Where Innovation and Peace-Building Meet
JNS.org – On the 25th night of the holy month of Ramadan, 150 CEOs of Jewish and Arab cities and towns across Israel gathered at the Peres Center to break the fast and enjoy the Iftar dinner. This unique gathering came after several weeks in which Israel once again saw deadly violence in its cities, with a spate of terror attacks that reminded us of the painful scenes we always hope have been left in the past. In a little over two weeks, 14 Israelis — Jews and Arabs alike — were murdered in four separate attacks in Beersheva, Hadera, Bnei Brak and then my beloved city of Tel Aviv. Further terror attacks followed, including in Ariel and the central Israeli city of Elad, which claimed another four lives, while stabbing attacks in Jerusalem injured still more.
These attacks were the work of extremists and did not in any way represent the vast majority of Jews and Arabs, who want only to go about their daily lives in peace and security. But they do pose a challenge to our way of life and ability to coexist because they affect the delicate relationships between Jews and Arabs in Israel. This was seen in May 2021, when a conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza spilled over into Israel. We saw unprecedented tension and violence erupt in Israeli cities, which disrupted life in places where, just the day before, Jews and Arabs had lived together in peace.
These cities are where our homes are. They are where we live, work and raise our children. Our city is where we feel comfortable, where we know every nook and cranny in what should be our communal “safe spaces.” There is nothing scarier than when this anchor of normalcy is disrupted.
But while we are used to looking to central governments to solve our problems, it is, in fact, local leadership that often has the most impact on our day-to-day lives. This became evident during the outbreak of COVID-19, for example, as well as during times of heightened tension, when we look to our city leaderships for support and safety. These local leaders have a huge role to play but do not always have the tools they need to make the positive impact of which they are capable.
Over the past 26 years, the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation has been working to provide these tools through a wide range of programs and projects that promote innovation, impact, shared living and peace to a long list of stakeholders who have the ability to be significant agents of change. One such program, Hazira, which is implemented in partnership with the Israeli Interior Ministry and Bloomberg Philanthropies, seeks to leverage and foster innovation in cities across the country in order to ensure “better, longer lives for the greatest number of people.” Since its inception in 2019, the project has established Innovation Teams in 12 Israeli cities — some Jewish, some Arab and some mixed.
A unique multidisciplinary team of professionals works with mayors and city officials to build a toolbox of innovation, creativity and data, and helps them build the capacity to provide solutions to their most important challenges. This shows that, where there is a creative idea to be pursued, there is always an opportunity for change. The total number of residents who reside in these cities is 1.5 million Israelis — Jews and Arabs, religious and secular — so the potential positive impact on the lives of large numbers of people is immense.
Joint programs that encourage innovation and creativity at the municipal level are exactly the type of initiatives that can and will transform the day-to-day lives of Israelis from all walks of life. These initiatives run the gamut from transportation and small business resilience to tourism and the development of clean public spaces. Indeed, creative thinking itself has the potential to inspire the kind of hope that can offset hatred and violence. Hazira is the epitome of what we hope to achieve at the Peres Center — a vast positive impact through the use of innovation as a tool to create a better future for all.
In May 2021, when violence erupted in our cities, I was cocooned in my home, forced to run to the building’s stairwell day and night when the air raid sirens blasted their ominous sound that warned us of the rockets fired toward Tel Aviv. I was nine months pregnant. When my contractions started, I prayed that there wouldn’t be a siren while I was in labor.
Instead, once I got to the delivery room, in walked two midwives, one blond and curly-haired, the other in a flowing black hijab. On May 20, 2021, at exactly 4 a.m., our daughter was born. She was brought into this world by two midwives, a Jew and an Arab. The next morning, the ceasefire agreement was signed. After 17 years of working in innovation and peace-building, my child reminded me why I do what I do, and what our world can really look like. I hope we all make this world worthy of her.
Yarden Leal is the deputy director general at the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation.