Democratic Recession and the Changing Contours of Civil Society in Israel

Civil society in Israel has emerged not only as the key victim of the democratic recession currently engulfing the country, but also as the main source of its democratic promise. There is a direct correlation between the intensified efforts of neo-nationalist groups to curtail civil society and its increased centrality as the locus of the ongoing struggle for the assurance of a just, egalitarian and pluralistic Israel. 

This essay briefly surveys the emergence of civil society in Israel and its characteristics; it then analyzes recent attacks on civil society organizations and consequent shifts in its structure and activities. On this basis it discusses some of the implications of Israel's present democratic crisis and seeks to reassess the outlook for democratic durability in the country. The main contention of this analysis is that there is a close connection between the vibrancy of Israeli civil society and its democratic resilience. Today, Israel's reactivated civic sector stands as the last bastion between an ultra-nationalist takeover and democratic survival.

The Evolution of Civil Society in Israel 

Israel's voluntary sector came of age barely a decade ago. During the formative years of the state, the social landscape was dominated by monopolistic organizations integrally tied to political parties (and especially to the then-reigning labor movement establishment). Trade unions (and especially the Histadrut), women's associations, sports clubs, health plans and youth movements operated, for all intents and purposes, as subsidiaries of the state or of the main political parties.1 This centralized social order began to break down after 1967. Social protest was spearheaded by the Black Panther movement in the early 1970s, a process accelerated by the widespread popular outcry in the wake of the 1973 war. The creation first of Gush Emunim at the beginning of the decade and then of Peace Now in 1978 gave political traction to this dynamic and tied it inexorably to conflicting approaches to the occupation.

While civil rights and social change groups began to form during this notably political period (the Association of Civil Rights in Israel is but one example), it was only in the 1980s that a web of diverse civil organizations was created. The role of the New Israel Fund (NIF), founded in 1979 as a U.S.-Israel partnership dedicated to strengthening Israeli democracy through the empowerment of civil organizations, was central to this development. Over the years, the NIF has jump-started over 800 civic initiatives to the tune of over $250 million. During this decade the focus was mostly on the empowerment of marginalized voices. The pioneers - the Israel Women's Network, the Mizrahi Democratic Rainbow, and the Israel Association of Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals and Transsexuals - were accompanied by a multiplicity of human rights, social justice, educational, immigrant and ethnic associations. These were fortified during the course of the 1990s by the development of Palestinian civil society in Israel, environmental initiatives, specialized advocacy groups and by a medley of identity-based associations. By the beginning of the present century, literally thousands of organizations covering everything from Bedouin rights and Orthodox women's study groups to migrant worker hotlines, rape crisis centers, community development associations and shared society undertakings had been established.

The flourishing of civil society in Israel - a reflection of the growing diversification of its social fabric and of the heterogeneity of interests it contains - was always accompanied by the growth of a variety of welfare associations providing educational, medical, economic and social services for the disadvantaged. These groups, which constitute the vast majority of the third sector in Israel and are distinguished from civil society organizations by the fact that they either do not actively engage in social change efforts and/or rely heavily on government funding, expanded rapidly during the past two decades as the state began to withdraw from the provision of key social services. Following the institutionalization of neo-liberal economic policies in 2003, the third sector became a substitute for the government in fields as diverse as poverty alleviation, care for the elderly, supplementary education and medical services. The voluntary sector thus provides living testimony not only to the vibrancy of Israeli society, but to the inadequacies of official institutions.

By the close of the first decade of the 21st century, a complex network of organizations populated public spaces in the country. Voluntary associations had become vital suppliers of essential services: furnishing sustenance, supplementing basic education, providing much-needed relief. Civil society organizations within this densely inhabited landscape adjusted accordingly. Although they continued to give voice to the marginalized and the heretofore silenced, to advocate for the disempowered, to demand the legitimization of the many groups that make up Israel today and to insist on the provision of basic rights for all, the leading associations became increasingly institutionalized and professionalized. This process of "NGOization," while contributing to the ability of rights and advocacy groups to pursue their missions, also had the effect of substantially moderating their demands.2

