Israel’s Democratic Recession: The challenge for NGOs

Sitting in an air-conditioned office with the evening sun beating hard on my back, I came across an interesting phrase. We were speaking to Naomi Chazan, former Deputy Speaker of the Knesset and former President of the New Israel Fund. Having outlined many of the challenges facing the state, she described Israel as undergoing a ‘democratic recession’. This term struck me. It hit the nail on the head. Israel is still a democracy, at least within the Green Line, but certain cornerstones of this democracy are being threatened, their place less secure than they previously have been.


Hearing Naomi Chazan speak at the New Israel Fund office in Jerusalem

For many years now, Israel has been shifting more to the right. This fact itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing, at least in regard to the strength of Israeli democracy. What’s concerning, however, is how these right-wing governments are able to pass laws that chip away at the democratic foundations of the state. This includes the recently-passed Law which allows Knesset members to eject a fellow Knesset member, despite how democracy appointed this individual. Similarly, the NGO Bill is a piece of legislation designed to undermine the work of NGOs, the vast majority of which are human rights organisations which criticise government policy.

The work that these NGOs do is not only a crucial aspect of democracy, but also provides much-needed support to all kinds of communities throughout Israel. This was something we had the opportunity to witness in our ten day experience. From headline grabbing organisations such as Women of the Wall or Breaking the Silence, to smaller community projects, I discovered how important such organisations are to promoting change and creating a fairer country. It is many of these organisations that the current government is trying to stifle. Human rights activists are painted in Israel as traitors to state. There has been an incredibly effective PR campaign whereby anyone associated with the New Israel Fund has been tarnished. But these organisations are crucial for democracy to function.


The fellowship met with Women of the Wall Director Anat Hoffman

We in the UK are lucky in that we live in a society whereby civil society is strong and generally un-threatened. Unfortunately, in Israel, this is increasingly not the case. One of the pillars of democracy is beginning to crumble. As a British Jew this troubles me. I care strongly for Israel, and wish to defend it. However, for me, defending the state is not about blind acceptance of all of its faults, but about striving for a better, more open society in which NGOs are not threatened, but accepted as part of a strong and thriving state. To truly love something, there must be understanding and awareness of its flaws. This is my attitude towards Israel. By travelling there and experiencing for myself its many challenges, I returned a more aware individual. Ten days in a country is not enough to understand every single complex issue area, but it has given me a strong desire as a Diaspora Jew, to strive to strengthen the democratic foundations upon which Israel was founded.

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An Unexpected Yom Ha’atzmaut

By Josh ‘JT’ Traurig

This Yom Ha’atzmaut was quite possibly one of the most random but amazing and inspiring Yamim I have had in a very long time. It combined so many different aspects of my life into one day that I felt truly inspired by it. For the first time in my life I spent a serious amount of time learning about and discussing Mizrachi culture in Israel. I never realised to the fullest extent the experience of the Mizrachi communities during their Aliyot and their general experience of the culmination of the Zionist enterprise (i.e. Israel). I never quite grasped just how much Ashkenazi privilege there was in the State of Israel (a place that was meant to be a ‘Light Unto the Nations’ and be a beacon of equality and social justice). I’m still not sure that it was intentionally set up that way or whether it was an unfortunate by-product of Ben-Gurion’s Zionism.

Drori cooking

What do I mean by this? I mean that at the beginning of the Modern Zionist enterprise it was a predominantly Ashkenazi movement. The modern philosophers of Zionism, the first waves of Aliyot and the first establishments in Israel were all Ashkenazi. What did this mean for those then who came from Arab and Muslim countries? It meant that when these communities started arriving into the Yishuv they were sent to the periphery. They were sent to start up new communities in the most isolated places. Their seemed to be a perception that they were the brothers and sisters of the Ashkenazim but they were somehow lower. A few reasons have been suggested for this: the Mizrachim relied more on Oral Tradition (folklore) rather than written tradition, Mizrachim spoke Arabic and had appropriated Arabic music into their prayer and cultural song. Was this something that the Ashkenazim consciously thought about as they greeted their supposed brothers and sisters? I’m not sure. I’m not even sure they would know if I could ask them today.

But isn’t this just history? Isn’t this just a thing of the past that we can learn from and simply move on? Unfortunately not. The effects of sending the Mizrachim to the periphery are still felt today. Currently a Jew in Israel of Ashkenazi descent is twice as likely to go to university than their Mizrachi counterpart. There are still fewer Mizrachi representatives in the Knesset. There are still only a few pages in school history textbooks that discuss Jews of Mizrachi descent and their journey to Israel. What does this tell us? I think that it tells us that Israeli society (although admittedly it has been getting better in the last few decades) doesn’t see the Mizrachi culture as equal to the Ashkenazi. Mizrachim are identified with Arabs, which are supposed to be the “enemy”. How can it be that they are equal if they speak, sing and act like the “enemy”? It’s because they grew up in those countries! It’s because that’s where they are from and that should be ok!

On Thursday night I had the absolute pleasure of cooking and eating with Drori Yehoshua (along with his daughter, Graham Carpenter and Tom Francies). Drori is an Israeli of Kurdish descent (i.e. a Kurdish-Mizrachi-Israeli Jew) and an activist for the promotion of Mizrachi culture and thought. Drori wanted to share with us a traditional Kurdish dish, Kubbeh. Step-by-step, he took us through how to make the dish (which, by the way, was amazing). The joy on his face as he was showing us how to make Kubbeh was unparalleled. He loved sharing his culture with us. But he didn’t just see it as his culture, he saw it as part of the wider Jewish culture and therefore as ours. His main point was that whether a dish, idea or song has its origin in Ashkenazi or Mizrachi culture, it is all Jewish. It is all ours. I fell in love with this idea. As a cultural Jew, I want to draw on as much of our culture as possible (whether that be Ashkenazi or Mizrachi).

