There is no need to ask Yaya Fink if he watched the political interviews on TV Saturday night.
“Everything is personal, terribly gossipy – who sat with whom, who turned against whom, who betrayed whom,” says Fink. “I meet with thousands of Israelis each month, and none of this interests them. People despise our politics. Too many people tell me that they have no intention of voting. The political media discourse is bad for Israeli democracy, and we are trying to restore the public’s hope and trust in its power. Politics is not a goal. Discussing ideology, even if there is controversy, restores the public’s trust in politicians.”
Darkenu, the largest non-partisan civic movement in Israel, has been working for a decade to strengthen Israel’s democratic and Zionist values. Its members comprise all elements of the population – religious and secular, Jews, Arabs, right-wingers, leftists – who believe that the State of Israel should operate according to the principles of the country’s Declaration of Independence and in the spirit of the prophets of Israel, with justice, equality, peace and mutual responsibility.
“Our goal is to try and unite moderate people from Israeli society,” says Fink. “We feel that the dichotomy in Israeli society is damaging, and we say, let’s find a common denominator of the moderate majority. It is possible to promote common values even if there are political disputes.”
With 400,000 supporters, a core of 8,200 volunteers across the country, 15,300 crowdfunding donors in 2020, an app and a TV channel, Fink believes that civil society can take its fate into its own hands – and cause change.
“We set up Democrat TV because we are connected to the general public and not to narrow interests. In our channel, we have ‘Agenda Counter’ – a technological tool that measures politicians’ speech – their ideology compared with slogans. The very usage of this tool causes politicians to consider their words carefully. That’s part of the story: to build an Israeli society, media and politics connected to ideas. A state is not one person, or one party. A state is the sum of its citizens. It is very important to talk about ideology in politics and media.”
Darkenu has been operating on social media, in the Knesset, and in the field for a decade, through both physical and virtual demonstrations. For example, a massive online rally held this September was attended by more than 800,000 people calling to establish a state commission of inquiry into the failure to manage the corona crisis.
“In 928 BCE, Israel split into two kingdoms, in southern Judea and northern Israel. Today, some want to divide us again between Judea and Israel. For them, either you are Jewish or you are Israeli. When we label who is Jewish, who is Israeli, and what separates us, it is easier to stay in power. It’s easy to stay in power when everything is chaotic, when there is no trust in the legal system, when there is hatred in the streets, when the health system collapses, and when it is difficult to distinguish between truth and falsehood,” Fink said in his speech to the online rally.
Half a year after that demonstration, internal rifts seem to be deepening. Protesters are attacked regularly and election rallies explode because of violence.
“IT MUST BE remembered that democracy is measured by the strength of civil society,” says Fink. “It does not begin and end in the political system. In the past month, I visited 10 pre-military preparatory schools and saw that the citizens, even the young ones, have given up on politics. We have forgotten that politics is not the goal but a tool for realizing a worldview. I think that this has been forgotten, and in recent years we see how all politicians fight for themselves and not for the benefit of the general public.
“This is part of the story of Darkenu and civic movements in general – to promote both values and a non-partisan system that seek to influence and reconnect the public to the importance of the State of Israel and Israeli politics. It is perfectly fine to hold different political views, and we have somewhat forgotten that. No one is a traitor, and no one is less Israeli than another person. So too, in Judaism, one who lives in Bnei Brak is no more Jewish than one who lives in Ramat Hasharon. We cannot allow incitement against Arabs because they are Arabs or against ultra-Orthodox people because they are ultra-Orthodox. In the end, it will reach you as well, because that is how incitement works.”
The 36-year-old Fink, a graduate of the Yeshivat Kibbutz HaDati with a master’s degree in business administration from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, learned organizational work from practical, hands-on experience. He founded “Lobby 99,” a public-interest lobby in Israel, and is a board member of Tzav Pius, which bridges divides in Israeli society. He was previously CEO of the Good Neighbor Association and served as chief of staff for former opposition leader Shelly Yacimovich. During his military service, he completed an infantry officer course with distinction and today serves as a major in the reserves. He is most troubled by religious coercion.
“Many Israelis are very afraid of any Jewish symbol, and I think it is because of religious coercion. This is bad for both Judaism and the state. I look at my friends. Coercion causes many of them not to want a connection to Judaism. It’s a shame. There are so many wonderful things in Judaism. We need to be a democratic Jewish state, and the question in 2021 is what is the meaning of a ‘Jewish state’? Is it a state that follows Jewish law or a state that relies on the notion that all human beings were created in the image of God and that Judaism should belong to everyone? The most frequently mentioned commandment in the Torah is to remember that we were living in the land of Egypt. Now that we have a state of our own, we need to remember our moral commitment to the ‘other.’ It’s time to draft a new contract between religion and state. A state without religious coercion that has fewer social gaps and more justice and equality will be a more Jewish state.”
A few days before this fourth election, members of the movement are working to increase voter turnout on Election Day.
Fink concludes, “We travel throughout the country, and on Election Day itself, we will encourage people to vote to keep Israel democratic. Despair is not a plan, and at least for us, the younger generation does not intend to give up the only country that we have.”
This article was written in cooperation with Darkenu.
Translated by Alan Rosenbaum