Equality. Justice. Freedom of expression and religion. Individual rights.
These are just some of the topics that come up around the wooden roundtable on the ground floor of Jerusalem’s prestigious Israel Democracy Institute. It is here that a promising generation of researchers attempts to articulate the national challenges facing the modern State of Israel, offering long-term policy solutions based on a combination of field research and discussions with decision-makers and public officials.
IDI may be one of the country’s oldest and largest “think-and-do” tanks, but its researchers and their work are anything but out-of-date. On the contrary, said Dr. Gilad Malach, director of IDI’s Ultra-Orthodox in Israel Program, the organization is “strategically placed between academics and policy-makers.”
IDI’s research papers don’t sit on library shelves, but in the hands of those who can effect change. The organization partners with civil service workers and volunteers to improve the functioning of the government and its institutions, confronts security threats while preserving civil liberties and fosters solidarity within Israeli society.
Take Malach. In 2016, he presented policy recommendations for integrating Israel’s haredi (ultra-Orthodox) population into well-paying jobs and facilitating a continued rise in employment rates within this sector. Malach is young, secular and from Tel Aviv, but the plan he devised for the haredim in cooperation with the Prime Minister’s Office, the Finance Ministry and the National Economic Council was not only largely adopted and implemented by the government, it has put the ultra-Orthodox sector – and in return Israel’s economy – on a more positive trajectory.
“There is a revolution of ultra-Orthodox entering the labor market,” said Malach with a wide smile.
In 2003, only 36% of men and 51% of women in the ultra-Orthodox community were employed. Today, those numbers have dramatically risen to 51% and 73%, he said.
“The ability to initiate processes that have both a short- and long-term impact is what makes me passionate about my work at IDI,” said Malach.Roadmap for impact
The haredi community is not the only one located on Israel’s periphery. Israel’s Arab population remains an untapped resource, as well.
IDI has a team of researchers led by Nasreen Hadad Haj-Yahya that is working together to turn this population – which is often viewed as a liability that produces a drag on economic performance – into a resource that could vault Israel’s economy into the top 10 of the OECD.
Haj-Yahya said the organization’s Arab-Jewish Relations Program, which she directs, works to identify barriers to equal partnership between Jews and Arabs on a range of issues. Its methodology combines insights from the ground level, incorporates international understandings and formulates policy recommendations directed to decision-makers responsible for long-term policy planning and implementation.
She recently published a master plan for informal education in the Arab-Israeli sector, following up on the government’s 2015 Resolution 922, a five-year economic development plan for Arab communities for 2016-2020, which was hailed as a landmark in government policy vis-a-vis Arab Israelis.
“I am a mother of three girls, so it was important for me to see how the allocation of these funds is progressing and the impact it is having,” said Haj-Yahya.
She defines informal education as any kind of informal or experiential learning that happens inside or outside the classroom. This includes sports, art, educational tours or hikes, computers or robotics courses, career counseling, scouting and youth groups. Out of a total of 490,000 Arab children ages five through 18, she said, nearly 20% are currently enrolled in informal educational programs, a 10% increase since the start of the funding.
IDI’s plan includes a roadmap for integrating informal education into every local authority, as well as recommendations on how to develop culturally appropriate informal education tools and content for Israel’s Arab citizens. This roadmap includes financial collaboration with several ministries and nonprofits, setting up a dedicated unit of the Ministry of Education to allocate resources to informal education in Arab society, and a plan for training the staff needed to carry out such a plan.
“Implementing this master plan for informal education in the Arab-Israeli community would be a victory for Israel and its Arab youth,” Haj-Yahya said. Advancing informal education in Arab communities in Israel, she added, could play a role in reducing local crime, violence and vandalism. At the same time it could increase leadership skills, social cohesion and positive personal and cultural identity.The work is never done
Yet even when the haredi and Arab sectors are better integrated into Israeli society and its economy, as the saying goes, “the work is never done.”
Alongside Malach and Haj-Yahya is powerhouse Daphna Aviram-Nitzan, who runs the organization’s Center for Governance and the Economy. Her team is formulating recommendations on how Israel should best prepare for tomorrow’s labor market.
“The labor market of the future brings with it multiple challenges, along with opportunities for growth and innovation,” she said. “Experts predict far-reaching changes in the structure and characteristics of the labor market in the coming decades. Among the sources of these changes are technological developments, demographic changes, growing globalization, and changes in perceptions of the world of work.”
These changes are expected to undermine the stability of regimes and democracies, Aviram-Nitzan explained.
Against this backdrop, IDI established a work group whose title – Planning and Preparing for the Challenges of the Future Labor Market – explains its mission. Members include representatives from all the relevant players in the labor market, including government, employees, employers, academia and social organizations.
“Thoughtful planning and preparation for these challenges could preserve Israel’s status as the Start-Up Nation, characterized by rapid economic growth and low rates of unemployment,” said Aviram-Nitzan.
On a related issue, the government this year adopted a different set of IDI recommendations aimed at improving Israel’s business environment. These include calling in a technological authority to link various governmental entities online via a digital one-stop-shop and by removing the many regulatory and bureaucratic barriers to establishing new plants in Israel – a critical problem that has deterred numerous investors.
“We believe that implementation of our recommendations will provide a strong incentive to investors – both local and foreign – to establish and expand industrial plants in Israel, thus increasing the volume of employment and accelerating the growth of the Israeli economy,” Aviram-Nitzan explained.Survive and thrive
Alona Vinograd, the director of IDI’s Center for Democratic Values and Institutions, expressed similar sentiments about her own work.
The former director-general of the Movement for Freedom of Information, where she raised the issue of freedom of information to the top of the public agenda, Vinograd recently helped orchestrate IDI’s establishment of a new Israeli Democracy Pavilion. The pavilion, designed in partnership with the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality and with the support of the Taube Foundation, provides a unique multimedia experience with full 360-degree technology, showcasing the values embedded in Israel’s Declaration of Independence.
“We feel that the threat to democracy in Israel is real. We feel it in new proposed laws, as well as in disturbing statements made by politicians, against minority groups or basically anyone who has a view that is different than theirs,” Vinograd said. But at IDI she feels she can help Israel’s democracy not only survive, but thrive.
For example, IDI was one of the main forces responsible for toning down the language of the recently passed Nation-State Law. Nonetheless, said Vinograd, her team is campaigning to fix problems with the law to include a guarantee of equality and again make Arabic an official language.
Further, she said that when the democratic component is missing, rather than strengthen Israel as a Jewish state, it provides ammunition to the enemies of Zionism who want to harm Israel’s right to self-determination.
IDI researchers have pointed out that a few laws proposed and passed in recent years can be compared to legislation in Poland and Hungary. They say there have been populist trends in all three countries that emphasize the core identity of the nation, weaken gatekeepers and place limits on civil organizations.
“I see our role at IDI as a compass or lighthouse that focuses the country back on its core democratic values,” said Vinograd. “IDI holds back the floodgates and prevents infringements of our democratic rights when they are at stake.”This article was written in cooperation with the Israel Democracy Institute.
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