Drori cooking 2

Over dinner Drori shared his story. He shared how he works with under-privileged youth, prisoners going through rehabilitation and with Arab-Israelis. He explained how he sees the Mizrachi community as the perfect bridge between Jews and Arabs. He explained how, even during the recent turmoil in Israel, he refused to be driven by a Jew and would only get into an Arab taxi (with the condition that they talk about their fears the “other” the entire journey).

As we said good night, Drori gave me a hug. Actually it was more than just a hug. It was an embrace. It was as if through that embrace he was trying to convey his love for me as a fellow Jew and fellow human being. Even though I only met him for a few hours, I was enchanted by this incredible person. I’m not sure if our paths will ever cross again but all I can do is hope that they will.  

JT is a Habonim Dror Movement Worker and plans to make Aliya in the autumn. He has just finished a week interning with NIF UK.

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An open, democratic society is willing to bear offence

By Gabriel Webber

Originally posted on the Times of Israel Blog on the 14/01/2016, found here.

In 2002, the IDF carried out Operation Defensive Wall. Aware that suicide bombings were being planned in the Jenin refugee camp, Israeli forces stormed it in one of the most hellish episodes in Israeli military history. Palestinian terrorists hid amongst civilians, laid booby-traps, threw Molotov cocktails. Ultimately, the IDF lost 23 soldiers, and there were 52 Palestinian casualties, half of them non-combatants.

Muhammad Bakri, a Palestinian film producer, visited the remnants of the camp a few weeks later, and interviewed residents to hear their reaction to what had taken place.

The resulting film, Jenin Jenin, was enormously offensive. Indescribably offensive. “The sins of the Gestapo in the concentration camps will seem as white as snow in light of the description of IDF activities in the movie” is how one Israeli viewer put it.

Interviewees accused soldiers of carrying out a deliberate and systematic massacre, targeting children and the disabled. They claimed that the camp had been shelled by aircraft, which was completely untrue as no aircraft were involved at all. And these were some of the milder allegations.

Israeli censors decided it was too offensive – especially to relatives of the deceased IDF troopers, who would be extremely distressed at seeing their dear departed falsely branded as war criminals – so they banned it.

Muhammad Bakri appealed to the Supreme Court, which unanimously overturned the ban, in a decision which is a shining beacon of Israeli democracy which should set an example not only to the despots of the Middle East but to the Western world as well.

The judges began by quoting Maimonides’ Guide to the Perplexed: “With intelligence shall man distinguish between the true and the false.” With intelligence, and not by being shielded from ‘dangerous’ views by an overbearing state. “An open, democratic society is willing to bear offence,” wrote Justice Dorner.

Not only must it bear offence, but it must take the risk of being exposed to untruths: “To permit the restriction of false expression would allow the authorities the power to distinguish between the true and the false and the power to substitute its own decisions for the decisions of the free market of ideas. Freedom of expression also includes the freedom to present facts and interpret them, even if many are certain that the presentation is erroneous and the interpretation deceiving.”

The judgement is long and detailed and repays reading in full.

But Justice Dorner, who retired in 2004, must be looking on with horror at current developments in Israel. At plans to force NGOs critical of the state to wear special badges. At plans to restrict their access to traditional fora for free speech. At incitement against them and self-serving claims of treason.

One legislator has even tabled a bill that would ban Breaking the Silence (a group of former IDF soldiers who share testimony of human rights abuses they witnessed while fighting for their country), outright, by name.

What other countries ban non-terrorist organisations by name? Egypt does. Lebanon does. Iran does. It’s always good to see Israel seeking good relations with its neighbours but this is taking regional integration too far.

If people don’t like what Breaking the Silence and B’Tselem and MachsomWatch have to say, they should disagree and argue back. If people think these groups are detrimental to Israel, they should seek to build support for their cause and speak louder. If people think these groups are spreading untruths, they should spread their truth.

Jenin Jenin was hideously offensive, and attacked, with vitriol, everything Israel stands for. I struggled to watch beyond the first few minutes, it was so ghastly. But still, I would rather live in a society that allows that sort of scalding criticism of the state than one which bans it (even if being grievously offended is the price).

Nothing that B’Tselem says or does is anything like as offensive as Jenin Jenin. It may be, as Elijah was, ‘a troubler of Israel’. But that’s democracy. Its participants are often troublemakers. Love B’Tselem or loathe it, Israel can definitely cope with it: the state has weathered far worse storms than human rights NGOs are capable of inflicting. The only reason to ban something is fear, and the State of Israel has a long and illustrious history of not being afraid.

Justice Procaccia also gave judgement in Muhammad Bakri’s Supreme Court case: “The false and the fraudulent should be confronted with the good and the true, and it is the latter that will ultimately prevail, taking its place among the rainbow of beliefs, ideals, and faiths of the free world.”

The freedom to disagree, criticise, scald, even vilify, is a freedom which finds its roots in Jewish tradition, and its wholehearted adoption by Israel is the country’s most important weapon in the fight against dictatorship, totalitarianism and evil.

