The Return of the Public Sphere

“The Return of the Public Sphere”: A civil society leadership development program

Civil society’s role in democratic and non-democratic countries across the world has been growing in recent years. The protest movements of 2011 brought to the fore civil society’s role in changing countries, policies, values and practices. In Israel, the 2011 summer protest, in which hundreds of thousands of citizens took to the streets, focused on the cost of living, housing issues and the struggle for social justice. Other protest movements across the world took similar form or were aimed at promoting substantial political change in regimes or their policies.

Adam’s “The Return of the Public Sphere” program aims at developing the infrastructure for democratic civic action as a tool for fostering positive societal changes, whether economic, social or political. The program’s training provides young Israeli and Palestinian activists with professional tools for developing and implementing joint cross-border and/or intra-community projects, based on the principles of democracy and peace and on creating an innovative civil society-oriented language for project management. Throughout the program’s seminars, participants examine the new roles of civil society, and acquire professional knowledge and skills on topics such as: policymaking, transparency and freedom of speech, multicultural partnership, fundraising, budget management, project evaluation, equality and rights. In addition to the seminars, participants work together to develop and implement individual or group projects, through a fruitful process of dialogue and mutual learning.

The seminars combine lectures, workshops, discussions and work in small groups – project groups or interest groups (focused on, e.g., women’s rights, the environment, culture and education). They enable the participants to identify needs and points of strength within themselves and within their communities, to acquire tools adapted to their needs, and to process the experience of encountering the “other”. The seminars also give activists from different communities who have similar interests to meet, build trust, share, learn from one another and even work together on joint projects.

Program implementation

The program was first implemented starting October 2011, with the support of USAID and in partnership with the Center for Democracy and Community Development (CDCD). Some 2000 young Israelis and Palestinians took part in the program’s 2 cycles of implementation, spread over 3 years (2011-2014). The program included unilateral and bilateral seminars, 1-3 day long, which included workshops, discussions, educational tours and lectures by academic experts, professionals and public figures (such as Prof. Avner de Shalit, Dr. Hillel Cohen, Prof. Aziz Haider, Dr. Sarah Ozacky-Lazar, Dr. Orna Shemer, Samar Baidoun, Dr. Mike Naftali, Prof. Rasem Khmaysi, Att. Yifat Solel, and more), in addition to joint work in small groups on planning and developing projects. The first cohort of participants took part in seminars between April 2012 and April 2013, while the seminars of the second cohort took part between April 2013 and May 2014.

The participants of both cohorts have leveraged the training they received and the alliances formed between them to create almost 60 civil society projects, currently in different stages of development and implementation. The following are some examples of projects that have already been implemented:

  • A multicultural exchange market (“Salaam-Shalom Market” / “Shuk Be’Shnekel), held on the border between East and West Jerusalem on July 27, 2013, as a joint initiative of Israeli and Palestinian Jerusalemite participants with the art group Muslala, which hosted the event.
  • “Equals” – a project focused on the empowerment of Israeli and Palestinian students, as women and as educators, within the framework of a pilot course at the David Yellin College of Education in Jerusalem.
  • Encounter Tours in Jerusalem – a bilateral project for Israelis and Palestinians, which combines visits to the different neighborhoods of the city with getting to know their residents.
  • Language courses (Hebrew and Arabic) in Jerusalem, involving dialogue encounters.
  • Improvement of Jewish-Arab relations in the area of Kleel village in the north of Israel, a project that included courses in Arabic for residents of Kleel and the area as well as dialogue circles focused on resolving issues such as the conflicts arising from neighboring villagers’ use of Kleel’s public park/playground and related environmental issues.
  • Women’s economic empowerment – an agricultural small industry project that improved the livelihoods of 15 Palestinian women.
  • Improving the accessibility of minority groups of students to tools and opportunities, at the Department of Social Work at the Ben Gurion University in the Negev.
  • An intra-Jewish dialogue group on issues related to the Conflict, a project held in Jerusalem.
  • First-aid workshops for women (mothers) in the Jenin area.

Other examples of participants’ projects, which are now in advanced development or fundraising stages, include an artist exchange project, a project for recycling cans and bottles, an environmental summer camp for Palestinian children, a dialogue project for the Jewish and Arab residents of Lod, and more.