Fifth “Israel in 3D” conference highlights Israeli civil society's critical role at home and beyond

Fifth “Israel in 3D” conference highlights Israeli civil society

"Israel in 3D" keynote speaker Guy Rolnik (right) speaks with fellow veteran journalist Tal Schneider (Photo: UCLA Y&S Nazarian Center for Israel Studies)

The young Israeli civil society leaders and veteran journalists who participated in the day-long community event shared how they are working to solve a variety of social and economic challenges in Israel and around the world.

UCLA Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for Israel Studies, June 5, 2017 - The speakers at the Y&S Nazarian Center for Israel Studies’ May 21 “Israel in 3D” conference are not waiting for the government to tackle pressing societal and economic issues. The veteran journalists and young civil society leaders who presented at the hallmark Y&S Nazarian Center event are using the media, activism, art and for-profit companies to address some of their country’s – and the world’s – most pressing challenges.

Conference keynote Guy Rolnik, a professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and considered by many to be “Israel’s most influential business and economics journalist,” embodied the “Civil Society in Action” theme of the conference and demonstrated the extensive impact private citizens can have in Israel and beyond.

A Journalist with a Mission

While Rolnik’s remarks focused on the progress being made in Israel thanks in part to his efforts as a leading media executive and journalist, he began his speech by describing the challenges Israel has faced.

“Many like to speak about Israel as unique industrialized economy,” Rolnik observed. “But most challenges the Israeli economy faces today are not that different from the challenges facing the United States and Europe.”

Rolnik specifically mentioned wage growth, corruption, a lack of competition and the concentration of wealth as some of the problems that have been shared by Israel, other industrialized countries, and the United States in particular.

But Rolnik also recounted how through his leadership of Israel’s leading financial news organization, TheMarker, he was able to affect change by shifting the Israeli media narrative to focus on economic issues over the last several years.

“Six or seven years ago, TheMarker started an informative campaign about what happens when politics is controlled by special interests,” he explained. “The campaign was to decrease the influence of big money and vested interests in politics so politicians and regulators can cater to the public.”

His efforts resulted in a number of government actions addressing the concentration of wealth and power and the lack of market competition, including the landmark “Anti-Concentration Bill” of 2013. The legislation dismantled some of the large companies dominating Israeli industries and mandated that future Israeli government decisions take into account the role of competition and concentration.

The bill is considered by many to be one of the most important pieces of economic legislation passed in the history of the Israeli Knesset. Rolnik went on to demonstrate the impact of the government reforms by looking at the mobile phone industry and citing statistics that show consumer costs dropped by 80% after the passage of the bill.

“Today we are not continuing on the trajectory of more and more special interests and money in politics that we were on six or seven years ago,” Rolnik said.


Keynote speaker Guy Rolnik. (Photo: UCLA Y&S Nazarian Center for Israel Studies)

Following his remarks, Rolnik spoke with another veteran Israeli journalist, Tal Schneider who has won numerous awards for her political reporting, including the 2012 Excellence in Digital Journalism Award from Google Inc. and the Tel-Aviv Journalists Association. Schneider, who also made the introductory remarks for the conference, spoke with Rolnik about his approach to journalism and how it has changed.

“The reason I started having a more activist perspective and modus operandi in media is because I was frustrated,” Rolnik explained. “If the Israeli media is mostly controlled by special interests and if politicians cannot bring change because they are controlled by special interests, we must mobilize people.”

This approach was criticized by many, Rolnik said. But he noted during his conversation with Schneider why he persisted and how he reacted to these critiques.

“We responded by saying that sometimes just reporting doesn’t work,” he recalled. “When you’re doing that, you’re maintaining the status quo.”

Rolnik and Schneider were joined by a number of other speakers at the conference. The young activists, artists and social entrepreneurs featured on the three conference panels discussed their own innovative methods for addressing social and economic challenges in Israel and around the world.

Building a Shared Society

The activists and non-profit leaders on the “Building a Shared Society” program do not have a media organization at their disposal to advance their agendas. Instead, they are using grassroots activism and their organizations to promote an inclusive Israeli society.

The "Building a Shared Society" panel. From left: Eitan Arom (moderator), Mickey Gitzin,
Nawa Jahshan Batshon, Daniel Jonas & Pnina Tamano-Shata
(Photo: UCLA Y&S Nazarian Center for Israel Studies)

Both Mickey Gitzin and Daniel Jonas are working to improve inclusion in the Jewish community in Israel. Gitzin, CEO of “Be Free Israel,” has worked to ensure all Jews feel welcome in Israel and loosen the Orthodox clergy’s control over the definition of Jewish identity and practice.

