Speaking with young leaders of grassroots organizations in Jerusalem on Tuesday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken emphasized the importance of democracy as a binding force in America’s ties with the Jewish state.
Israeli civil society is America’s “North Star” when it comes to maintaining the country’s values, he said.
“The colleagues who are here today are vibrant parts of civil society, and for those of us in government, civil society plays an absolutely critical role,” Blinken said, pointing to the group.
“It can be our North Star,” he added as he sat down in the capital with five representatives of Israeli civil society. He held similar meetings with Palestinian and Egyptian civil society leaders.
“For me as an entrepreneur to meet, at age 31, with the US Ambassador and US Secretary of State... it gives me a lot of inspiration and motivation to keep pushing to do good."Waseem Abu Salem, founder and CEO of Loop
Blinken met with the Israeli group on a rainy Jerusalem morning at an Israeli-Palestinian music and arts center called Feel Beit, in the Yes Planet complex, at a seam point between Israeli Jewish and Arab neighborhoods in the capital.
The group sat on sofas set up in a circle. Blinken arrived having just met with Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and with opposition leader and former prime minister Yair Lapid.
He later left for Ramallah to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Israel through the eyes of its civic society organizers
It’s the first time that Blinken has met with representatives of Israeli civil society since he became secretary of state. All of the participants work for organizations that receive US government funding.
Among the participants was Waseem Abu Salem, already tapped by The Marker as one of Israel’s leading young professionals. Abu Salem is the CEO and founder of Loop, an organization that provides computer science training to Israeli-Arab children and teens.
The gangly 31-year-old, who arrived in Jerusalem the night before from Haifa, said he was surprised to find himself speaking with the US secretary of state and even more surprised to discover that he was the only Arab Israeli that Blinken was scheduled to meet during his brief two-day visit.
“It’s a lot of responsibility,” he commented.
The conversation between them was largely practical and not political, he said, explaining that it focused on details regarding Israeli-Arab life and the opportunities his organization offers youngsters to integrate into the Israeli economy and society.
“I told him about how challenging it is for Arabs here. You have to work twice as hard as others in some cases,” Abu Salem said, adding that this was why it was so important to empower Arab-Israeli teens.
The conversation was less about democracy and more about challenges and “how important it was for us as citizens to receive equal opportunities and to make sure democratic values are maintained to provide respect and enable people to live in harmony and to avoid extreme changes we do not want,” he said.
Abu Salem said that it was inspiring and a “life-changing experience” to meet Blinken. “For me as an entrepreneur to meet at age 31 with the US ambassador and US secretary of state... it gives me a lot of inspiration and motivation to keep pushing to do good and to spread more hope to more and more youth so they can dream and build... for the following generations.”
The timing of the meeting, in the shadow of the proposed judicial overhaul, and “receiving [Blinken’s] support was super valuable, especially during these difficult times,” Abu Salem said, adding that it made him feel as if the United States has his back.
Yaari Bar Tal, of the Israeli Gay Youth movement (IGY) said she woke up before dawn to travel from Afula to Jerusalem for the morning meeting.
“I think it was refreshing for him” to speak with them “and to hear about the challenges we are facing, particularly in the current political climate,” she said.
Right now the LGBTQ+ community in Israel sees “more violent discourse around LGBTQ+ rights,” she said, adding that she is particularly concerned that the judicial overhaul would weaken the country’s democracy so that its government will look more like Hungary or Poland.
When democracy diminishes, the “LGBTQ+ community is often one of the first minorities to be threatened,” Bar Tal said.
Blinken voiced his support for the community, she said. He underscored the importance of democracy and diversity and added that US society was facing similar challenges.
“He said we should be working together to face those challenges.”
Blinken also asked how the US could best support them.
Ryan Levin of the Netzah Educational Network, which works to prepare ultra-Orthodox pupils for higher education institutes in Israel, said funding was key to his organization’s success.
He was surprised to receive a phone call at home in Efrat on Friday inviting him to the meeting. It was hard to get the children to be quiet long enough to understand what was happening.
“It was a great way to go into Shabbat. I was super excited; I admire Secretary Blinken,” he said.
“Anyone who is objectively honest with themselves” would be concerned at this moment about democracy in Israel, he said, adding that this was one of these “inflection moments.”
Levin said he wants to be confident that democracy will prevail. But “given the growing tribalism of Israeli society that is entrenched in fixed outlook perspectives that shape political affiliation,” the situation is worrying, he said.
At a press conference Tuesday evening in Jerusalem, Blinken said that he found their work inspiring and a reminder that the “civil societies in both of our countries play an indispensable role” in protecting a free society, holding their leaders accountable and working for a better world.
“They can count on the US as a partner in all their endeavors,” he said.