New Israel Fund honours social justice campaigners

By Simon Rocker, December 2, 2013
Highly prized: Mickey Gitzin (left), Amal Elsana Elhjooj and Itzik Dessie  Photo: John Rifkin

Highly prized: Mickey Gitzin (left), Amal Elsana Elhjooj and Itzik Dessie Photo: John Rifkin

Three Israelis who have made a mark in their country campaigning for social justice were honoured with the New Israel Fund’s annual human rights awards in London on Sunday.

Amal Elsana Elhjooj, 40, who was born in the village of Laqyia in the Negev, was just 17 when she set up the first Bedouin women’s organisation.

Itzik Dessie was 13 when he travelled 800 miles on foot from Ethiopia across Sudan to make aliyah. The organisation he subsequently founded, Tebeka — meaning Advocate for Justice in Amharic — fights for the legal and civil rights of his fellow Ethiopian Jews in Israel.

Mickey Gitzin, 32, who was recently elected to the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Council for the left-wing Meretz party, founded Israel Hofsheet, “Be Free Israel”, four years ago to promote religious pluralism.

The three received their awards at a dinner attended by 350 guests, which was addressed by Israeli Labour MK Merav Michaeli and which raised £240,000 for NIF.

Mrs Elsana said that when she was born, the fifth of five daughters, some of the family regarded it as a tragedy that she was not a boy (the long-awaited sons came later).

From the age of five, she tended the family’s sheep and cows but when not out shepherding, she excelled at school, grasping that education was key to change. She is now enrolled in doctoral studies at McGill University, Montreal.

Her activism began early. “When I was 14, I started to teach other women to read and write,” she recalled. “You have two options. You can either say ‘that’s how it is and that’s it’. Or you decide to challenge the system.”

As well as challenging patriarchal attitudes within her own community and campaigning for greater state support for Israeli Bedouins, she has also striven for Arab-Jewish collaboration and helped to found a Hebrew-Arabic bilingual school in Beersheba.

“Co-operation is a must between the two communities if we want to see a shared future,” she said. “You can’t build co-operation between those who have and those who don’t have, so you to have empower those who don’t have.”

Mr Dessie, 43, became the first Ethiopian oleh to go to law school in Israel — now there are some 120. After graduating, he faced “a dilemma of whether to go to a big law firm and earn money, or go back and serve my community”.

Choosing the latter, he provided legal help to those who were exploited by unscrupulous employers, for example, or who were unaware of their rights.

Ethiopians settling in Israel often did not even know what a professional lawyer was because the word did not exist in their native Amharic.

According to Mr Gitzin, the monopoly enjoyed by the Orthodox rabbinate over marriage and other areas of life “is reducing the Jewish and democratic character of the state of Israel”.

The prevailing state of affairs has made his generation “more remote from Judaism”, he says, which is why Israel Hofsheet champions greater freedom of religion.

Having served as a Jewish Agency emissary in America and completed a master’s degree at University College London, he had experienced greater Jewish pluralism abroad. “You can feel strongly Jewish, at the same time choosing your own path.”

Without NIF’s support, “civil society in Israel wouldn’t be the way it is,” he added.

“Philanthropy is generally a slow process. But NIF is the most up-to-date organisation in understanding Israeli reality.”

Last updated: 11:45am, December 2 2013