Narrow street of Yemin Moshe district in Jerusalem.

Doubling Down on Disruption: The Resiliency of Civil Society in Jerusalem

Reprinted from eJewish Philanthropy

Today is an unprecedented Election Day in Jerusalem. For the first time, two candidates for mayor are vying for the top job in an unprecedented runoff that will decide the political leadership of the city for the next five years.

Whatever the outcome of the election, things will change in the capital. Mayor Nir Barkat steps down after a decade where he brought experience from the VC world and as a philanthropist himself to the job. While opinions vary (as they always will) on his performance as mayor, even his toughest critics concede that Mayor Barkat’s deep understanding of the importance of civil society and public/private partnership contributed significantly to the stunning growth of Jerusalem’s third sector.

According to a report by the Jerusalem Institute for Policy Research commissioned by the Leichtag Foundation, Jerusalem is an epicenter for NGOs in Israel with about a quarter of active organizations headquartered in the city. In 2017, 4077 NGOs were active in Jerusalem compared to 1600 in Tel Aviv for example. The third sector is of great economic import to Jerusalem with the estimated total annual budget of all NGOs falling between 15 billion NIS and 25 billion NIS (about $4 billion to $5.5 billion). Together they employ between 100,000 to 150,000 people, one-third to one-half of all employed people in the city.

Jerusalem NGOs are active in a wide variety of fields such as higher education, health and community and social welfare. These fields reflect the unique nature of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital city, one of the most diverse cities in the world, religious hub and center of higher education along with its relatively large religious and impoverished populations.

Organizations dealing with community, social and political activities – often referred to as civil society organizations – also abound. The Institute’s analysis of civil society organizations engaged in social change and community activities indicates another unique pattern. Specifically, there is a high presence of community-controlled organizations in Jerusalem working for sociopolitical change at the neighborhood, municipal and national levels. Contrary to assumptions that might be made based on the city’s demographics, most of these activist civil society organizations are led by residents who value Jerusalem’s diversity as its most precious asset and competitive advantage. Many represent core values of liberalism and pluralism.The most common fields in which these organizations operate include community development, interfaith or intercultural social cohesion and environmental sustainability.

Put simply, not only is Jerusalem the governmental capital of Israel, it is the capital of social innovation, home to some of the most creative, engaging grassroots efforts and the most likely place for the best and most talented social entrepreneurs to intentionally call their home. Jerusalem’s diversity and its intensity – and the talent it attracts – sets the ideal framework for the city’s emerging role as the lab for Israel and the rest of the world. Jerusalem is a microcosm of social and economic gaps, a portender of trends, a pressure cooker and demonstration ground where nothing is obvious and everything has rippling effects politically, socially, demographically and culturally.

And now is the time for civil society to get less comfortable: smarter, sharper, more creative. Jerusalem is a city that fundamentally thrives on struggle. It is not a place for the weak of heart or mind.

How will civil society react in this time of political transition? Has sufficient resiliency been built into the ecosystem so the sector continues to thrive even as it may need to play some different roles – whether as agitator, innovator, conscience, enforcer,
reporter or all of the above?

Over the last weeks in the midst of intense election activity, we have spoken to scores of Jerusalem civil society leaders from various backgrounds and personal political viewpoints. Even amidst their diverse perspectives, we have revealed surprising consistency. According to these grassroots activists, Jerusalem civil society is stronger than ever. They are optimistic about an even greater opportunity to strengthen even or especially in the event of a mayor who may not be as familiar with or as sympathetic to the sector than his predecessor.

In his article “Civil Society as Public Conscience” in the August edition of the Stanford Social Innovation Review, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation President Larry Kramer explains the substantial freedom nonprofits have to “play the role of ‘prodder,’ of idea advocate, of irritant to systems that need to be irritated. Civil society can be our public conscience, helping make sure that we do not turn our back on fundamental values, or forget about those who lack market and political power.”

Kramer then turns to his own field of philanthropy, noting the rub: “Civil society organizations may be free from political and market discipline, but only by subjecting themselves to the whims and caprice of philanthropic funders.” Kramer argues that the healthiest funder base to support civil society as they play out all these changing roles is a cadre of non-governmental sources that are diverse and represent a broad range of ideologies, interests and viewpoints.

