital to listen to, and partner with organizations that represent the public when formulating policies about it, they are frequently involved in the development, enactment, and implementation of government policy.

They also represent and provide services to a broad range of people, including young people lacking family support, the elderly who experience loneliness, Holocaust survivors who need medical and emotional support, and families living under the poverty line. These organizations work to make Israeli society more inclusive, more egalitarian, juster, and stronger for all citizens and residents; they constitute a major social force that helps the central government, local authorities, and communities to enhance the resilience of society as a whole.

A good example that civil society organizations are recognized as making an important contribution to the government’s work, was the establishment of the Unit for Intersectoral Collaboration. It was set up by a government resolution, passed in 2008, that called for strengthening collaborations between civil society, the business sector, and government. Even though it does not determine the form of ministries’ work and contracts with civil society organizations, it has a powerful effect on them. It advises ministries on the strategy for multisectoral processes, from the planning stage through implementation.

IN VIEW of the expanded definition as to who poses a threat to Israeli society, and the promise by members of the new coalition to “deal with” the organizations and activists as part of the “restoration of governance,” and the strengthening of “Jewish identity,” we can understand the link between the establishment of the Jewish Identity Administration in the Prime Minister’s Office and the subordination of the Unit for Intersectoral Collaboration to it.

In a democracy, civic engagement can – and in fact must – take place through diverse channels and in different forms, including some that are critical of and challenge the status quo, and even those that propose new ideas, approaches, and the provision of services adapted to the needs of many sectors.

This is why constraining the legal tools at the disposal of civil society organizations, accompanied by statements that sometimes question their right to express a position, not in line with that of the authorities, or even doubt their loyalty to the state, is a slippery slope.

This deterioration must be stopped now, with a warning against the harm to civil society as a whole. In a recent survey by the Viterbi Family Center for Public Opinion and Policy Research at the Israel Democracy Institute, most respondents, both Jews (59%) and Arabs (77%), were opposed to limiting the ability of civil society organizations to petition the High Court against violations of rights.

Evidently, many Israeli citizens are concerned about the proposed “reforms” and their potential impact on their lives – and rightly so. The key to a strong democratic regime, a robust and just society, and a stable economy is, first and foremost – a free civil society – one in which there is room for diverse opinions and that is not based on violent and angry discourse.

The processes described above, along with the following growing trends, all pose a grave danger to Israeli society: the ongoing efforts at delegitimization; bad-mouthing on social media; the division into “good” and “bad” organizations; the damage to collaborative projects built with great effort between government agencies and civil society organizations that represent vulnerable population groups; and the restriction of the legal tools available to civil society organizations.

The direction that is emerging is toward a civil society that is mobilized, silenced, and paralyzed. Is this what all of us, as Israeli citizens, aspire to? Is that what we want for ourselves and our children?

The article was first published in the Jerusalem Post.