It is a freedom and a heritage not worth abandoning just to stifle a couple of troublesome NGOs.

Gabriel is freelance journalist, and a recently ‘retired’ youth worker for LJY-Netzer, the youth movement of Liberal Judaism. He is also an elected member of the Board of Deputies of British Jews. He writes in a personal capacity.

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“Holot is a prison, but we are not criminals”

By Ben Reiff, participating on Shnat Netzer 2015/16.

Forewarning: this is gonna be long, but bear with it.

Our day began in Levinsky Park, South Tel Aviv. Anyone who’s visited the park before, as I did almost 3 years ago as a 16 year old on Israel Tour, will have vivid memories of the poverty and disrepair evident on all sides – a stark contrast to the affluent areas of Tel Aviv in which we had spent our previous two days. Our weekend prior to this point had been devoted to soaking up the liberal, secular vibes present in Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Square and Rothschild Boulevard, and doing our best to fit in at a Balkan Beat Box concert (an Israeli band whose music attracts only the very coolest of Israel’s youth).

More striking than the poverty, however, is the demographic in this area, which is unlike anywhere else in Israel. On arrival in the park, it became very apparent that we – myself, 2 other shnatties from RSY and one from Netzer Germany – were the only white people around. A bizarre non-verbal exchange occurred when the next white people arrived, as it became mutually clear that we must both be here for the same reason. The congregation of white people continued to grow before the organisers of the day’s trip arrived: a group of Israeli volunteer-activists who’ve formed an organisation called March For Freedom, which is involved in “the struggle for the freedom and rights of African asylum seekers and refugees in Israel”. South Tel Aviv is the main area of residence for Israel’s African refugees and asylum seekers; the reasons for which we would discover later on.

We got on the bus and the volunteers started to tell us more about their objectives and what the day was all about. They’ve been organising trips to Holot Detention Centre, our destination for the day, since the facility was opened in December 2013. The facility at any one time holds up to 3,360 Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers, who have fled their countries in fear of their lives. Holot, in the words of the Israeli government, is not a prison (even though it is managed by the Israeli Prison Services) but an “open residency centre” for African asylum seekers arriving across the Egyptian border with Israel. They say that its purpose is to disincentivise “infiltration” (seeking asylum in Israel) and to loosen the burden on Israel’s urban areas. The volunteers tell us that in reality it serves to break the spirits of the asylum seekers and coerce them into “willingly” leaving Israel, as it would violate UNHCR ruling to forcibly deport them. “We try to go there at least once a month to show them that they’re not forgotten, and to share their stories with the rest of the world,” one of them explained. “We seek to treat them as real humans.”

Before we go on, it is important to understand who exactly these asylum seekers are and what has caused them to flee their respective countries. While small numbers have arrived from other African countries such as Ethiopia, the Ivory Coast and Nigeria, the vast majority have come from Eritrea and Sudan – the two countries with whom Holot is concerned.


The biggest group arriving at Israel’s Egypt border are fleeing from Eritrea. Since Eritrea gained independence from Ethiopia in 1993 it has been governed by a totalitarian dictatorship led by President Isaias Afwerki. In 1994 Afwerki ordered that all boys be drafted into the army for a year and a half once they turn 17. Soon after this, he started to implement a process of indefinite detention whereby those drafted are never released, can’t see their families again and are slaves to the army generals, spending their days doing manual labour in underground facilities. Girls not married by the age of 18 are also drafted into the “army” to be sex slaves for the generals until they are deemed useless in that sense, at which point they are forced to become cooks.  Those who resist are brutally tortured into submission, and people frequently disappear. There is no freedom of speech – some 10,000 are imprisoned as “political prisoners” for expressing views that the dictatorship deems inappropriate – or freedom of movement. One witness in a UN report on conditions in Eritrea said “I feel that I cannot even think, because I’m afraid they might have access to my thoughts”.


While not in the same numbers as those coming from Eritrea, many thousands of people have arrived at the Egypt-Israel border after fleeing genocide in Sudan. War in the Darfur region of Sudan broke out in 2003, since which point the Sudanese military and police in alliance with the Janjaweed militia group have been carrying out a regime of ethnic cleansing of non-Arabs: rebels and civilians alike. An estimated quarter to a half a million people have been killed, while a further two to three million have been displaced. The raping of non-Arab women and young girls has been used systematically as a weapon of war.

As our journey continued, the volunteers began to explain Israeli law surrounding the issue of African asylum seekers arriving at the Egypt border. This has been frequently debated, altered and amended ever since the phenomena began in the second half of the 2000s, due to a power struggle between the Knesset and the Supreme Court, and a refusal by the government to see them as the refugees they are instead of economic migrants seeking to exploit Israel. I’ve tried to highlight the important rulings and amendments into a timeline for clarity of explanation:

