Israeli Hope — an Israeli-based initiative designed to address the Jewish state’s changing demographics — has yet to gain widespread traction in the United States, but the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation is lending its support as an early believer.
Introduced last year, the initiative is officially titled “Israeli Hope — a New Israeli Order” and it’s Israeli President Reuven Rivlin’s vision for the country’s four sectors (secular Jewish, national-religious Jewish, ultra-Orthodox Jewish and Arabs) to cooperate with one another around values of a shared society.
“As part of Federation’s goal to bring Israelis together and foster pluralism and a truly shared society, we are thrilled to support Israeli Hope,” Federation CEO Danny Grossman said recently.
“This innovative initiative invests in diverse, young Israelis on campus at a moment when they are open to learning about themselves and others, their differences and commonalities, and the inequalities present in Israeli society. This is critical work that builds on the efforts of thousands who are actively strengthening the fabric of Israeli society.”
Grossman said “campus” because the initiative, though composed of several pillars, has made much of its headway so far in the arena of academics, securing the involvement of 30 institutions of higher education across Israel.
“Staff diversity officers” working as part of the initiative have been (or will be) recommending new campus policies, introducing courses about Israel’s diverse communities, and creating inclusive academic calendars and exam schedules.
Already, diversity among staff and faculty has improved at a number of institutions who made a commitment to change things, according to Ayala Hendin, Israeli Hope’s Jerusalem-based director.
She praised the S.F.-based Federation for being an early believer in the initiative.
“This is an example of smart philanthropy,” Hendin said. “Federation had faith in us before the initiative was fully articulated. They gave the first dollar, which made it easier to get the second dollar.”
The initiative was born in response to striking shifts in Israel’s demographic picture. The composition of Israel’s elementary school population — especially in terms of expanding haredi (or ultra-Orthodox) and Israeli Arab populations — puts that shift in stark relief.
According to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, Israeli first-grade students in 1990 were 52 percent secular Jewish, 23 percent Arab, 16 percent Orthodox and 9 percent ultra-Orthodox. By 2018, the numbers are expected to be 38 percent secular Jewish, 25 percent Arab, 1 percent Orthodox and 22 percent ultra-Orthodox.
“[These demographics] create a situation where each group has to re-evaluate the role they want to take in society,” Hendin said. “We no longer have a clear majority and minorities. In this changing reality, the groups will have to partner with each other in order maintain a sustainable society.”
According to Barak Loozon, director of the Federation’s Israel and Global network, which has an office in Kfar Saba (near Herzliya), there is a big difference between Israeli Hope and prior governmental funding for minority programs.
Before, “investments were made so minorities would become more like us, meaning Israelis,” said Loozon. “They didn’t take their stories into account. We are waking up 70 years later asking, ‘What do I have in common with everybody else?’ We are using philanthropic funds toward real integration.”
The initiative also reflects a move from the Israel Defense Forces to academia as the central perceived meeting place for Israelis.
“The IDF is the biggest professional development provider,” Hendin noted. “It is a place where many Israelis learn skills and receive training. But today, at least 50 percent of all 18-year-olds will not serve in the IDF. Higher education institutions are becoming the new meeting point and mechanism that will prepare young adults for their future within Israeli society.”
Loozon stressed a connection between Israeli and U.S. campuses, noting both are drivers of diverse ideas and multiculturalism. And with the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement active at growing numbers of American colleges, he believes Israel can demonstrate how campus life can better express a pluralistic vision.
“We are creating an intervention that brings new ways of how to create a shared society in Israel,” he said. “This is something to be proud of and it could be a huge engagement tool in the Bay Area. Imagine what campuses would look like if we could bring about shared narratives for different segments of students.”