Here again we found some unusual optimism from the often-cynical hardcore Jerusalem crowd. Jerusalem’s very diversity – an attribute some have seen as a fatal flaw but which we see as its most precious asset – by definition can attract wide coalitions of funders and stakeholders coming from multiple ideologies and viewpoints but with a common interest in supporting the city.

Indeed we see some of the most thriving Jerusalem civil society initiatives taking on a variety of roles and functions.

For example, 0202: Points of View from Jerusalem deploys a multisectoral team of translators who open up barriers of language in real time, translating social media posts from Arabic speaking East Jerusalem to Hebrew and English speakers and vice versa. Many users have lived for decades just a few kilometers away but with no window into the other part of the city. 0202’s initial social media pages were so popular – with tens of thousands of likes, most local in a city of less than a million – that they launched a similar mirror for the social media posts of the Haredi community, many of whom have their own social media networks usually closed to outsiders. 0202 is just one of a number of Jerusalem language exchange programs, nonpartisan media sites that not only reduce barriers but promote transparency and play the very public conscience role Kramer contends is so important. All leveraging Jerusalem’s diverse talent as the engine for advancement.

Another case in point: Jerusalem’s public places and spaces can be a platform for conflict or for creativity. Civil society has seized on the latter with flourishing placemaking taking shape putting the city on the forefront of this global trend. Like the young and idealistic artists behind Hamifaal (“the Factory”), who appropriated a historic abandoned building behind the Waldorf Astoria Hotel and turned it into a thriving and active public art and community gathering space.

Or Beit Alliance, adjacent to the Machane Yehuda market in operation as a school for more than a century, which ceased operations as a school in 2000 and is slated to be turned into a hotel. While the owners go through a lengthy permitting process, the NGO New Spirit led some light renovations and the building now houses 12 different arts groups with a variety of performances and programming each day and evening. Right next door is the Mirpeset on the rooftop of the much-maligned Binyan Clal, a 1970s era architectural monstrosity with a haphazard collection of stores and service providers. The social activist collective Muslala took over the rooftop a couple years ago where they are developing an urban farm and sustainability center, and even hosting international symposia.

And Hubitus, the home for environmental and social entrepreneurship at the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens which serves as a creative and support center for over 80 organizations and social entrepreneurs. The Hubitus network of change agents focused on sustainability in Jerusalem reflects the full human mosaic of society. Environmental designers and artists, urban planners and architects, farmers and gardeners, clean-tech start ups and green businesses, eco-activists and environmental educators work together on pragmatic environmental and human health improvements.

Hamifaal, Beit Alliance, the Mirpeset and Hubitus are all examples of civil society’s role as prodder and idea advocate.

Even as we write this, a massive nonpartisan get out the vote campaign has been launched, led by the grassroots. The energy and relative unity among the activists is quite remarkable as they seek to mobilize Jerusalemites to reject complacency and demand a voice.

This is an incredibly exciting time for civil society in Jerusalem to step up, thrive on challenge and become sharper and more innovative. The grassroots must embrace discomfort. Traditional sources of support, especially municipal, will no doubt be disrupted. In turn, philanthropy must be challenged by civil society to step up. If the ability to take risk is the currency of effective philanthropic funding, what better time for those who care about the city to deepen their investments? High risk equals high return.

We must also demand a new level of professional excellence from ourselves as funders and from civil society. Targeted platforms for high-quality professional development like the Jerusalem Model, Jerusalem Culture Unlimited, the ROI Community and others are of critical importance. The mediocre just isn’t good enough when the stakes are so high.

In the words of Elie Wiesel, Jerusalem is the heart of our heart, the soul of our soul. And we would add: Jerusalem is the core of our creative muscle as a people. The engine of disruption. We are more energized and excited than ever. We welcome the new mayor with open arms and a deep desire for partnership. And we also know that the grassroots will ensure that the edge of innovation that has sustained and lifted Jerusalem for generations will continue and strengthen.