Many of us tend to see Israel in terms of its seemingly unique attributes – perhaps as the legitimate homeland of the Jewish people or as the target of more than 70 United Nations resolutions. Yet, in terms of the way that residents there handle intransigent bureaucracies and slow-to-change norms, Israel is no different than other advanced, industrial democracies facing both internal and external challenges.

Like most societies, partisan forces and polarization stymie Israel’s national government from making innovative or radical change. Despite such blocks, local movements and leaders in Israel can alter the society from below, attempting new approaches and trying out experiments beyond the reach of the central government. One of my colleagues has written about the ways that here in North America, state- and city-level bureaucrats have made more progress in adapting to climate change than our federal government has. While Congress itself may be divided into those who believe in climate change science and those who do not, middle-level civil servants have instead taken a pragmatic approach to the challenge.

Israel, too, has individuals outside the government who have tried to solve society’s problems. On a recent tour run by Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP), I and a number of colleagues had the chance to speak with people from all parts of Israeli and Palestinian civil societies. What excited me were the experiments and progress being made by individuals often working outside the system. Such people are known as “policy entrepreneurs,” as they find the gaps in existing frameworks and work to create new projects and services to fill those gaps. I saw these activists as successful integrators of public-private partnerships, entrepreneurial users of international social networks and the changemakers who learned lessons from personal experience.

We spent a morning visiting the Al Mustaqbal School in the Arab town of Jaljulia and speaking with principal Fatina Hijly, who has made tremendous changes in the lives of her pupils and teachers. Greeted by students singing in Arabic, Hebrew and English and then signing in sign language (as a number of their pupils suffer hearing loss), we learned of their lessons in applied hydroponics, music and art therapy and written and spoken Arabic (along with the standard curriculum of math, etc.). With the support of Israeli high-tech philanthropists through the Tovanot B’Chinuch initiative, Fatina has received funds to hire teachers and enrich the lives of students, most of whom come from families without strong educational backgrounds or well-paying jobs. The school stands out not only because it is the result of a partnership between tech titans and a local principal; it also provides much-needed social services to a vulnerable population.

Our group also spent time at the Taybeh Winery located in the last Arab Christian village just outside Ramallah in the West Bank, where a local family with connections to the United States has not only created a new hotel but also been brewing craft beer and wine. The founder, Nadim Khoury, returned to the area after being inspired by the Oslo Accords and has pioneered alcohol brewing in a society with few connections to the field. His family’s success shows the power of international social networks and the increasing mobility of many residents.

Finally, we had the chance to hear from and talk with Pnina Tamano-Shata, a lawyer, journalist and politician who served in the Knesset, Israel’s legislature, as a member of the Yesh Atid party between 2013 and 2015. Pnina remains the first Ethiopian-born woman to hold a Knesset seat. She bluntly discussed the racism she and others have experienced, ranging from name-calling as children to the fact that blood donated by Ethiopians was initially rejected by Israeli blood banks. When she served in the Knesset, she pushed the government to end social support programs which further isolated minority groups in their attempt to provide specialized services. She found from her own experiences in a boarding high school that integration, and not further isolation, helped her and the students around her find their places in multiethnic Israel.

There were several lessons that I took away from these policy entrepreneurs. First, public-private partnerships, such as those that we saw in Jaljulia, can help especially when resources are already stretched thin in the public sector. Other schools across Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) should think about reaching out to the private sector not only for funding but also for measurement and evaluation of their methods.

Next, the Khoury family showed the power of international social networks and the role that religious minorities such as Christians can play in broader Palestinian society. They have publicly stated their goals of drawing in more investment into the PA and also helping to shore up their community’s finances. One successful strategy for small businesses may be engaging their broader networks and finding comparative advantage in niche fields. Finally, Tamano-Shata’s close-up and personal knowledge of Israel’s welfare system helped her craft a new way to help other immigrants adjust to Israel and mainstream Israelis adjust to them.

CJP’s study trip allowed me the chance to meet these policy entrepreneurs in person and to see their contributions to civil society. Moving beyond the negative headlines which too often dominate the media coverage of Israel, I am grateful to have learned a great deal about the ways that these pioneers and iconoclasts are moving Israeli society forward.

 

  • – A modified version of this article appeared in the Jewish Advocate. Daniel P. Aldrich is co-director of the Security and Resilience Studies Program and professor in political science and public policy at Northeastern University. Aldrich has published four books and more than 30 peer-reviewed articles and has written op-eds for the New York Times, CNN and many other media outlets.