Bostonians and Haifaites Discuss Building a Civil Society
The Haifa-Boston Connection did more than just bring some 250 Bean Towners to the University, and Israel, in mid-November as part of a solidarity mission. Fifteen of the Bostonians returned to the University the day after the formal visit to join 80 Haifaites for a wide-ranging discussion on “Building a Civil Society in Haifa.” The Haifa people were all volunteers for or paid employees of some 60 volunteer organizations, or NGOs (non-governmental organizations). Both groups sought to focus on the challenges that NGOs in Israel face in the near future.
Dr. Amnon Reichman, lecturer in the Faculty of Law, defined the term “civil society” as the “spatial distance between the state and the citizen.” The NGOs helped close this distance through advancing some purpose that the state may not cover through oversight, intention, or the lack of budget. Espousing values such as participation, tolerance, and solidarity, these organizations can also bridge so-called “fault lines”—between Jews and Arabs, rich and poor, religious and secular, etc.—and lead to a more just society.
The fault lines were what concerned a panel of speakers representing Haifa’s diverse population. Both the Chief Rabbi of Haifa, Rabbi Shaar-Yeshuv Cohen, and the deputy director-general of the Haifa Municipality, Dr. Hatim Khoury, painted an overall rosy picture of the inter- and intra-religion situation in Haifa, though each added a warning that was almost a throw-away line.
Rabbi Cohen used the metaphor of different flowers, not just a single variety, growing in harmony to produce a beautiful garden to describe Haifa and its “basic tradition of tolerance.” He called the city’s residents “outstanding in working together despite different creeds and approaches.” It offered, he said, “a ray of hope. If people change their way of relating to each other, then there can be a political solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Haifa’s so-called status quo preserved a framework for living together, in his opinion. The status quo, since the establishment of the State, enabled certain activities to operate on the Sabbath—“finding the minimum to arrange in the public sphere” on Shabbat, in his words, which played on Reichman’s definition of civil society. Its consequence was that “people [the non-religious] limit themselves to preserve the Jewish character of the city.” The Haifa Chief Rabbi’s warning, however, was that the status quo was deteriorating somewhat, and not in favor of the religious.
Hatim Khoury’s description of the fault lines within Haifa’s 30,000-strong Arab population, 65% of which is Christian, reflected in many ways those in the Jewish community. As for Jewish-Arab relations in the city, he viewed these as generally good. But Khoury also pointed to a feature that could have a negative impact on these relations. This was the economic situation, with the Arab sector, he said, suffering from high unemployment and neglect by Israeli governments.
The Haifa city official illustrated his point by noting that 68% of the city’s Arab population lives in the downtown area, which is of much lower social standing than higher up on the Carmel. Some 87% of Haifa Arabs also live in nine, completely Arab neighborhoods. Still, he found no contradiction with Rabbi Cohen’s assessment of Jewish-Arab relations in Haifa.
Dr. Anat Freund of the School of Social Work, who was the panel’s third speaker, is active in the Israeli Reform movement. Remarking that her family as a whole was active in different organizations, she said she wanted her children to be responsible both for themselves and for their community. The difficulty, as she saw it, was getting the weak population to be part of civil organizations. On the other hand, the social work specialist commented, increasing numbers were now turning to the courts for redress in civil rights matters.
Freund also decried the lack of cooperation among non-profit organizations. Haifa, and elsewhere, had a large number of such organizations in place of government, she said, but their potential went lost because of this absence. On the other hand, she criticized the role that government was playing in providing basic needs: essentially it has stepped out, she said. It has privatized this field of social activities, a move that she was not sure could be defended at this time.
Following the formal presentations, the audience of Haifaites and Bostonians broke up into a number of roundtable discussion groups focusing on challenges.
If Israel had a reputation for not matching the array of help and welfare organizations that Diaspora Jewry was renowned for setting up, the booklet describing some 300 active volunteer organizations in Haifa alone that was presented to all discussants put paid to this undeserved attribute. The sheer number of NGOs proved surprising. They cover a broad spectrum of activity: aiding new immigrants who are already senior citizens when they arrive (an organization administered by retired veteran immigrants), shelters for battered women and for those in need of a free meal, a literature and peace culture forum, a religious cultural center for youth (whose activities are limited neither to youth nor to the religious), a negotiation and reconciliation center, a boarding house for very young children who suffered from physical and emotional abuse, an animal shelter, providing spiritual support for hospital patients, a roof for the discharged soldier, a center for nurturing business enterprise, sex-education counseling, promoting culture and art in the Arab sector, day clubs for the retired, free loan of medical accessories, neighborhood action committee. The list here is only partial.
There seemed general agreement on the need to create a greater awareness of civil organizations, especially among the weaker segments of society. Despite the number of Haifa NGOs, it was also agreed that Israel has not built a culture of citizens first. The biggest challenge was seen as coopting the weak sectors into the so-called Third Sector, that of the NGOs, and convincing these people to work together with the existing volunteers and staff professionals to do something about a problem. As one participant summed it up, “We have to get the weak population to believe there is a solution.”
Among other challenges, discussants also listed the need for a roof organization of NGOs to enhance cooperation and, therefore, their effectiveness, since individual organizations are concerned only with a specific narrow area. The challenge was to form such a council without institutionalizing it.
According to conference organizers, the feedback concerning the discussions was very positive. Representatives of the local organizations, they said, appreciated the commitment of the Boston people to address social issues in Haifa and to partake in the process. Both groups planned to discuss a long-range project to deal with the challenges raised during the half-day meeting.
The Chief Rabbi of Haifa, Rabbi Shaar-Yeshuv Cohen (r.),
and the Deputy Mayor of Haifa, Dr. Hatam Khoury (c.),
described Haifa from their particular vantage points.
Dr. Amnon Reichman (at podium) introduced the session.
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