December 2007

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Naomi Chazan.
News and Opinion

A Conversation With Naomi Chazan
A progressive vision of Israel's future.

-- Adena Potok

On October 17, 2007, the New Israel Fund presented a program to the Philadelphia community at the National Constitution Center where a capacity audience heard three Israeli voices not often quoted in the general or Jewish press. Introduced by national NIF Board Member Daniel Segal, the three Israelis spoke of their work toward a progressive vision for Israel's future. Naomi Chazan, a three-term member of the Knesset and formerly its Deputy Speaker, was the key presenter, joined by Yuval Yavneh an activist on behalf of Jewish pluralism, and Yarona Ben Shalom-Richardson, co-director in Beer Sheva of SHATIL, NIF’s empowerment and training center. Chazan, well known Israeli political activist and considered one of Israel's top legislators of the past decade, particularly in the areas of human rights, gender equality and consumer affairs, fielded some questions in an interview prior to her talk in which she elaborated her views. What follows is a composite of both.

Does she miss her work in the Knesset? After a chuckle, she said that now she can spend her time concentrating on what she loves: women’s issues, peace, economic issues, and religious pluralism. But didn't she do exactly that while in the Knesset? It is a curiosity that since leaving office she has attained a more powerful voice. Being a Knesset member does not necessarily bring a listening public ear. Her love for Israel forms the basis for wanting to make her country better. For Israel to progress in a host of areas she must be true to her founding ideals. Chazan translates this into becoming a more just, equitable, and pluralistic state.

Sixty years after its founding, the state Israel is more diverse, more colorful, and very divided internally. She has grown from a relatively cohesive population of 600,000 in 1948 to a vastly diverse one of 7,000,000 in 2007. In Chazan's view, Israel's greatest challenge is the Jewish/Arab divide. Then come gender issues, the increasing economic divide, newcomer vs. "old-timer" population groups, the retrenchment of viewpoints. In her words, Israel is a multi-cultural society without the characteristics of a multi-cultural ethos: respect for others, dignity of behavior, tolerance of difference, and finally, pluralism of community based on a real belief in equality. The strides Israel has made are extraordinary. But she has a long way to go towards fulfilling her ethos. And it is urgent to progress on these sensitive and delicate issues. In this she sees NGOs [non-governmental organizations] playing a significant role as builders of change, being significantly more able than government agencies to move quickly in problem solving.

In addition to the above, Chazan noted four major areas requiring focused attention and action and spent some time on each. Economic Development and Accessibility; Challenge of Democracy; Challenge of the State (Civic Responsibility); Domestic Issues vis-a-vis Israel/Arab Issues.

From her beginnings 60 years ago as an economically fairly homogeneous society in an underdeveloped country, Israel has grown to a highly developed technological economy producing advances from which the entire world benefits and which has created a wealthy class. At the same time, one out of three kids and 20 percent of the overall population live below the poverty line, while 49 percent of the adult population comprise the working poor. Israel is experiencing a shrinking of her middle class, and this threatens her economic and social development. It also erodes social solidarity, which requires attention to social needs along with economic justice.

Naomi Chazan.

Chazan noted three factors within Israel's democracy that pose challenges to its continuing development. Democracy is fragile and is by nature imperfect, and Israel is relatively still an infant state. So, while we legitimately level constructive criticism we do well to bear those factors in mind as a brake on our impatience.

One wondered if she misses the give and take of government debate.

The Knesset is a mirror of Israeli society -- very full representation of all points of view. Too often the give-and-take is more a matter of giving without taking; lecturing one another and not listening, convinced that one’s point of view bears the legitimacy of truth. The other side of the coin is that in terms of popular representation in government and expression of opinions Israel is very much a democracy: all sides are at the table and unabashedly verbal. That being said, public persuasion and organizing positive action are often more possible and more easily affected as an independent citizen.

Has the level of popular investment in the electoral process in Israel remained high?

Election rates in Israel were once as high as 90 percent. The past few years has witnessed a serious drop in that civic responsibility. Nevertheless, popular participation in the most recent election was 63 percent, a good sight better than in many democracies. (That brought out a note of pride in her fellow citizenry.) "Personally I’m fine with 63%." But, in terms of the next steps in the process of setting policy, she quotes prominent Israeli social/political thinker Amitai Etzioni, "In order to protect your gain and move forward you must identify and deal with its [society’s] problems." Democracy is based on a real belief in equality.

Chazan strongly noted that Israel has to deal both with the domestic issues of her citizenry at home as well as with various inter-group issues within and abutting Israel. This is vital to her well-being. That is a tall order for any society. It is compounded for Israel, situated in a neighborhood that is not overwhelmingly friendly. "Peace is a vehicle for a just society."

She asked the engaged audience to acknowledge Israel's active struggle with issues. "We need your involvement" to engage those who, in their internalized view of democracy and its values, have moved away from Israel.

In an informal dinner of "opinion makers" with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice during her recent visit to Israel, Chazan made the point that although 20 Israelis will yield 20 opinions the consuming topic and overarching concern in the country is the physical survival of the state.

During the question and answer period, Trudy Rubin, foreign correspondent for the Philadelphia Inquirer, wondered if there were too many expectations of the deliberations. Chazan’s answer was a resounding "yes." Continuing, she noted that this is the time to meet, while at the same time recognizing that it is akin to planets shifting. "This is not a one-time meeting. But, we need to move towards a two-state solution. It is the key to Israel’s being a democracy with a Jewish majority. This is the next round; we must see it through. After we find a political solution [to boundaries] then the humanitarian solutions will follow."

Ending in Hebrew, Chazan said, "Bli tzedek ayn tzedakah." Without justice there is no righteousness.

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