Indeed, the growing interaction between civil society activists and decision-makers within this neo-liberal climate in many respects permitted the continued segmentation of Israeli society into discrete - often competing - sectors (ultra-Orthodox, Russian speakers, Arabs, settlers, residents of the periphery). This process, while reflecting Israel's essential multiculturalism, was all too often detached from the values of pluralism, equality and justice, thus breeding rising discrimination and intolerance. It also contributed substantially to the actual de-politicization of many civil society-based initiatives, sidetracking attempts to achieve substantive change and - with several notable exceptions - dimming their impact.3

Nevertheless, in an era in which the political arena was increasingly shunned and its practitioners discredited, civil society organizations continued to help keep people engaged. This was especially true in the domain of human rights, peace action, religious pluralism and social justice. It is therefore hardly surprising that it is precisely these progressive groups that became the target of a rising neo-nationalist upsurge that has gained control of the formal arena in the second decade of this century.

The Neo-Nationalist Assault on Civil Society

The groundwork for the limitation of civil society activity has been in the making for quite some time.4 It gathered momentum in the wake of the collapse of the Oslo process and the second intifada, further intensified during the Second Lebanon War and the Gaza operation of 2008-09, and gained ascendancy with the return of Binyamin Netanyahu to office after the 2009 elections at the head of the most right-wing government in Israel's history. The worldview that upholds this campaign against civic institutions promotes a monolithic, ethno-centric definition of Israeli identity, Israeli interests, Israeli society and Israeli aspirations.

The standard-bearers of this outlook are groups on the far right of the political spectrum, including organizations such as Im Tirzu, the Forum for the Land of Israel, the virtual network-based front of revisionist forces Yisrael Sheli (My Israel) and several self-appointed watchdogs (including Israel Academia Monitor, NGO Monitor and the Institute for Zionist Strategies). They now boast an increasing number of representatives not only in the Knesset, but also in the government. These forces have carried out a systematic, well-planned and extremely sophisticated campaign against those who dare to diverge from the dominant discourse. Instead of dealing with the content of the criticism raised by progressive civil society organizations, purveyors of the new nationalism consistently question their loyalty.

The initial targets of these attacks have been Arab citizens of Israel and their elected representatives. But these have fast come to encompass any group that has dissented from the ruling mindset: peace activists, human rights organizations, their civil rights counterparts, academics (with special attention devoted to social scientists), social justice groups, artists and performers, the established media (with particular emphasis on the Haaretz daily) and, throughout, the judicial system.

The neo-nationalist mode of operation has followed a distinct pattern. It has first attempted to influence public perceptions of targeted groups through well-planned and heavily funded public media campaigns against these organizations and their main backers (notably the NIF and European governments and foundations). It has then moved on to the official level, seeking to affect legislation and government policy. By the summer of 2012, close to 50 bills with a racist, blatantly discriminatory, or anti-democratic aura were proposed in the Knesset. Twelve of these have passed all readings and have become law during the past year alone.5

The concerted campaign to denounce, de-fund and ultimately destroy progressive civil society in Israel is the outgrowth not only of the ongoing occupation and the inability to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, but also of the consequent isolation of Israel in the international arena. The neo-national de-legitimization of progressive civil society in general and of the human rights community in particular helps decision-makers shirk responsibility for Israel's deteriorating global position by shifting the onus to these groups. By branding them as "enemies from within," they not only entrench the current coalition in power and reduce the chances of any significant political change, but also purposefully nurture a climate of intolerance that is antithetical to open debate so essential to democratic sustainability.

This process has been facilitated by the virtual collapse of moderate political parties. The near-absence of progressive forces in the formal arena has shifted the center of their activities to the informal sphere, making them even more vulnerable to heightened opprobrium emanating from official circles.

Thus, what began as a series of seemingly unconnected initiatives against pockets of disagreement in civil society has become the outward symptom of a much broader majoritarian project, one which seeks to reconfigure societal norms and, by extension, to redefine the terms of membership in Israel's fragile and highly fractured society. It has now evolved into a veritable democratic recession.