  • Initially, the Israeli government tolerates the new arrivals. They are accepted into the country, but not as refugees: anyone arriving from Eritrea or Sudan is immediately granted “temporary group protection” status and receives a 3 month residency permit which must then be renewed at the end of that period. At the border they are given a one way bus ticket to South Tel Aviv and sent away, with no knowledge of the Hebrew language, no accommodation and no money.
  • As the numbers of asylum seekers arriving at the border increases, the government begins the construction of a fence to seal the border with Egypt, which is completed in 2013.
  • From this point, the government decides to send anyone arriving at the border from Sudan or Eritrea to the newly constructed Saharonim prison in the Negev for three years without trial.
  • The Supreme Court deems this disproportionate, and prohibits the government from being able to keep them there for more than one year. Following this they must be transferred to an “open” facility, and so the government starts building Holot next to the “closed” Saharonim.
  • The government passes a new law stating that all Eritrean and Sudanese men in Israel between the ages of 18-60, who don’t have other family members in Israel, can be “invited” to Holot upon coming to renew their temporary stay permit at the Interior Ministry. This includes men who’ve been living in Israel for more than five years in some cases. Any who attempt to evade this assembly are immediately sent to Saharonim without trial before being transferred to Holot. They are to be detained in these camps until they succumb to pressure and agree to “willingly” be deported back to third party African countries (Israel has agreements with both Uganda and Rwanda whereby these countries accept Israel’s African asylum seekers in exchange for a benefits package including arms, military knowledge and agricultural aid).
  • The government passes a law allowing them to detain those in Holot for 20 months. Now when people arrive at the border they are sent to Saharonim for three months and then detained in Holot for 20 months. This detention is purely administrative – the asylum seekers are not accused of any crime and they do not stand trial. Anyone suspected of breaking the rules of Holot will be transferred to Saharonim for an initial period of three months, with increasing sentences for repeat offenders. The new law also permits those inside Holot to file asylum claims: those outside of prison still cannot do this.
  • The Supreme Court again deems this disproportionate and reduces the maximum detention period from 20 months to 12 months.
  • Under Supreme Court ruling, over 1,000 men are released from Holot and handed 60 shekels to go and start or restart their lives in Israel. However, the government then forbids anyone being released from Holot from going to Tel Aviv or Eilat, even if this is where there lives were before they were detained.
  • The draft bill currently before the Knesset, now the 6th amendment to the “anti-infiltration law”, would permit the government to summon people to Holot even if they do have wives or children with them in Israel. It would also prevent them from appealing their cases to the Supreme Court.


Our arrival at Holot was very abrupt. The previous two hours of travel had shown us nothing but seemingly endless desert, until suddenly the camps were in sight. 6 metre high fences surrounded two separate facilities separated by the road along which we were entering the complex. We passed through a gate into a sandy courtyard-like area that resembled a miniature civilisation; there were food stalls, games areas, music blaring out of car speakers and hundreds of men – many with very visible scars on their faces and arms – wandering around, sitting down, chatting, buying and selling.

What we had just entered was the exterior of Holot Open Residency Centre. This area, outside of Holot’s perimeter fence, has been utilised by the detainees to create something of a normal life for themselves while they are being held in the facility. They are allowed to do as they please during the day but this is restricted by the fact that they have three roll-calls per day (one at 6am, one at noon and one in the evening) at which they must be present or they risk being transferred to the next door Saharonim prison. There is a 10pm curfew by which time the detainees must be back inside the fenced perimeter, and they must remain in their dormitories, each containing ten men, until morning.


As outsiders, we are not permitted to enter the premises of Holot, and so our day would be spent in the area immediately outside. Once out of the bus we sat down on some benches, as the volunteers arranged that some of the detainees they knew well from their regular meetings with them in Holot would share with us their stories. We heard from several men: some from Eritrea and some from Sudan, each with  unique and yet very similar stories. The first man we heard from is now free from Holot and had accompanied us on our trip from South Tel Aviv where he now lives, but the other stories we heard all came from current detainees. I’ve compiled their stories below (unfortunately none are accompanied by photos as the men fear that if their photo is put on the internet they will be seen as “anti-regime activists” in their home countries and thus will be killed if they ever had to return):

Mutasim: Sudan; ex-detainee

“As long as you are an African in Israel, you don’t belong here” says Mutasim, who fled the genocide in Darfur and has lived in Israel since 2009. He spent 14 months in Holot, and has now been free for six. Holot, Mutasim explains, breaks the spirits of the asylum seekers until they are ready to succumb to the constant pressure the government places on them to “choose” to  leave the country. He describes the conditions inside the facility as “horrible”, and tells us how the detainees are mistreated by the prison authorities. He explains that most people in Holot have been in Israel for more than 3 years and were summoned under recent amendments to the anti-infiltration law. Most also spent time in Saharonim upon entering Israel and were released with a bus ticket to South Tel Aviv. “It makes no sense to keep me in Holot and pay for my meals when there are people in South Tel Aviv eating from garbage,” he goes on. “The government has a moral obligation to deal with this in a fair way.”

Burus: Eritrea; detainee

Burus has spent the last 4 months in Holot. In 2010 he arrived in Israel from Eritrea, where he was a high school teacher. After being imprisoned numerous times for his political views he fled to a refugee camp in neighbouring Sudan where he and other refugees received a mere one day’s food before being abandoned. He found work doing manual labour in the capital city of Khartoum, and was encouraged by locals who had witnessed the journeys of countless refugees to travel to Europe to start a new life. At this point, however, the Mediterranean was being strictly policed and migrants attempting to cross stood little chance of reaching the other side without being caught and sent back. He turned his attention to Israel after hearing it described as “the only democracy in the Middle East”, and managed to reach the border after crossing the Sinai desert on foot. Upon entering Israel he was placed in Saharonim prison for one month and then given a bus ticket to South Tel Aviv. Once there, he met other Eritreans who had made the same journey, and they helped him find work and a place to live. After this he moved to Ra’anana, but was soon summoned to Holot. “Holot is a prison, but we are not criminals,” says Burus. “Every individual needs freedom; I don’t have this freedom in my country. We wait here in hope that tomorrow our country be in peace so we can return.”

