The Israel Democracy Institute is enlisting the public’s help in developing a document to express how citizens should treat each other, particularly minorities, with dignity.
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The project, which aims to develop a Declaration of Human Dignity for the country, reached its halfway point this week with a two-day “Assembly of 200” conference in Jerusalem.
Arye Carmon, IDI president, said the institute’s leadership has a “very strong sense of a major challenge: that is, we are living in a highly cleaved society [that is] deeply conflicted.”
“This could send a message that here we – members of Israeli civil society – are gathered to tackle it and to challenge it, and that we can reach a kind of consensus and common understanding,” he added.
The project, Israel Speaks: Human Dignity initiative, began in July with a conference of 20 leaders among different constituencies, from Israeli-Arabs to haredim to journalists. The leaders developed a framework for discussing issues related to human dignity; that framework was passed to a group of 200 average citizens to evaluate at the conference this week.
In the coming months, the institute is to then expand the discussion to 2,000 citizens at town hall meetings, and then engage 200,000 people across the country on the Internet.
Eventually, the institute plans to present a final declaration to President Shimon Peres.
But if the discussions in Jerusalem on Monday and Tuesday are any indication, developing a declaration that citizens from all backgrounds can agree on looks to be a challenge.
Akiva Vilkovitch, 37, a member of the ultra-Orthodox community in Jerusalem, said he attended the conference to discuss ideas with a diverse group of Israelis. Indeed, his small-group meetings included a person with disabilities, immigrants from Russia and Ethiopia and an Israeli-Arab.
“To think and to work together, it’s an important thing,” Vilkovitch said. But, he said, “the next stage” – in which discussions expand to thousands of people – “will be very difficult.”
Erez Rubal, a 34-year-old Ethiopian immigrant, said he was impressed with the quality of discussion in his group.
But he was skeptical that, in the short term, issues of human dignity can be resolved.
Having “a day-and-a-half for an issue like this is like asking a couple of countries to talk about a nuclear bomb,” he said.
Nevertheless, Carmon said he is optimistic that the 200 citizens will be able to reach a consensus.
“I am pretty convinced that with all the preparations, and what we invested in directing and stimulating the discussion, that this group will reach and achieve much more than that watered down, lowest common denominator,” he said.
He said he hoped the tens of thousands of Israelis who will eventually be involved in the declaration will “internalize the significance of this whole process.”
Amal Awad, a 23-year-old Israeli-Arab living in Haifa, said the discussions have already had a personal impact on her outlook.
“Personally, it focuses me that I must accept everyone without any conditions, without stereotyping, without trying to compare people. All these things I have within me, just this event focuses my attention,” she said. “If I continue with these things and I internalize them and I also teach this to others, to speak this, to spread this to other generations, maybe after 100 years there will be a generation that will really treat each other with dignity.”