Critical Currents: Civil society in crisis

The voluntary sector is living testimony not only of the vibrancy of contemporary Israeli society, but also of the inadequacies of official institutions

This country's fragile civil society is at risk just when the US proved once again that communal organizations are the bedrock of democratic renewal. They galvanized to bring about one of the most dramatics changes in American history. If the non-governmental sector here is allowed to falter at this critical conjuncture, the country may forfeit the still-delicate social roots that prop up its fledgling democratic order. Our voluntary sector has only come of age in recent years. During the formative period of the state, the social landscape was dominated by monopolistic organizations tied to political parties, and especially to the reigning Mapai establishment. The Histadrut, women's associations, sports clubs and youth movements operated, for all intents and purposes, as subsidiaries of the government or of its opponents. This hegemonic order began to break down after 1967. Social protest was spearheaded by the Black Panther movement in the early 1970s - a process accelerated by the widespread spontaneous outcry in the wake of the Yom Kippur War. The creation first of Gush Emunim and then of Peace Now gave political traction to this dynamic. While civil rights and social change groups began to form during this period, it was only in the 1980s that a variety of civil society organizations took hold. The pioneers - the Association of Civil Rights in Israel, the Israel Women's Network, Hemdat (the Association of Freedom of Religion in Israel) - were followed by a veritable flood of human rights, social justice, environmental, religious, educational, immigrant and welfare associations. By the turn of the century, literally tens of thousands of groups covering everything from Beduin rights and Orthodox women's study groups to migrant worker hot lines, rape crisis centers and initiatives to protect every conceivable minority had been established. The flourishing of civil organizations - a reflection of the heterogeneity of our society and the multiplicity of divergent interests it contains - was further prompted by the gradual withdrawal of the state from the provision of key social services. In recent years, and especially following the adoption of neo-liberal economic policies in 2003, the third sector has become a substitute for the government in fields as diverse as supplementary medical services, poverty alleviation, housing and care for the elderly. THE VOLUNTARY sector today is living testimony not only of the vibrancy of contemporary Israeli society, but also of the inadequacies of official institutions. Without a functioning civil society, the social fabric of the country (already under threat) would unravel completely. Social organizations supply essential services, furnish sustenance, supplement basic education, and provide much-needed relief. But they do much more: They are a vehicle for empowering the poor and disadvantaged. They give voice to the marginalized and the heretofore silenced. They help to bring together disparate communities and secure their fundamental rights. They empower and legitimize the multiplicity of groups that make up the country today. Above all, in an era in which the public arena is shunned and its practitioners discredited, civil organizations keep people engaged. In the face of growing alienation, they sustain the belief that positive change is possible. Civil society in this country, however, is still in its infancy. The proliferation of groups is not always a sign of strength. When not accompanied by substantial policy outcomes, it can yield frustration and friction. And if not sustained by values of tolerance and pluralism, it can reflect the multiculturalism that is Israel without fortifying the values of equality and justice which are its vital corollary. AS CONTEMPORARY society strives to internalize these material and normative challenges, it finds itself buffeted by economic woes - mostly imported, but increasingly also homegrown - which threaten its still-insecure foundations. The entire non-profit sector is trying to grapple with the implications of reduced donations in recent months, coupled with the prospect of even more drastic cuts during the course of 2009. The declining dollar has meant that the purchasing power of many contributions has decreased in the past year by more than 20 percent. And, as the country begins to feel the effects of the global financial crisis, the weakest segments of the population are beginning to exhibit real distress. Just as the number of people in need rises, the capacity to meet their essential requirements is contracting enormously. Major social service and social change organizations have already been forced to cut their budgets, sometimes in half. At this point most groups have carried out extensive administrative cutbacks, dismissed some staff and significantly pared down operations. Even with stepped-up fund-raising efforts, the forecast for the future remains bleak. Smaller groups suffer more: Some are struggling to survive; others have been forced to close. Attempts to pool efforts and even merge have not always succeeded. Emergency measures are now in place: The major umbrella groups are offering advice on financial management in times of economic stagnation. They are providing professional advice on how to manage with less. But they too are suffering from a serious reduction in means. If this trend continues unabated, social security will be undermined and the political order will be assailed. Civil society cannot go it alone any more, just as we cannot afford its collapse. Social change and social service organizations need financial injections now, both from government and, yes, from the private sector that is also undergoing tremendous turmoil. Economic policy must include provisions to buttress civil society. Innovative efforts need to be made to increase collaboration among all three sectors. Any overarching strategy to meet the economic standstill must incorporate designs for reinforcing civil society and replenishing social investments. The constant invigoration of voluntarism is the key to social cohesion and progressive socioeconomic change. It is also the precondition for democratic survival. The conscious maintenance of a vigorous and diverse civil society, especially today, is hardly a luxury. It is a necessity that can prevent disempowerment and helplessness and all that these entail for the country in the years ahead.