Adam: Sudan; detainee

Adam was summoned to Holot in 2015 after having lived in South Tel Aviv for 4 years. His village in Darfur was burned down by the government, resulting in the deaths of his cousin and many of his friends. Adam and his surviving family moved to a different nearby village but were constantly targeted by militias, leading to Adam and his uncle deciding to flee to Khartoum. Here he was put in jail, and upon being released he headed to Israel. For over a year now he has been filling out different asylum forms and was even interviewed a few months ago, but he is still waiting for an answer. [At this point, one of the hundreds of men who had now gathered around our benches to see what was going on and listen to the stories being told started to shout over the softly spoken Adam, clearly feeling that Adam wasn’t doing a sufficient job at describing the conditions inside Holot. “We need a better life,” he yelled. “Water no good. Eating no good. Prison all the time. We are like animals in this place.” Other men attempted to calm him down, seeing that he was making us feel uncomfortable, as they didn’t want us thinking badly of them because of this one man.]

Daniel: Eritrea; detainee

Daniel came to Israel five years ago. He spent a year in an Eritrean army training camp after completing school, but he is quick to point out that army is not an accurate description of what the camp entails. He described how the young boys were slaves to the army generals, being beaten or tortured if they attempted to resist or challenge the men in charge. He told us about the President’s dictatorship, saying “you have no freedom to do what you want. You cannot go out or move around freely. They make you afraid.” After managing to flee the army, Daniel travelled up through Sudan and then paid a large sum of money to Bedouin smugglers in Egypt’s Sinai desert to help him reach the border with Israel. When we asked Daniel if, knowing everything he knows now about what awaited him in Israel, he would make the decision again to come here, he responded, “no way.”


As we wandered around the miniature civilisation on Holot’s doorstep, we learnt progressively more about what life is like inside the facility as and when we found detainees who were willing and able to speak English with us. We learnt that the water they have to use to clean themselves isn’t desalinated. We learnt that until very recently there was no heating or air conditioning in the dormitories (bear in mind the desert’s extremely hot days and extremely cold nights), and that even now only the guards have access to the remote controls. We learnt that sometimes the sewage pipes passing through the desert carrying sewage from the nearest town burst in the courtyard outside Holot and are not cleared up by the prison authority.

We learnt that the detainees each receive an allowance of 16 shekels a day. The closest city they can visit is Be’er Sheva, but a round trip to Be’er Sheva amounts to 40 shekels on the buses from the facility (it is forbidden to drive your own transport when you are being held at Holot even if you drove yourself there, so there are several cars abandoned outside the fence), and even if you do save up the money for a trip your time there is limited by the three daily roll-calls at which all detainees must be present. We learnt that the meals inside Holot consist invariably of either overcooked or undercooked rice, and that the medical care available to the detainees is far from adequate.

We also learnt that it is forbidden to learn Hebrew inside Holot, and anybody caught with a Hebrew book is sent to Saharonim. The volunteers explain that the reasons for this are twofold: firstly the government doesn’t want them planning for a life in Israel, and secondly it worries that detainees who learn Hebrew will be better able to file for asylum and additionally explain their situation to the wider Israeli public. And we learnt that although the government claims that all individual asylum requests will be evaluated on arrival at Holot, this is in fact not the case.

The biggest fear shared by many of Holot’s detainees is that they will be forced to undergo the government’s policy of “voluntary deportation”. The third party countries with whom Israel has arms agreements may be safer than the countries that have made the detainees refugees, but the process of them getting there and trying to restart their lives there is unquestionably dangerous. There are several hundred known cases of “voluntary deportees” being killed in their destination country. Many others have reportedly been captured by Isis on route to Libya where they were hoping to set sail for Europe, and even those whose relocation has been more successful receive inadequate funds from Israel to relieve themselves from poverty.


When the time came for us to say our goodbyes and get back on the bus, there was an opportunity to reflect on what we’d just witnessed. With so much of the global and internal discourse on Israel caught up on finding solutions for the issue of the Palestinians, it seems that Israel’s refugees have been severely overlooked. And what’s more, in comparison with the conflict, it is an incredibly simple problem to solve. These people are not a threat to Israel’s security. They are not sending rockets into Israel or stabbing people in the streets. If the government were simply to review the asylum requests that they refuse to look at, the asylum seekers could gain refugee status and live their lives in Israel in peace and freedom. Israel would benefit hugely from their labour, and they have invariably shown willingness to integrate and contribute to Israeli society.

As of two weeks ago Holot has been declared full to capacity, so the government physically cannot keep sending more and more asylum seekers there. The unlawful concentration of a group of people by race should be ringing alarm bells for Israel’s Jews, of all people, and were it not for the Supreme Court things might be much worse. It is written in the Israeli Declaration of Independence that the country will “ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex,” but this is far from the reality in Israel today. Mutasim, the ex-Holot detainee who accompanied us on our trip, told us, “I do not see the justice, freedom and equality that Israel was founded upon. But maybe with people like you these can be revived.” Until the government starts dealing with this issue fairly and justly, the refugees’ struggle for freedom continues.


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Ezra’s murder brought home the realities of living in Israel

By Graham Carpenter, New Gen & Events Coordinator for New Israel Fund UK

Ezra Schwartz was murdered by a Palestinian extremist in November, just outside the Gush Etzion settlement, while delivering food to lone soldiers. He was 18.

