Imagine That: Community Organizing Could be the Key to Peace and Prosperity in Israel

Earlier this year, I traveled to Israel. Before that trip, I'd only seen the place through the distorted prism of harrowing news stories and the cruel "normalcy" of the ongoing conflict. I wrote about it here, relaying how much impact the trip had on my understanding of the difficult but inspiring struggle for peace and cohabitation in the region. The trip also inspired me to get involved with my hosts, the New Israel Fund, the leading social justice organization in Israel. This Thursday, The NIF holds its 13th Annual New Generations Benefit, at the Highline Ballroom, in New York City.

Unlike much of the stateside rhetoric we hear or engage in regarding the challenges of the Middle East, the NIF showed me that progressive and democratic action is pushing its head up in the challenging arena of Arab-Israeli politics. Going far beyond what most Americans--and many Israelis--would imagine, NIF's creative programs and outreach are bold and impacting.

On the eve of their annual benefit (9/18), I opted to share my space here with NIF's organizers. Their sentiments follow:

When Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin quipped: "I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a community organizer, except that you have actual responsibilities," the irony was thick. After all, Ms. Palin might not be where she is today had it not been for the efforts of Susan B. Anthony, one of the most celebrated U.S. community organizers, to help secure women's suffrage.

While Palin intended the jab to belittle Obama's experience working to help improve impoverished Chicago neighborhoods, it in fact helped galvanize those of us who know just how critical, challenging and imperative a role community organizers play. A role that was even more significant when Barack Obama accepted the Democratic Party's nomination for president on the anniversary of community organizer's Martin Luther King Jr. "I Have a Dream Speech".

The New Israel Fund (NIF) knows first-hand the hope and change that community organizers inspire every day. After all, for the past twenty-nine years, the New Israel Fund has made social change our business. We built Israeli civil society from scratch, in a country without a tradition or history of third-sector activism. Today, our family of activists continues our efforts on issues ranging from lobbying for safe roads in unrecognized Bedouin villages, to strengthening laws helping the disabled, to challenging Israel's ultra-Orthodox establishment.

While Sarah Palin might not think that community organizers have "actual responsibilities," the Palestinian citizens in the region of Ma'ale Adumin near Jerusalem would disagree. Last week, the Israeli government decided to re-route the planned Security Fence in the region--returning some 1,000 acres of Palestinian land that would have been appropriated to Israel and made inaccessible to Palestinian villagers.

Citizens of Tel Aviv, plagued by some of the worst pollution in the developed world, would also disagree. The passage of Israel's Clean Air Law this past July will lead to a real reduction in pollution and the high rate of respiratory illness.

Jerusalem's Russian immigrants would also take on Governor Palin. In August, the largest Russian library outside of the former Soviet Union was prevented from closing by a long, patient community-organized campaign.

If you only know about Israel through the lens of its external conflicts, find out why this struggling but vibrant democracy needs progressive voices in the U.S. to advance human rights, social justice and religious pluralism. The 13th Annual New Generations Benefit in New York on September 18th draws over 500 people and raises funds for NIF's efforts to strengthen Israel's democracy and promote justice and equality for all members of Israeli society. The NIForum 2008: Innovation! New Strategies for Social Change in Israel, will focus on some groundbreaking strategies for empowering people without voices in the corridors of power.

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