“As long as the Jewish identity of the state of Israel is defined only by the Orthodox definition of who is a Jew and what it means to be a Jew, it pushes us Israelis from different religious identities and perspectives out of the frame,” he explained.

“Be Free Israel” has grown from a grassroots effort into a significant organization. As Gitzin noted “Now when I go to the Knesset, it isn’t just me talking, it is the hundreds of thousands of people who support us who are talking.”

His organization has worked on issues including discrimination of women in the public sphere and marriage equality and he emphasized that his efforts to ensure respect for all Jewish religious movements is also an effort to ensure the future of Israel’s democracy.

Jonas, Chairperson at Havruta, shared his personal story of growing up gay in the Orthodox community in Israel and the isolation he felt.

“Twenty years ago, the LGBTQ community was not represented in the media and not discussed among Orthodox people and I thought I was the only person on earth that was both gay and religious,” he said.

After coming out in his mid-twenties and the attack on the Bar-Noar gay youth club in Tel Aviv in 2009, Jonas decided to take action and joined what later became the organization Havruta. His work has focused on building a community where Orthodox LGBTQ individuals can feel accepted and supported and change the way Orthodox society sees the LGBTQ community.

He ended his remarks by explaining that “At the age of 15, I felt totally alone and I hope that today the same kids know that they are not alone.”

Israel’s first Ethiopian-born woman to serve in the Knesset (Israel’s Parliament), Pnina Tamano Shata, shared how she’s working to address the challenges she and other members of the Ethiopian Jewish community face.

The Ethiopian community has faced discrimination in Israel, which first motivated Tamano Shata to run to become a Member of Knesset. Since leaving the government, she has continued to work to address issues critical to her community, including housing, education and welfare.

While Tamano Shata’s work focuses on Ethiopian Israeli issues, she also believes that advancing the Ethiopian community in Israel is a benefit for the entire country.

“We must understand that to promote the weakest and minorities is part of a healthy and strong society,” she told the audience.

Photo: UCLA Y&S Nazarian Center for Israel Studies

Nawa Jahshan Batshon spoke about the economic obstacles facing Israel’s Arab population and how she hopes that through her organization Collective Impact, she can not only help better integrate Arabs into the economy, but also address tensions between Jewish and Arab Israelis.

Through Collective Impact, Batshon has been working closely with private companies to increase the number of Arabs in the workforce and the quality of those positions. This close working relationship with private enterprises distinguishes her organization from other similar efforts in the past.

“If we go to the private sector, we need to address them in their language and bring them the business case for hiring more Arabs and promoting them,” Batshon explained.

She also explained that she hopes these steps toward economic integration will help bring about even greater societal benefits.

“When we change the workforce and get Arabs and Jews working together and getting familiar,” Batshon said, “they ignore what the politicians have to say and this will affect what’s happening outside of the companies.”

The Voice of the Arts

The three Israeli artists who joined “The Voice of the Arts” panel are using very different strategies to bring about change in Israel on both a large and small scale.

"The Voice of the Arts" panel. From left: Shulamit Nazarian (moderator), Avner Faingulernt, May Zarhy,
and Asya Lukin (Photo: UCLA Y&S Nazarian Center for Israel Studies)

May Zarhy, a choreographer and founder of the collective experimental dance group MAMAZA, shared with the audience how she’s working to bridge barriers between different groups of people and change preconceptions.

Her 2011 “Single Line” project was based on a simple premise: use tape to mark a line connecting popular city centers to cultural centers. But staying true to the project’s goal of bringing cultural centers to the forefront required crossing private spaces and sometimes even restricted ones.

“It forced us to knock on doors when we reached private spaces and explain our idea of how this line can connect and link different populations and different kinds of people who live side by side,” she said. “And by having that conversation in the first place, we also connected as artists to others who may not be traditionally interested in dance or any other art form.”

Another project in 2015 for the Tel Aviv Museum of Art was a dance performance focused on confronting popular images of women. Through her performance, she proposed a much more complex understanding of the female body and attempted to change perceptions of women by counteracting stereotypical female characteristics in her choreography.

Independent filmmaker and Director of the School of Film and Television at the Sapir Academic College in Sderot, Avner Faingulernt, spoke to the audience about how he’s helping to revitalize a neglected part of Israel and give voices to those traditionally excluded from Israeli cinema.

“This part of the south of Israel is one of the poorest areas and under constant bomb attacks,” Faingulernt explained of Sderot. “But it is culturally the most precious and rich zone in Israel.”

Photo: UCLA Y&S Nazarian Center for Israel Studies

Faingulernt established the film school at Sapir College sixteen years ago and helped found the Sderot-based Cinema South International Film Festival in 2002. Since then, the traditionally marginalized city has undergone a transformation. Faingulernt is hoping to continue that trend by relocating his school to the middle of the city, bridging the divide between the city and the academic community.

