Shaharit: A safe place for all sides of Israel’s arguments

At lunch in Tel Aviv over Passover, Eilon Schwartz brimmed with enthusiasm as he described Shaharit, the Israeli think tank he founded in 2012.

The website labels the organization as more than a think tank, rather a “think-and-do tank” that not only publishes reports, but also brings together Israelis from across that nation’s often fractured political tapestry. Shaharit also develops relationships with politicians, both aspiring and in office.

Schwartz, a professor at Hebrew University and an expert on environmental policy, created Shaharit to bring together leaders from Israel’s various “tribes” to help foster future collaborative-minded leaders from Israel’s “emerging elite,” which he believes could take the place of the “liberal, secular, Ashkenazic, upper-middle-class elite,” that, he said, ruled Israel from 1948 but began to break down just as he made aliyah from New York as a young adult in the late 1970s.

In three years, Shaharit — named in part for the Jewish morning prayer service — has identified and brought together leading Israeli Jews, Arabs, secularists and Charedis willing to work together to help Israel reach the elusive goal of being a society that works for everyone in as many areas of policy as possible.  Schwartz’s hope is that by creating this common meeting ground for communities who want to work together, a new elite might emerge. As of now, whether Shaharit can actually help incubate a new Israeli polity remains to be seen — beyond its success in identifying and gathering representatives from Israel’s many communities, its impact thus far is hard to measure.

There is much to be done, however, according to Schwartz. As for what’s not working right now, he points to the current debate over public transit running on Shabbat as an example:

“The secular want all of it,” Schwartz said. “The religious want none of it. And you [tell] yourself: Well, we all live here, no one’s going away.”

In Schwartz’s analysis, each group — left, right, religious and secular — wants to “force [its] image of Israeli society” on all of Israel, but no one group has enough power to do that, which has led to a chronically divided Knesset, a reflection of Israel’s splintered society.

Shaharit somewhat resembles No Labels, a political group based in Washington, D.C., that aims to include views from across the political spectrum, with the mission to “move America from the old politics of point-scoring toward a new politics of problem-solving.” The difference, though, is that instead of removing labels of identity, Shaharit embraces them, while emphasizing that each “tribe” must seriously consider the views of otherd.

“The only thing that really has a chance of building a different core of Israeli society, and the only thing that’s worthy to create that core, is those pieces of the tribe that can turn their heads toward one another and not away from one another,” Schwartz said. He held up the bill to draft Charedis into the army as a counterproductive measure that ended up forcing Charedis to defend their identity and resulted in many turning away from self-enrollment in the army that had been growing without the use of law. As Schwartz put it, “You put my identity on the line, and I choose my identity every time.”

Schwartz has assembled a collection of listeners at Shaharit, with players from every major subset within Israel — including Arabs, Charedis and Mizrachis — who dialogue with one another year-round and who came together last year for a big conference in Tel Aviv’s Jaffa Port. Spokesman Noam Greenberg wrote in an email that Shaharit is “generally labeled (to our minds, inaccurately) as hailing from the far left side of the spectrum.”

Among Shaharit’s network of fellows, staff and board members are Channa Pinchasi, an Orthodox feminist who lives in Efrat; Nazier Magally, an Arab journalist from Nazareth; Racheli Ibenboim, a reformist Charedi woman who lives in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Mea Shearim; Ofer Sitbon, a social activist who works at the Academic Center for Law and Business of Ramat Gan; and Yaniv Kackon, who directs Shaharit’s civic capital project, which does on a local scale what Shaharit does nationally, encouraging collaboration among cooperation-minded leaders within communities.

Even Ayman Odeh, an Arab-Israeli Knesset member and the head of the Joint List, is connected to Shaharit, having spoken at its conference last year alongside Adina Bar Shalom, the daughter of Israel’s former Sephardi Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and the founder of the Haredi College in Jerusalem.

In an interview with Schwartz, as well as in email responses from Shaharit members to a list of questions about their work within the organization sent by the Journal, two themes stood out — frustration with the inability of Israel’s various groups to use politics as a vehicle for compromise, and challenges for these compromise-minded people to identify with either the left or the right. Shaharit, in effect, has become a meeting ground for activists and intellectuals disillusioned with the political class’s ability to reach solutions that work at least a little bit for everyone.

“I find it difficult to position myself with either the left or the right,” wrote Ibenboim, who urged women to boycott Charedi parties in recent elections unless they included female candidates, one of several positions of hers  that have made her controversial within her own community. In keeping with Shaharit’s model, she wants to be a leader among Charedis who’s willing to listen to others outside her group:

“Collective criticism and slaughtering sacred cows are a well-known part of general Israeli society, and this type of criticism is missing in Haredi society,” Ibenboim wrote in an email. “On the other hand, self-criticism and work on one’s personal qualities are granted a place of honor in Haredi society, but are almost entirely absent from Western society.”

Magally, a Shaharit fellow, formerly editor-in-chief of Al-Ittihad, an Arabic-language daily printed in Israel, and a current editor at the Eretz Acheret magazine, also teaches at Birzeit University in the West Bank. He works in Saharia, Shaharit’s Arab project, and said he would like the Joint List “to include more Jewish political forces” while maintaining its current strength in the Knesset — with 13 members, it’s the third-largest party, behind Likud and Zionist Union.

“We got lucky, and the person selected to head the list is an Arab political leader with a Shaharit background,” Magally wrote to Odeh. “There is no other group in Israeli society that is trying to find the common ground between all these groups.”

“I, too, have no political home,” wrote Pinchasi, who grew up in the national religious movement but who, like Ibenboim, is now more moderate. A resident of Efrat, a major Jewish settlement just south of Jerusalem, Pinchasi believes Israel’s major West Bank settlement blocs, like Efrat, should remain part of Israel in any potential peace deal with the Palestinians, but that isolated Jewish settlements that are more culturally and ideologically disconnected from Israel proper should be on the table for evacuation in any major deal.

“I moved towards the center, but I have never felt comfortable in the Israeli left,” Pinchasi wrote, describing some of the political factors that have helped lay the groundwork for a group like Shaharit. “Over the years, everything has gotten more complicated.” n

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