I knew Ezra. It’s not like he was my best friend, but he typified the leaders of Machaneh Yavneh in New Hampshire, in the US, where I was fortunate enough to spend eight weeks working this summer in charge of sports.

My main memories of him are that he was funny and light-hearted, devoted to the ideals and traditions of his community, passionate about sport, and always putting the children first.

A deep-rooted, family-based community, the camp will sorely miss him, and will struggle passionately with comprehending and reconciling his loss for a long time.

For me personally, his murder has brought what is going on in Israel crashing far closer to home. I have felt so desensitised recently by the way our media streams have been reporting recent tragedies that I must admit the numbers of dead were eventually only numbers to me.

Ezra was someone I knew, a tangible identity. He was a standout leader from a fantastic summer camp, who was tragically caught in the crossfire through being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

His death has reinforced my understanding that when something happens in Israel, it happens to all of us.

It is with both sadness and pride that I feel that as a community we in the UK simply cannot switch off to what is happening in Israel any more.

As a result, my resolve towards my own work in the Jewish community and towards positive social change in Israel has been increased.

I work at the New Israel Fund (NIF), where my role is to foster and develop a community of young adults, connecting them to projects, causes and organisations in Israel that are working towardspeace, equality, justice, and human rights for all.

In response to the latest outbreak of violence in Israel, NIF set up an emergency fund, through which grants have been allocated to dozens of coexistence initiatives and meeting spaces for dialogue between Jews and Arabs, as well as enabling various rallies and events calling for tolerance and for a political solution to theconflict.

Connecting ourselves to this positive, grassroots work within Israeli society is the only response to the extremism such as that which killed Ezra.

In the face of this violent outbreak, I have felt a real momentum towards engaging with these issues in our community.

For example, more than 80 young people recently attended NIF UK’s flagship event, the annual Human Rights Awards dinner, and we are now seeing many new initiatives that have sprung up from our community of young professionals, NIF’s ‘New Generations’: grassroots initiatives of individuals who want to raise awareness, deepen the discussion and use exciting and empowering new methods of fundraising in order to have an active role in this essential work.

There is no doubt that this is not a simple undertaking. The results of the kind of work NIF does in Israel are not always immediate. The challenges and choices it raises are hard. It will not bring back Ezra, or any of the victims of the recent violence.

But it will bring us closer, step by step, towards an Israel we can all be proud of. By doing so we can be proud of our work, as partners in the efforts of Israeli activists to uphold the true Jewish ideals of peace, justice and equality for all.

May Ezra’s memory be a blessing and may his character and spirit inspire all the community as he has inspired me.

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Vote For Change 2015

VoteForChange header LATEST


Vote for Change is a fundraising initiative to help showcase and support grassroots activism in Israel. All we ask it that you read about and then choose from 1 of 5 Israeli charities, nominated by our New Gen Activism Fellows, and then vote by texting a £3 donation towards it. You can also vote online with a minimum £3 donation.

The charity with the most donations will have the donations it receives matched by NIF UK up to £1000!

The competition ends on Saturday 24th October, and the results will be announced on our website and social media.

Go to the NIF website to learn more about the organisations nominated.

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Dynamism and Succot: Inviting in Dangers and Opportunities


Avi Dabush

We are in the throes of the Tishrei festivals. The day of judgement has passed, the ten days of repentance and Yom Kippur are over and now it is Succot, in which it is said “And you shall rejoice in your holidays and be particularly happy” (Deuteronomy 16:14-15). This is the time for joy and for recognizing the good in what we have.

Succot entails leaving the illusion of security that our permanent homes grant us, in favour of the “temporary dwelling”: the succah. This is an excellent time for us to call into question everything that we surround ourselves with. It is appropriate for us to remember that we are privileged if we possess a permanent home. We are protected from cold and from heat. We enjoy personal and familial privacy. We can imagine an eternal state from within our temporary lives. We can relax in the knowledge that in general, things are in their place and we are blessed with people and possessions that we love.

But we don’t all have such a privilege. In Israel almost a quarter of all people are defined as poor and a large number struggle to put a reasonable roof over their heads, not always successfully. The fight against poverty is an important one that connects dozens of organizations and community groups in Israel, coordinated by Shatil, the New Israel Fund’s operational arm, within the “Forum for the Struggle Against Poverty”.

It is appropriate during Succot to remember the temporary nature of our personal and communal lives. If we lock ourselves behind concrete walls all our life, we will not succeed in connecting to the dynamism of life. Judaism recognizes the value of stability and the security of permanence, but also reminds us of the need for renewal and the importance of connecting to the aspects of life which are in flux. Our sages told us in Pirkei Avot “know from whence you came and where you are going” (3:1). Stepping out into the vulnerability of the succah, which shakes from every gust of wind and is intrinsically connected to nature and the seasons, connects us with aspects of life from which we are generally disconnected the rest of the year round.

This is on a personal and family level, what about the communal and national levels?

We can attempt to stay behind stone walls all our lives. Ehud Barak said, two decades ago, that Israel is a “villa in a jungle”. If times are hard – and they surely are right now, then maybe it’s worth making do with entrenching ourselves in a narrative of security threats, at the expense of social and cultural prosperity. That’s one way. There is also another way that Judaism proposes: not to balk from difficulties, challenges or dangers. “And you shall keep them upon your souls” our sages said (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 32a). At the same time, however, we mustn’t close ourselves off and imprison our social and spiritual strength by chasing threats and putting out fire.

