By Barak Sela
The author is a member of an urban kibbutz in Haifa affiliated with Dror Israel and works for the Shahaf Foundation. He served as the Central Shaliach of Habonim Dror Foundation from 2017-2019.
In recent weeks I have found myself organizing hundreds of volunteers in the city of Haifa, Israel. This is not something I planned or prepared for. The reality of the Coronavirus pandemic created desperate needs within our community that were impossible to ignore. Senior citizens stranded at home, disconnected from their circles of support. People who were able to provide for their families yesterday suddenly found themselves unemployed. An entire country in lockdown, bringing severe mental distress to even the strongest among us.
Luckily, my friends and I were able to act. I am a part of a community, an urban kibbutz, and more importantly, I am a part of a movement – Dror Israel. I work for an employer who provides the compensation that allows me to take action and gives me the support I need to do so. My physical and mental health are in good shape (relatively, just like everyone else).
My community and I have started a group of hundreds of volunteers from the Hadar neighborhood of Haifa, providing assistance to thousands of local residents; grocery shopping, medication delivery, financial help, donation of tech equipment for local youth and more. I have to say I was amazed by the will and strength of the local volunteers. During the last six weeks an incredible number of locals have simply shown up to do anything they can each morning. Most of them have done so without the expectation of anything in return. They act because their neighbors need help – and they are in a position to assist.
Nonetheless, this situation creates a certain discomfort and a big dilemma for me.
The reaction of the country and its institutions to the social crisis has been very slow and partial at best; in no way sufficient to deal with the magnitude of the problem. A neo-liberal set of values has established a national leadership that not only accepts the existence of a lower working class, it actively acts to perpetuate it. It empowers the strong and steps on those who need support. It weakens and agitates against social services and those who provide them. It is impossible and unfair to continually weaken our health system and then cheer on our “brave doctors”. It is impossible to neglect our education system and then expect our teachers to be “team players”. And it is impossible to dismantle our social state and then expect social workers to be able to provide assistance to anyone finding themselves left out, hungry or in need.
If there is one thing I have learned from a month and a half of volunteering, it’s the “missing-in-action” status of the Israeli welfare state. Our social institutions remain weak and vulnerable, dependent on nonprofits and charitable organizations to survive. However, as far as citizens are concerned, the state is still supposed to be committed to them. Our public infrastructure has been dismantled or weakened, but the people still expect their government to be there for them – especially during crises. Ironically, the government seems to understand that, but hasn’t the ability or will to take on the challenge. Up until now, the state of Israel hasn’t provided the required means to deal with the enormous social emergency caused by the pandemic.
In the gap created by the government’s inability to help and the actual need of the people, we see volunteers, activists and citizens. People who don’t just look on from the sidelines. Here in Israel we have two states for one people. One state, neo-liberal and capitalist, a state that took over the entire formal establishment. Next to it another state – the welfare state that still exists, I believe, deep in the hearts of most Israelis. A state in which there is an unwritten contract between the citizens and the government, in which all are responsible for one another and for those in need. “From each according to their ability, to each according to their need” – to most of Israel’s citizens this is still a basic humanitarian credo.
Still, and maybe because of that, I have always had a hard time with the concept of “volunteering”. Why should we expect someone to volunteer and by doing so, do the government’s job for it? Why should I act on a matter while the entire system needs to change, and by doing so I may just be perpetuating something that is profoundly wrong? For years I had contempt for the concept of ‘charity’ while chasing the idea of ‘justice’. I saw ‘charity’ as a means for the fortunate to “feel good about themselves” without actually working towards change in a system that puts the rest down.
Then, a few years ago, another layer was added to my world view.
During the Israeli election campaign of 2014, I had the privilege of leading a group of young activists from Hanoar Haoved VeHalomed called “One Million Kids”. We wanted to bring awareness to the fact that one million kids in Israel live in poverty along with malnutrition. I arrived for a meeting one day at the Latet office, a non-profit that as a young adult was the symbol of the problematic “charity system” to me. I met their manager and heard things that began to alter my beliefs. “Our main goal is eventually not to exist”, they said. They explained that aside from providing food and assistance to those in need they work to create real policy change. I was impressed by their views and actions but still felt some discomfort because none of these organizations were able to undermine the system that enables their existence. Still, from the work we did together, I realized that while some chased ‘justice’, others chased ‘charity’ and didn’t look away from hungry families. True, it is better to provide a fishing rod than just some fish, but sometimes one is too hungry to learn how to fish, and perhaps it is better to share what you’ve caught with those less fortunate.
Today I read an article in The Hottest Place in Hell, a platform that aside from publishing important news and research articles, focuses on the activism and volunteerism of Shnat Sherut (service year before the army) volunteers, who in my opinion are the moral backbone of Israeli society and its future leaders. The column presented a viewpoint that has some truth to it – there is no point for a (privileged) volunteer, especially one performing Shnat Sherut, to do something that would be a paying job for someone in need. Unfortunately, a half-truth is worse than a lie. No, not all volunteers are privileged and are those who volunteer. Volunteerism flourishes throughout Israeli society, and as opposed to what some may think, the Arab and ultra-Orthodox sectors have an impressive percentage of volunteers. In addition, volunteers don’t usually take positions that would have otherwise been actual “jobs”. The truth is that volunteers act where there is a vacuum created between the needs of the people and the ability or will of the government to provide them. Volunteers don’t take jobs, they provide a much needed service that saves a neglected system from completely falling apart. This is the difference between ‘intention’ and ‘responsibility’; the difference between an almost academic approach that sees a power structure but not real people. As far as some are concerned, assistance should be kept from those who need it in order to promote a revolution that may or may not happen, while actual people are desperate for help.
One day after the recent election results were announced, I sat down for a meeting with a colleague from the neighborhood, an activist from a religious-zionist (modern-orthodox) organization. He was very happy with the results and asked me if I was terribly upset by them. I said yes, but for the past 20 years I’ve lived in a country with a prime minister I didn’t elect, and it never prevented me from continuing to promote my values, so why should I stop now?
What am I trying to say here? We do need to act towards systematic change, but while doing so we cannot stay indifferent to the needs of our fellow citizens. We cannot be like those in ivory towers who preach but remain unaware of the lonely elderly woman in the upstairs apartment. The welfare state that is important to so many of us will not grow and thrive from manifestos, but will do so primarily from our hearts, from long-term nurturing, hard work and activism. Yes, we should put pressure on our government, and protest for change. But we should also remain humane, reach out to our fellow citizens, and help make their days less bleak so that their tomorrows may have more light. Maybe then we’ll find them next to us at a protest rally and together we will build fishing rods for all.
(Thank you to Miki Golod and Judi Glickman-Shnider for translating and editing the original Hebrew version)