I am a human rights professional, peace and anti-occupation activist and have been committed to these values for as long as I can remember. All these years, my colleagues and I have been working to change the reality in Israel by removing the blindfolds of Israeli society, exposing the wrongdoings and violations of the occupation, the discrimination against those who are marginalized in society (such as Palestinian citizens of Israel, African asylum seekers and migrant workers), and the implications of the dire social and economic gaps between the center and the periphery.
But there is a blindfold we are ignoring: the one covering our own eyes.
Our blindfold is made up of two layers. The first is the inability to see what is looking at us in the mirror: most of us are Jewish, white, Ashkenazi, secular. We are the privileged elite: Israel was built in our image and our image only, in culture, narrative, politics, history and traditions.
The second layer is a result of the first: our blindness to the validity of points of views that are different from ours, points of view that are deeply rooted in worlds of justification that are sometimes the opposite of ours — not liberal, not leftist, not secular. Our expectation to change everything around us is flawed so long as it insists on avoiding the need to change ourselves, to remove these layers of blindness.
My vision includes a first step: to remove my blindfold before or at least concurrently to the process in which I ask other Israelis to remove theirs.
I have to face the mirror, acknowledging the many privileges that come with my white skin and blue eyes, and understanding that these privileges mean power, even though in the complex reality of contemporary Israel, we, the left, feel most of the time powerless. We must also admit to our own orthodoxies, the kind that in other groups, we tend to condescendingly disrespect. We have our own kashrut (being vegetarian/vegan, not buying products made or grown in the settlements); we have our own practices (going to the annual/weekly protest against the occupation); we have all sorts of rules of behavior and politically correct language, and we so easily judge anyone who does not comply with them. Just like any other group.
We must also proactively work to see and hear the voices and justifications of those who are not like us: Mizrachim, Orthodox, ultra-Orthodox, right wing, Arabs, Ethiopian Jews, Russian-speaking Jews. We must listen, without trying to persuade or convert, yet without compromising our values and ideology. I have learned that listening opens up so many windows of understanding and empathy.
To make this change, we, the secular left, must also proactively release the power that comes with our privileges: to engage in social change from a humbler approach, not to be the sole leaders, and to be able to join the causes identified and framed by others who may be different than us. Once we release power, a space is made for the articulation of other visions that stem from very different worlds of justification. In this process, we must not be intimidated by the fact that for some, honor and dignity come before equality, and tradition and family are more important values than universalism and secularism. Despite these differences, we can still collaborate, finding shared values and common good to achieve the changes needed to make this a better place.
And so I begin with myself and my professional context. As co-director of the Department for Shared Society at Sikkuy, I am working to promote education for shared society with a focus on Jewish-Arab relationships. In Israel’s sectoralized educational system, to even talk about shared society and Arabs in the religious and ultra-Orthodox streams is a challenge. In order to succeed at this task, I needed to understand that we, as outsiders of those communities, can’t dictate to them what education for shared society means, and how it should be done in their communities.
Instead, we need to release power: to enable leading educators from within these communities to articulate the problems and proposed solutions, emerging from their own sense of urgency, in dialogue with my colleagues and me. For this purpose, Sikkuy has convened, with the help of Shaharit, a group of Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox educators who have expressed their concerns with the way their education system raises children to treat Arabs, and have engaged in a conversation with them as to how they view the problem, and what could help create a solution.
In this group, I have a voice, but it is not my voice that dictates the conversation: The dialogue is one of listening and sometimes arguing, but at the end of the process, they will decide what the outcome will look like in their community.
Releasing power is not an easy task. It does not mean giving up on my identity; on the contrary, it can provide a strong base for my identity to dwell securely and even proudly alongside other identities. But it does mean giving up on my power to decide how to frame the struggle, my power to choose the actions and partners, the strategies and stakeholders. Once this process is in place, we can then reconvene, a diverse group comprising many voices, identities and powers, and begin the task of addressing Israel’s most aching issues, in conversation, together.
Gili Re’i has nearly two decades of work experience in non-profit organizations in the fields of education, social change and human rights. Formerly the Deputy Director of The Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), since 2015 she has been working at Sikkuy – The Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality, as co-director of the department for shared society. While at ACRI, Gili was a member of the steering committee of a dialogue group between human rights professionals and Sephardic Ultra-orthodox rabbis and educators, facilitated by Shaharit. Gili resides in Jerusalem with her family and also serves as the co-chair of the Parents Committee at the Max Rayne Hand in Hand Bilingual School in Jerusalem, where both her children are students.
This is the third in a series of essays by writers connected to Shaharit (shaharit.org.il), an Israeli nonprofit that brings together activists to re-imagine local and national politics. Shaharit’s leaders come from across the religious, political and ethnic spectrum of Israeli society, and work together to create policy and strategy built on open hearts, forward thinking and shared vision: a politics of the common good.