Understanding Social Change in Israel from an American Perspective

As a social worker, I view social change from a particular perspective. There is “macro-change,” which takes place at the government level, whereby citizens vote for representatives to make changes to law. There is community-level change, where groups of people work to make change in their communities, such as kibbutzim or community organizations working on local issues. Finally, there is “micro-change,” where an individual works to better themselves through personal growth. When I worked in the US, I took note of how all of these types of change must work in tandem to create the larger social change we strive for.

I’ve lived in Israel for over a year now, working for and contemplating social justice here. With every issue I encounter, whether racism and discrimination against Ethiopian Israelis, sex trafficking, Bedouin land claims, Haredi/secular issues, migrant and refugee populations, or terrorism, I perceive the ways in which people are creating social change. During my time as a Yahel Social Change Program participant, I learned in depth about the types and methods of social change taking place in Israel. As an American, while it has been difficult for me to understand the system of change here despite my knowledge of social change and social justice methods, I’ve come to learn a few things about social change in Israel.

1. Social change is happening here.

During my year as a Yahel participant and now as a student at Pardes in the social justice class, I’ve met with countless social change activists from all different perspectives and ideologies. I’ve met with Sudanese activists striving for workers’ rights in south Tel Aviv, representatives from a Bedouin organization working on environmental sustainability issues, a rabbi working to end sex trafficking in Israel, an American who moved to the Negev and is a so-called “lone farmer.” I’ve also met with a peace activist who lives on the Gaza border and talks with Palestinian peace activists in Gaza on a daily basis, as well as an Israeli who helps recruit Arab and Bedouin girls to do national service in their communities, and of course a community organization focusing on the educational achievement of Ethiopian Israeli youth. Whatever you can think of, I’ve met or listened to someone talk about that issue in Israel. These social activists hope to raise awareness and to enact change within ourselves and throughout our communities to better our world.

2. Israel is different from the US.

A constant discussion has been whether Israel is a Jewish state or a democratic state or a mix of the two. The perpetual tension affects the way change comes about in Israel, as opposed to the United States. How can you solve an issue of Bedouin land claims, for example, without devaluing the principles that the state of Israel is founded on? How can you bridge the gap between a state wanting to keep one group the majority and treating each minority group as a wanted and respected minority? How does the state deal with inequalities even between members of the majority group? We Americans would love to think that Israel is perfect, learning from other countries’ failures and using Western, democratic ideals to create the most effective, most moral country on earth. The fact is that Israel has just as many problems as the US or any other country. We Americans have to remember that when we look at how the Israeli government tackles social issues today. For those who want to believe that Israel follows Jewish law to a point, we also have to recognize that Israel’s historic leaders made great decisions with the knowledge they had at the time of the decision, and Jewish values may play a role in the decisions the state makes. We have to be cognizant, however, that even if Jewish law states that we should handle a specific problem with a specific solution, not every leader is going to agree with the Jewish law or feel that it is the correct course of action.

Hence, as an American living in Israel and learning about social change, I am grateful for the chance to look at how another society handles social issues. I am critical of the perspective that if Israel only did x, y, or z like we do in the US, all the problems would disappear. Each community and each society functions differently, and as social justice activists who strive every day to better our world, we must continue to remind ourselves that as much as we would like to hope our idea is the best idea, we know that sometimes we make mistakes or do not see the best way to create social change. Indeed, each society has social change methods that may work in one place but not in another, despite our optimism.

Jessica Baverman, MSW, is an alumna of the Yahel Social Change Program.

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