Going out into the succah and inviting the ushpizin – our guests, into it, is an expression of our ability to be open to the dynamism of life. Dynamism invites dangers, but also opportunities. Responsible connection to dynamism is the only way to create prosperity and growth. We know this from life. Whoever hides away, shies away from things and doesn’t connect to his or her surroundings, is destined to be trapped inside themselves. “In partnership or in death” said Choni haMa’agal (Babylonian Talmud, Taanit 23a). We choose life. We chose to sit in the succah, metaphorically or literally. We chose growth and not closing ourselves off. Through forging a path of social and economic justice, through openness and fighting against racism, and by consistent support of the most crucial concept of Judaism: peace.

Chag sameach to all!

Avi Dabush is Director of Programmes at Shatil, NIF’s initiative for social change. You can listen to him speak about Israel’s grassroots movements on our latest podcast episode here.

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How to help young Brits connect with Israel through social justice activities

Jack Goldstein

As published in the Jewish News, August 20, 2015; See original here.

There aren’t many opinions about Israel that we diaspora Jews can all agree on. But one of them is probably this: it’s crucial that young diaspora Jews feel a personal connection with Israel, and feel engaged with Israeli issues.

A disturbing trend has emerged in Jewish communities around the world. Young Jews, regardless of their political affiliations to either the left or the right, are consistently and measurably less engaged with Israel than older generations. There are many possible reasons, including the fact that Israel doesn’t face the same truly existential threats from neighbours that it used to, so young people don’t feel the same urgent need to defend it that their parents did. However, to understand why young diaspora Jews are failing to engage with Israel, we need to point the finger at the diaspora: maybe we aren’t offering young diaspora Jews adequate ways to engage with Israel that actually reflect their Jewish identity.

For many of us young Jews, our Judaism means social justice: going out into the world and doing tikkun olam – repairing it. In fact, according to a landmark American study, 56 per cent of Jews see working for justice and equality as an essential part of their Jewishness. But “caring about Israel”, by contrast, was an essential part for only 43 per cent. Connecting the followers of “social justice Judaism” with Israel isn’t a question of just explaining the history, religious significance or modern day political situation of the region, or a question of trying to instill in them a Zionist identity separate to their Jewish identity. Rather, it’s a question of allowing them to express their pre-existing Jewish identity in a Zionist context: Doing the work of social justice, in a way that is fundamentally Jewish, in Israel.

I’m extremely proud to be part of the New Israel Fund’s inaugural cohort of Social Activism Fellows. We’re a group of 11 young(ish) Jews based in both the UK and Australia, with the aim of bringing the work and ethos of the NIF in Israel to our communities back home over the course of a 10-month fellowship programme. The fellows are a diverse group of professionals, some working in the Jewish world, some in the corporate world and some in government, with a shared belief in the potential of a group of diaspora leaders connecting UK Jewish communities to organisations and individuals working for social justice in Israel. Over the course of the next 10 months, the five UK-based fellows will be running projects and campaigns in the UK in our respective communities, giving other young British Jews an outlet to express their Judaism through social action, and in doing so foster a closer connection with Israel.

And in order for the fellows, or anyone else, for that matter, credibly to talk about Israel, there’s no substitute for hands-on involvement on the ground. We are just back from an intensive eight days in Israel meeting change makers in Israeli (and Palestinian) society, and tackling issues as diverse as the struggle for gender equality in Israel, the precarious position of refugees in south Tel Aviv, the complex challenges faced by Arab citizens of Israel, and – an issue that recently tragically became headline news – the situation of LGBT Israelis in Jerusalem.

Of course, “social justice Judaism” has never just been about talking about problems. The problems are just the springboard for working to make Israel a more equitable, more just and more democratic society. It’s the notion of helping to build a better Israel that is secure, vibrant, Jewish and democratic that’s the real draw for me, the other NIF social activism fellows, and – I would imagine – the 56 per cent of Jews who see social justice work as an essential part of their Jewishness. Besides, the courageous civil society organisations tackling these problems are some of Israel’s most impressive successes.

In recent weeks, we have seen some of the uglier trends at the fringes of Israeli society come to the fore in such a violent and brazen way that they can no longer be denied or ignored. It is possible to respond by disengaging from Israel entirely, or by burying one’s head in the sand and focusing only on the healthy elements of Israeli society. There’s also the option to look the problems in the eye, and from a place of love, ally oneself with the brave Israelis who are trying to solve them. As NIF social activism fellows, we know which route we’ll be taking.

Jack Goldstein is a New Gen Activism Fellow, and works in strategy consulting for Ernst & Young

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The Oasis in the Desert

Yerucham distributive justice

Rebecca Viney

It’s easy to see all the problems Israel faces … social divisions, economic inequality and security threats. The town of Yerucham, in the heart of the desert about 30 minutes from Beer Sheva, used to be just another one of Israel’s problems. Despite being surrounded by incredible panoramas of the Negev and the site of Hagar’s Well, it was one of the poorest towns in the country, beset by high unemployment, crime, and negative immigration from the diverse migrant populations that were brought there to live. The physical desolation led to spiritual and social deprivation.

Enter Mayor Michael Biton, who introduced a five pronged program designed to revive Yerucham: narrowing its social gaps, improving education, the economy and the  environment and bringing young couples to the town.

