The buzz around the Shatil Jerusalem office was full of superlatives: “She is great!” “We are lucky!” “You couldn’t have chosen better.”
Indeed, Esther Sivan has proved her mettle in a variety of leading positions in Israeli civil society over the past 23 years – and benefited from Shatil guidance in in all her positions. Among other achievements, her work as director of Bizchut – the Israel Human Rights Center for People with Disabilities earned the organization the Midot Effectiveness Award for its achievements and the Gorni Public Law Prize as a leading human rights organization in Israel.
Esther says she is particularly happy to be leading Shatil during these challenging times.
“We’re seeing serious threats to democracy in Israel and as a citizen, it’s important for me to be in a place that has a critical role in preserving and strengthening democracy,” she told NIF News.
The only child of a Jerusalem-born linguist, co-author of the Bantam-Meggido Hebrew-English dictionary, and Haganah soldier who was injured in the War of Independence; and an immigrant from Zimbabwe, Esther grew up in the leafy Jerusalem neighborhood of Bet Hakerem. She says the secular-Ashkenazi-middle class bubble in which she grew up popped when she joined the army and was exposed to all aspects of Israeli society.
“At first, I sat in a corner and read a book,” says Esther, “But pretty soon I became part of things and it widened my view of what Israel is.”
Esther imbibed activism with her mother’s milk: Her grandfather, a graduate of the Slovodka Yeshiva who became secular, was the playwright, journalist and satirist, Kadish Yehuda Silman, who was among the founders of Tel Aviv, Ramat Gan and Bet Hakerem. His wife, Esther, was a feminist activist in early years of the 20th century. And her father was a lifelong peace activist.
Wanting to combine working with people with work on important public issues, Esther studied law and public policy at the Hebrew University. A law professor opened Esther’s eyes to a feminist critique of the legal system and her volunteer work with a rape crisis center during her clerkship at the State Prosecutor’s Office deepened her feminist consciousness. When she was elected to the center’s steering committee, she turned to Shatil for guidance with organizational issues.
That was her first contact with the organization she would come to direct more than 20 years later.
Esther’s first job out of school was as a lawyer for the Israel Women’s Network (IWN) where she cut her legal teeth on such important cases as the Alice Miller case, legislation for the rights of victims of violence, and the implementation of the equal opportunity in the workplace law. She successfully represented two women who brought one of the first sexual harassment cases. “They got to keep their jobs, and the boss went home,” she said.
It turns out that Esther, who has two daughters (who attended Jerusalem’s bilingual school) with her partner, Marcelo, a teacher and immigrant from Argentina, has worked in every one of NIF/Shatil’s issue areas – Shared Society and Combatting Racism, Palestinian Society, Safeguarding Human Rights and Democratic Infrastructure, Social and Economic Justice and Religious Freedom – and benefited from Shatil’s help every step on the way.
“In just about every place I’ve been in my career, Shatil played a significant role,” says Esther. “NIF and Shatil are part of my personal and professional journey.”
Esther was the first director of Bimkom – Planners for Planning Rights, which received its first grant from NIF. Although she has a calm demeanor, Esther still speaks with passion about Bimkom’s role in taking social considerations into account when planning. “(Shatil Associate Director) Carlos Sztyglic and Alona Vardi z”l guided me personally in that job… only Shatil could have brought together in a coalition such disparate organizations as Bimkom, the Mizrahi Democratic Rainbow, the Society for the Preservation of Nature in Israel and others – each with their own agendas – to unite on an issue. And the results were felt: We saved the huge Deer Park in Jerusalem from development, for example. NIF and Shatil have a unique ability to organize within an arena to enable action.”
When she moved on to direct Bizchut, Esther became part of a Shatil-led forum of directors of human rights organizations, which she said was an exceptional experience that promoted a wide view of human rights and significantly improved the work of the organizations’ directors. She also worked for Yad Hanadiv, which gave her a funder’s-eye-view of development.
Esther’s last position was as civil society director at Merchavim Institute, which works for a shared and cohesive Israeli Society.
“Shatil attained its goal of developing a civil society in Israel,” says Esther. “Now we need to respond to the needs of the organizations in a changing world. I see my goal as growing Shatil’s professionalism and excellence with the aim of building an ever stronger and more impactful civil society.”