Planting Seeds

Ronit Heyd has her hands full. The recently appointed executive director of Shatil says this country needs to wake up to the threats of internal social issues before it’s too late.

Heyd 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Heyd 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Some might find it ironic that the contentious Holyland housing project is the focal point in the view from Ronit Heyd’s Jerusalem office.
Before being appointed last month as executive director of Shatil – a training and empowerment organization for nonprofits set up by the New Israel Fund some 28 years ago – one of Heyd’s jobs was to coordinate the public activities protesting the corruption that had allowed the Holyland to be built in the first place.
“I used to have the office next door and when the Holyland story came out, while [former prime minister and Jerusalem mayor Ehud] Olmert was being investigated, I kept looking at it and thinking how it highlighted so many of the social issues that we are battling in Israel today,” says Heyd, 36, who has worked at Shatil for more than nine years.
“Those buildings show it all so clearly,” she continues, gesturing toward the five apartment blocks and their accompanying hi-rise tower that now dominate western Jerusalem’s skyline. “There is now this ‘thing’ stuck right in the middle of Jerusalem and it only happened because there was a window of opportunity for certain people, people with money, to take advantage of a situation and make a whole lot more money.
“Now, the rest of Jerusalem’s residents have to live with this huge scar in the middle of their lives, and I seriously think it affects so many people here,” adds Heyd, who started her career in the nonprofit world as coordinator of Shatil’s Pluralism Project.
In her role as director of Shatil’s Social and Economic Justice Department, it was Heyd’s job to unite the various social rights and justice groups in their struggle against public figures such as Olmert and former mayor Uri Lupolianski who were involved in the affair and demand that they be held accountable. Shatil continues to be instrumental as NGOs fight the government’s proposed building and construction reform, which Heyd believes will only allow hundreds more Holylands to appear throughout the country.
“It is not just how it affects the people visually though,” she explains. “It is also about the pollution and change in infrastructure that this project has brought; the air we breathe and the roads we drive on, they all belong to the public and are there for the public good.”
This significant change to the skyline is obviously a serious point of contention for the softly spoken but determined Heyd, who was born and raised in Jerusalem. However, what seems to bother her even more is that this and other social issues only play a very small part in the public’s consciousness.
“I think the public has become more aware of social issues since the Second Lebanon War,” she says. “That war brought many issues to the surface; it showed how Israel was not prepared socially for war, but it also highlighted the stark social gaps in our society. It showed the huge differences between those who live in the center of the country and those who live on the periphery and highlighted the gap between the haves and the have nots.
“What has also become clear since then is that more and more of the wealth in Israel is being concentrated into certain hands and that wealth means power; when wealth is only in certain people’s hands, it means the majority of people have less ability to control what happens in their lives and environment.”
AGAIN, THE HOLYLAND complex is a good example of this phenomenon, adds Heyd, looking towards the window.
“What concerns me the most is that people just do not seem aware how much these social problems can harm Israel in the long run,” she continues. “And we are so busy talking about security issues that the social issues and gaps are just growing and growing. Eventually they will harm our social fabric in a way that we will never be able to overcome if we don’t start taking it more seriously.”
Raising awareness to such issues as lack of public and affordable housing, socioeconomic and educational gaps, labor rights, immigrants’ struggles, religious pluralism and gender balance are just some of the battles taken up by Shatil, which essentially assists NGOs in disseminating their messages, helps them to encourage legislative change, forms coalitions between organizations with shared goals and provides them with hands-on consulting.
“It’s a free service,” says Heyd, highlighting that her staff works closely with some 1,500 nonprofit organizations each year as long as they “fit into our mandate, which is promoting social justice, human rights, civil rights, environmental justice and pluralism.”
What will you bring to your new position?
I hope to use my experience of working with a diverse group of people to help bring all types of groups together to promote shared goals and interests.
My goal is to broaden the base of the social justice movement and ultimately influence more social change.
I also want to reach groups in mainstream society because it is so important for all people to understand that the values we are promoting are relevant to each and every one of us. Whether we talk about housing rights or freedom of expression or the rights of Beduin in the Negev to have a basic infrastructure, these issues are relevant even for people who live in Jerusalem or in Tel Aviv. These are the issues that affect our society and environment.
What, in your opinion, are the key social issues today?
The most worrying process is happening in the government, in the Knesset, where there have been public attacks on individuals and groups that do not agree with the views and policies of the country’s decision-makers. There has been a real attempt by legislators to target NGOs and human rights groups.
Legislation is already on the way that is trying to regulate and to narrow the ability of human rights organizations to raise funds, and that is a serious threat to our democracy.
I am very worried that our democracy is under attack, which might sound just like a slogan but it’s not. When freedom of speech and demonstration is being limited, it starts to become dangerous. Right now it is only a certain group – the human rights organizations – but in the future it could affect other communities and individuals who do not agree with the mainstream view or decision-makers’ policies.
When the government is trying to silence dissenting voices, I think there is a serious need for concern.
Even if we disagree with what those voices are saying, and in some cases we do disagree, it is still crucial for them be able to voice their concerns over the way the government and the country at large is operating.
Isn’t that legislation only aimed at groups who criticize Israel or who are promoting a boycott of Israeli goods and other sanctions?
 I’m afraid that most people think this [legislation] is only relevant for this strange group of people who are busy advocating for rights of Palestinian Israelis or Palestinians in Gaza but it could become relevant for more and more people.
For example, if any more power is placed into the hands of the haredi parties, we will start to see that many more people will not be able to get married here the way that they want to. Certain legislation such as the recent Rotem bill [advocating Orthodoxonly conversions] is a huge threat to Israel’s pluralistic character.
What is your response to the assertion that Shatil, and its mother organization, the New Israel Fund, are both “extreme left-wing” organizations?
One of our failures is that we see everything in terms of Left and Right. If you advocate for human rights you must be left-wing, and if you push social rights you must be left-wing, and in some cases you are blamed for being anti-Zionist.
I think that loving Israel means advocating for a just democratic society and these labels devalue the causes by saying we are not working on the essence but, rather, are trying to be political.
Besides, we work with many different groups and causes. In my previous job I worked with haredi women on issues such as aguna rights. We also work with environmental groups, social and economic rights, immigrants, freedom of choice, the right to marriage and the conversion process.
How do you view the claims against the NIF – and Shatil by default – that were presented in the Im Tirtzu report? [The report claimed that the NIF funded Israeli human rights organizations that provided the bulk of information used by the United Nations in its Goldstone Report to condemn Israel for its actions during Operation Cast Lead.]
Listen, the NIF recently reaffirmed its commitment to social justice and human rights. I think that social justice, human rights and all social change organizations are united in a clear voice: We are not working against the State of Israel. Rather, we are the ones who are ensuring and safeguarding the State of Israel because we want it to be a democratic and flourishing society.
Why does it appear that human rights organizations are gaining more strength?
Basically it’s because there is more need for them.
When there is more violation of people’s rights, then you need more organizations to protect those rights, whether its human rights, civil rights or social rights.
It is not only that there has been a huge growth in the number of human rights organizations in Israel over the past 10 years, but it is also that their professional ability has improved.
These days, it is simply not enough for an organization to be right; it also has to be pragmatic and able to facilitate real change. While it’s important for social rights groups to be gatekeepers and raise awareness about certain issues, they also need to be able to propose change and provide alternative real solutions – that is how Shatil has been able to help them.