"There is a sense that the conflict is the 'be all and end all.' But peace is not the highest value, in and of itself. Peace is a vehicle toward the creation of an honorable and just society," Naomi Chazan, currently head of the School of Government and Society at the Academic College of Tel Aviv-Yaffo, said during an Oct. 17 program at the National Constitution Center on Independence Mall.
Chazan also sits on the board of the New Israel Fund, and it was her involvement with that particular organization that brought her to Philadelphia and several other North American cities.
Since its founding in 1979, NIF -- a philanthropic partnership among Americans, Europeans and Israelis -- has provided roughly $200 million to 800 organizations working within Israel on a host of issues, including those associated with human rights, religious pluralism, social and economic justice, the environment, gay rights, women's rights and equality for Israel's Arab citizens.
NIF, which is based in Washington, D.C., formed a Philadelphia Regional Council in 2006 in order to bolster the group's profile in the area and further its fundraising goals.
The organization is running a series of events in nine cities, including a daylong symposium in New York, called "Toward a Progressive Vision for Israel."
Spokeswoman Naomi Paiss said that, in addition to calling attention to a range of issues, the forums are meant to provide a gathering space for "progressive Jews."
At the local program, Chazan spoke about the myriad challenges confronting Israeli society. Another speaker was Yuval Yavneh, an NIF grants officer, who told the audience about efforts to promote religious pluralism and Jewish identity among secular Israelis and immigrants from the former Soviet Union, including the opening of the first-ever secular yeshiva in Tel Aviv.
"Immigrants from the former USSR are just finding the time and energy to deal with their Jewish identity after 10, 15 years of trying to establish themselves," explained Yavneh, also a musician and fiction writer.
"We need to change the polarized situation between secular and religious, and make it more like the American model," he added, referring to the religious spectrum that includes various denominations of Judaism.
Also on the panel was Yarona Ben-Shalom Richardson, co-director of SHATIL, NIF's empowerment and training center. The Beersheva resident spoke about problems in Israel's arid south, including poverty and an underdeveloped infrastructure, as well as SHATIL's efforts to establish an entity that will work on behalf of the Negev's Bedouin community, particularly Bedouin women, who reside in a highly patriarchal society.
Take Stock of the State
Chazan told the audience that as Israel nears its 60th anniversary, it's time to take stock of how far the country's come and where it needs to go. The Jerusalem native also said that the Jewish state is now a highly developed society, in sharp contrast to the place of her youth, and that a vibrant democracy has flourished.
"Yet in order to move forward, you have to identify and deal with your problems," she said.
Chazan then went on to say that the country's democratic system is in peril due to rampant corruption, and a system that lends itself toward political instability and frequent changes of governmental staff. That scenario makes it difficult to successfully adopt and implement meaningful policy, she asserted.
She also noted that the strain between Israel's Jewish and Arab citizens represents the most difficult -- though far from only -- impediment to social cohesion. She argued that Israel must do a better job of living up to its declaration of independence and confront discrimination against the country's million-plus Arab citizens.
"Israel is a multicultural society without a multicultural ethos. That's the problem," she said. "If people don't feel equal, you cannot grow your society in a positive way."
Though Chazan hoped to focus solely on domestic issues, she was asked, following her lecture, whether or not U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's diplomatic efforts to bring the Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table were at all worthwhile.
"Absolutely, yes," she replied, adding that even Israel's right-leaning politicians now support the creation of a state for Palestinians. "The two-state solution is the key to Israel's survival as a Jewish state with a democracy. Time is running out on that solution."