Faingulernt also explained how the School of Film and Television has “brought new voices to the Israeli cinema that were unheard” before and how he hopes a recently established regional film fund will help “change the voice of Israeli cinema again.”

Israeli visual artist Asya Lukin described bringing those who have often been excluded in Israel – including immigrants like Lukin who came to the country from Russia – to the forefront through painting. As part of “The New Barbizon,” a group founded in 2011 by five Israeli artists born in the former USSR, Lukin has used observational art to portray the lives of Sudanese refugees, Bedouins and others on the margins of Israeli society.

“It was like revealing a new world,” Lukin remembered of going to one of these isolated communities for the first time. “Sometimes it feels like we are the first people that are showing them.”

Doing Well by Doing Good

While the artists are using the creative media to give voice to traditionally excluded communities and bring together Israel’s mosaic of citizens, the social entrepreneurs who joined the “Doing Well by Doing Good” panel are using a very different tool for bringing about change: for-profit enterprises.

The "Doing Well by Doing Good" panel. From left: Lisa Greer (moderator), Neta-Li Meiri, Narkis Alon,
Cecile Blilious and Sinan AbuShanab. (Photo: UCLA Y&S Nazarian Center for Israel Studies)

Cecile Blilious, Founder and Managing Partner at Impact First Investments, Israel’s first impact venture, kicked off the conversation.

“There is no contradiction between making money and doing good,” she explained.

Blilious highlighted how her work and the work of the other panelists involves looking from a business perspective at how to solve problems that are not being or cannot be solved by governments. She focuses her work on for-profit companies using technology to address various problems, including one of the latest companies she invested in, AngelSense, which helps parents with special needs keep their children safe.

But Blilious emphasized that there is still much work to be done in using technology to address social and economic problems around the globe – and that Israel can play a major role in the future.

“Everyone talks about ‘Start-Up Nation,’ but I think we’re really missing something,” she explained. “If we take the abilities of the ‘Start-Up Nation’ and use that to do something good for society, then we will be doing something great by making the world a better place with Israeli technology.”

While Blilious is helping technology companies addressing social challenges around the world, Narkis Alon is investing in other people by helping other Israeli and non-Israeli millennials figure out how they can make a living while doing something that has a purpose.

She had her own problems choosing a career path. But after brainstorming and developing ideas for the future, she founded ZeZe, which creates social projects developed by young people that are financially sustainable and help communities in need.

Photo: UCLA Y&S Nazarian Center for Israel Studies

“I really think if we tap into this simple idea of using the power of the group for empowering individuals from all socio-economic backgrounds, it’s actually our only hope,” Alon explained.

While the projects she has supported through ZeZe are based in Israel, her newest venture, Double You, is an effort to empower women entrepreneurs around the world. Alon recently returned from a trip with her newest company to Costa Rica and her organization has also already worked with hundreds of women from 14 different countries.

Sinan AbuShanab is Program Manager at Our Generation Speaks, a Boston-based fellowship program and incubator. While the company is investing in young people building innovative enterprises, it is also helping address an important issue: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The program, founded by an Israeli and led by both Israelis and Palestinians, specifically brings together cohorts of young Israeli and Palestinian community leaders to cooperate across ethnic and political lines to build prosperity within the region.

“We’re talking about changing facts on the ground that both sides are looking forward to,” AbuShanab explained.

“The young generation on both sides has lots of skepticism in the current leadership’s ability to deliver a lasting solution,” he added. “But I know that there is a solution and that young people can bring it home.”

Another incubator leader, Neta-Li Meiri, is harnessing the network of former members of Unit 8200, a well-known intelligence outfit in the Israel Defense Forces. The highly-secretive military unit has produced a number of successful high-tech and venture capital leaders. The 8200 Social Program was established to utilize that alumni network to promote startups using technology to address social problems not being solved by the government.

Meiri presented one of the companies that had grown out of the program which helps those with speaking impairments communicate effectively.

Israel in 3D

The “Israel in 3D: Civil Society in Action” conference was organized by the UCLA Y&S Nazarian Center with the generous support of a number of organizations, including the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles, the Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Foundation, the Israel Institute, First Media and the Law Offices of Popkin, Shamir & Golan.


Photos: UCLA Y&S Nazarian Center for Israel Studies

“Putting on ‘Israel in 3D’ is always rewarding because it’s a unique opportunity for the community to learn more about Israel and different aspects of the country that are not often discussed in the media,” Y&S Nazarian Center Director Yoram Cohen explained. “And we truly appreciate the support of our sponsors for helping to make this conference such a huge success this year.”

Full video of the conference panels can be found here.