Today Yerucham is a town of 10,000 with 1,500 new houses being built to keep up with demand and attracting students, kibbutznicks and olim alike. We were some of the first guests in Yerucham’s new luxurious hotel  – the beginning of Michael’s plan to put the town on the tourist map.

Today the town is also a mini hi-tech centre. Sitting in a robotics class, which nearly all secondary school students in Yerucham study, we heard about the latest triumphs of the Y Team who are winning competitions around the world with their robots.

We ate an incredible lunch in the home of one of the ‘Culinary Queens of Yerucham’, women on low incomes from the diverse ethnic groups in the town who host visitors in their homes and share their stories. This exemplifies the town’s approach to supporting social entrepreneurs and fostering innovation in business.

As part of its commitment to social justice, Yerucham has increased dialogue and established joint-initiatives with the neighbouring Bedouin villages. The town has set up a joint Jewish and Bedouin women’s group, and has helped the local Bedouin community organise to establish a Kindergarten.

Michael Biton says: “The Negev allows you to dream, and to achieve your dreams”. He explained that its the two aspects of community and Zionism that have been responsible for reviving Yerucham.

Michael ordered that we: “Tell the complex story. Tell the honest story. And make sure you give some hope”. Yerucham certainly gave me hope. It made me hopeful that there are people that are fighting for the values of Israel, who won’t stop until it is a place we can be proud of, where citizens work together, learn together, help each other and support those most in need. So I am immensely proud that the NIF supports projects in Yerucham and people like Michael whose courageous and inspiring leadership is changing the future of the State.

Rebecca Viney is a New Gen Activism Fellow. She is a policy adviser in the Cabinet Office.

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Moral Condemnation Won’t Be Enough to Avoid the Next Ali Sa’ed Dawabshe

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Jonny Leader

Last Friday, I woke up, groggily reached for my phone, checked my twitter and Facebook feeds, and was overcome by a concoction of anger, grief and despair; with a garnishing of shame. What was missing from this concoction however, was a sense of surprise. See I’d just read reports of “Palestinian infant burned to death in West Bank Arson” (Haaretz), “Palestinian Baby Killed in West Bank Terror Attack” (Jerusalem Post) and “Palestinian Baby Dies in ‘Price Tag’ Arson Attack” (Ynet). Whilst the details of this case will become clearer as time goes on, the IDF has declared the firebombing of the Dawabshe family home in the West Bank village of Duma a “Jewish terror” attack.

What has followed these reports, rightly, is a swathe of fierce moral condemnation from across both the Jewish and Israeli religious/political spectrum. These condemnations are welcome and I add my voice to theirs.

Where I may stray from them however, and why surprise was missing from my initial emotional concoction; is in recognising that it will take a great deal more than moral condemnation to avoid the next ‘Price Tag’. The fact is, settler violence has been going on a very long time, this isn’t the first house that’s been targeted in arson attacks and it won’t be the last.

In fact, a fairly strong historical precedent has been set for impunity for Jewish extremists in the West-Bank. Take the example in 1984 of three Jewish Underground leaders who, despite being given life in prison for organising a spate of attacks, including on Arab buses and the infamous plot to destroy the Dome of The Rock; were released after 7 years. Since then countless homes, religious buildings and property have been targeted by Jewish extremists in the West Bank. What’s even more worrying than the attacks themselves is that they are largely perpetrated under a blanket of impunity. B’Tselem note that “since August 2012, Israeli civilians set fire to nine Palestinian homes in the West Bank. Additionally, a Molotov cocktail was thrown at a Palestinian taxi, severely burning the family on board. No one was charged in any of these cases”. Yesh Din calculate that “92% of Palestinian complaints of Jewish hate crimes in the occupied West Bank are closed and the criminals never brought to justice” (Moore: 2014). Add to this the beatings of Palestinian citizens of Israel in Jerusalem whilst crowds chant “death to Arabs”, Israeli politicians threatening to bulldoze the Supreme Court for ruling against illegal settlement buildings in Beit El, as well as that very settlement being rewarded 300 new units for throwing bottles of urine at the IDF; a painting of impunity for and silence against Jewish extremists becomes clear.

This is why when I hear Netanyahu and others declaring just how “shocked” and “horrified” they are, it rings largely hollow. All too little has been done to tackle this problem which has been prominent for far longer than we’d perhaps like to admit. They should not be shocked; they shouldn’t even be mildly surprised. This isn’t even the first Palestinian child burnt alive in the last two years, have we already forgotten about Mohammed Abu Khdeir? Kidnapped and burnt alive in a Price Tag attack for the kidnapping and murder of Eyal Yifrach, Gilad Shaar and Naftali Frenkel? And whilst it’s important to note that in that extreme, highly publicised case, the murderers were brought to justice, this is an exception, as opposed to the rule.

The question therefore is what does it mean to try and change the status-quo? Like any question there is more than one answer. First, the perpetrators of this heinous crime must be bought to swift and severe justice. Beyond that however, it means whole heartedly supporting Israeli groups such as Tag Meir, who have been leading the battle against Price Tag violence for years now. It means making it absolutely clear to the government that we won’t accept this impunity any longer, and it means opening up a conversation with settler communities about how to tackle the problem of settler violence from within.

It is in this wider context that the murder of Ali Sa’ed Dawabshe should be seen not as a shock, but rather the next natural step under a system which offers impunity to extremists, and it’ll take a lot more than moral condemnation to change it.

Jonny Leader is a New Gen Activism Fellow and the incoming movement worker for Habonim Dror UK.

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