The Democratic Reawakening of Civil Society

The crackdown on Israeli civil society institutions has actually enhanced their importance as the repository of Israeli democracy and the bearers of social change. The democratic backlash began to take form in response, first, to specific attacks on liberal elements of civil society and, since the summer of 2011, with the outbreak of social protests throughout the country, as a more generalized reaction to processes of de-democratization.

The fact that civil society has emerged as the locus of the consolidation of Israel's current democratic reawakening is hardly surprising. Civil society groups are the institutional foundation of democratic societies. The diversity and density of these networks are the main indicators of the depth of the social roots of the democratic order and, by extension, of their long-term robustness.

The organizations that make up civil society offer frameworks for democratic expression and action. They empower the weak, the underprivileged and the marginalized. They provide tools to articulate concerns, foster pride in specific identities and secure rights. They transform passive subjects into active citizens and imbue them with values of equality and justice. They nurture pluralism and respect for the other, while giving the exercise of freedom of thought, speech, association and dissent real meaning. Civil society organizations also ensure the vitality and diversity of the public domain. They therefore constitute the substantive pillars of democratic regimes. They are the everyday watchdogs of officialdom: demanding transparency, decrying abuses of power, pressing for equal treatment and constantly seeking societal betterment in a variety of spheres. This network of associations furnishes the deep checks and balances in liberal democracies.

When the campaign against progressive civil society began in early 2010 with a vicious attack on the NIF and its family of progressive organizations, the first to react were precisely those peace, civil rights and human rights groups that were the object of its attacks. They were reinforced by intellectuals, academics, newly formed grassroots initiatives (such as the Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity movement) and think tanks (Shaharit, Molad). As time progressed, they have been joined by minority groups (representing Palestinian citizens of Israel, Ethiopian Jews, migrants), as well as by residents of the poorest parts of the country, some Mizrahi groups and pluralist religious associations.

The substance of their activities has centered on protesting restraints on key components of the democratic order. These include, first, opposition to constraints imposed on civil liberties - including freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom of protest and freedom of the press. Second, they involve organized responses to violations of minority rights - especially, though not only, of Palestinian citizens of the country. Third, they have reacted to efforts to ignore the rules of the game and, especially, to curtail the rule of law. And, finally, they have focused squarely on enabling a diversity of voices and opinions and expanding the ever-contracting parameters of public discourse.

The tools of this civic rejuvenation have consisted not only of standard methods such as petitions, demonstrations, vigils and lobbying efforts, but also the utilization of constantly growing social networks. The Israeli progressive blogosphere has never been so engaged or vocal as it is today, with leading opinion-shapers extending their support to local initiatives and highlighting the centrality of democratic issues in the public arena (also in response to the parallel growth of neo-nationalist networks).6

These trends were given a substantial push with the emergence of the social protest movement in the summer of 2011. This spontaneous uprising focused on social inequality and on the absence of horizons for economic betterment. Supported by over 80% of the population and avowedly apolitical, in retrospect this massive wave of popular discontent has proved to be a watershed in the revival of civic action. Although the social justice protests have yielded few concrete outcomes, they have unleashed deep processes with potentially significant results.

The demand for a complete overhaul of public priorities has begun to shift attention away from the security nexus that has so totally dominated discourse in the past. The call for accountability of elected representatives to voters has given rise to several monitoring groups that have repeatedly exposed problematic government policies and ensured ongoing popular oversight of official actions. Pockets of refreshing, critical discourse have emerged. And, most importantly, many heretofore uninvolved citizens, especially among the younger generation, have regained a sense of empowerment and efficacy. They are actively reengaging, mostly on the level of civil society.

The effects of these changes have become increasingly apparent with the revival of the decidedly more politicized social protests in the summer of 2012. The smaller, but much more focused, demonstrations a year later are testimony to the conscious quest for new ways to express politics and for a new politics.7 Despite official efforts to dub these efforts as radical and on the far fringes of the left, the updated version of the social protest movement actually has two strategic faces: one decidedly focused on social matters, and the other linking socioeconomic inequities to the ongoing occupation. Together, these are indicative of a much broader democratic rejuvenation on the level of civil society aimed at challenging the existing hegemonic order.

