For those of us committed to progressive values — democracy, justice, inclusion — in Israel and around the world, the events of the past year have been incredibly troubling. It’s easy to feel nothing other than fear and despair as we move into the new year.
But my work in support of the New Israel Fund reminds me that, despite the challenges, we are making progress in the long term. Before she retired as NIF’s director in Israel, my friend and former Atlanta resident Rachel Liel wrote, “In the past two decades, I have seen incredible changes, and I know there are many more to come. And the funny thing about change is that when it arrives, it seems as if it was there all along, waiting to happen — so natural that you can’t imagine how it was ever otherwise.”
I remember how different Israel was 20 years ago. Then, a gay pride parade in Jerusalem or vibrant non-Orthodox religious Jewish life was unimaginable. Today these ideas have become reality.
Because of NIF, people in Israel have the capacity, tools and drive to continue the fight for their democracy. It isn’t an easy path. NIF invests in laying the groundwork for social change that sometimes takes years or even decades to pay off. Because of the groundwork we’ve laid, thousands of Israelis are mobilizing to oppose the erosion of Israel’s democratic values.
They are combating racism and repairing Arab-Jewish relations. They are safeguarding human rights by fighting threats to democracy in the Knesset and on the streets, including rampant incitement against human rights defenders. They are pushing back against the Orthodox rabbinate’s monopoly on Jewish lifecycle events and strengthening moderate religious voices. They are advancing social justice, affordable housing and equal health care for all members of society.
All this slow, steady work is paying off. Last year NIF marched with 25,000 people at the Jerusalem March for Pride and Tolerance. Israelis of all backgrounds and religious affiliations came to march in support of Jerusalem’s LGBTQ community.
This summer the Israeli government took steps to reverse a longstanding policy and legalize same-sex adoption. Who could have imagined this when NIF began laying the groundwork, decades ago?
I also couldn’t imagine a woman sitting at the highest levels of the Rabbanut, but now, for the first time in Israel’s history, a woman will soon serve as deputy director-general of Israel’s Rabbinic Courts. No woman has ever held such a senior role within the religious establishment.
This High Court victory came as a result of legal advocacy by NIF grantee Mavoi Satum and other women’s rights organizations. With assistance from Shatil, NIF’s action arm in Israel, NIF grantees Advot and Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah helped persuade the attorney general to require that at least 30 percent of seats on the powerful local religious councils be designated for women.
It’s difficult to overstate just how significant these achievements are, especially considering the seemingly immovable conventions they were up against. And I can only imagine all the times that the leaders who brought about these changes were told, “Don’t bother. It’s too hard; it will never change.”
These successes are powerful reminders that change is possible when people come together to protect and advance the values they share. And that’s a lesson we in America will need in 5778 and beyond.
Rachel Liel wrote: “This is how social change works. At first, the goal seems daunting. We strategize. We educate. We train. We build coalitions. And over time, the change happens. Because NIF is in the business of turning the unimaginable into common sense.”
Tens of thousands of Israelis like Rachel are asking us for our continued partnership, support and commitment. They need our help. They’re asking us not to be silent. They’re asking us to speak out and to stand up with them.
You can start doing that in 5778 by joining me Oct. 17 when Rachel’s successor, Mickey Gitzin, speaks at Congregation Beth Shalom on “Democracy or Theocracy? Championing Religious Freedom in Israel.”
In this new year, with all the challenges we can be sure it will bring, let’s stand together with our partners in Israel who are working tirelessly for social change. And let’s learn from their example of courage and tenacity to stay the course toward progress, even when it seems impossible.