There is thus a different Israel in place as well, one which acts as a counterpoint to the dominant neo-nationalist one. These progressive, substantive, democratic impulses operate beyond the formal realm and are engaging the present power structure on a variety of issues. Their definition of democracy is liberal in essence and substantive in practice. They draw, quite consciously, on notions of participatory democracy. And although still organizationally unformed and yet incapable of bridging the gaping sectarian divides, they are locked in an asymmetrical tug-of-war with the dominant neo-nationalist thrust in the country.

The democratic rejuvenation has yet to penetrate the formal political sphere. In the absence of an effective opposition at the official level (at best the opposition in the Knesset comprises less than 60% of the number of government ministers and deputy ministers), the location of real political contestation in the country has moved from the formal to the informal level and shifted from the conventional horizontal axis to a vertical one. The longterm resilience of the democratic impulses currently at work depends, to a large extent, on their ability to access and remold the political arena.

Israeli Civil Society at a Crossroads

The consequences of these emerging patterns are complex. The crackdown on alternative voices in Israel is taking place within what is still a democratic framework where the power garnered in civil society can yet make a difference. But this escalating dynamic does constitute a real threat to the country's still fragile democratic order and hence to its normative underpinnings. If taken to the extreme, the anti-democratic thrust can act as a veritable existential danger.8

Domestically, Israel and Israelis are immersed in a struggle between vastly diverging worldviews. This divide is reflective of the depth of the current debate - one which focuses on the values and norms guiding Israeli society and the concrete steps that these entail. At issue, then, is the definition of Israel and of the identity it assumes for itself and for its future. How this discussion is resolved will determine its democratic viability. And Israel's democratic resilience will dictate its global standing. Israel's democratic credentials are critical to its already limited ability to maneuver in the international arena. In every respect, therefore, Israel without its democracy will not survive for long.

The struggle over Israel's democracy cannot be divorced from the ongoing occupation, nor can it be detached from the continuing conflict between Israel and its neighbors. Civil society in Israel developed in tandem with the realization of the occupation. Its progressive components have been attacked precisely because they are opposed to its continuation and to the value system it embodies. The democratic deterioration unleashed by the recent campaign against civil society groups has generated a popular pushback which addresses the most fundamental issues regarding Israel's guiding values. Israel's democratic reawakening - and consequently its existence in the most profound sense of the term - cannot therefore be secured without ending the most persistent cause of Israel's democratic crisis - its attempt to continue to rule over another people against their will.

1For an overview of the early development of interest groups and civil society in Israel see: Yael Yishai, Interest Groups in Israel (Tel-Aviv: Am Oved, 1987). In Hebrew.
2For a full discussion see: Yael Yishai, Civil Society in Israel (Jerusalem: Carmel Publishing House, 2003). In Hebrew.
3For an excellent case study see Nitza Berkovitch and Neve Gordon, "The Political Economy of Transnational Regimes: The Case of Human Rights Groups," International Studies Quarterly 52 (2008), pp. 881-904.
4The following analysis draws heavily on two recent articles: Naomi Chazan, "Israel and the World: The Democracy Factor," in Emanuel Adler (ed.), Israel in the World (London: Routlege, 2012, forthcoming) and Naomi Chazan, "Realignment in Israel? Neo-Nationalists vs. Democrats" (Paper presented at the International Conference Celebrating the 40th Anniversary of the Leonard Davis Institute, the Hebrew University, June 4-6, 2012).
5For ongoing analysis and breakdown of particular anti-democratic initiatives consult the website of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (
6For some examples see: Ha'oketz, Coteret, +972, and social networks such as Lo Nistom and Im Tirzu - A Fascist Movement.
7See: Hannah Herzog, "A Generational and Gendered View of the Tent Protests" (Unpublished paper, 2012). In Hebrew.
8This perception is becoming commonplace in moderate mainstream circles. See Arik Carmon, Mordechai Kremnitzer and Yedidya Stern, "A Real Danger: Here and Now," Yediot Aharonot, Jan. 31, 2011. In Hebrew.