A conversation with Dr. David Dunetz about his fellowship experience and the importance of sustained international exchange of knowledge in policy debates, and especially in addressing the crises of climate and democracy in the 21st century.
Tell us a bit about yourself and your work before and after the fellowship
In some ways, I can divide my professional life in significant ways in "before and after" the fellowship. My name is David Dunetz and I've been working in the field of sustainability and environmental education in Israel over the past 20 years. I'm a staff member of the Heschel Center for Sustainability in Tel Aviv, which is a think-and-do tank that sets out to promote sustainability issues, policy, capacity building and leadership in Israel. At Heschel, I filled different roles, among them as an educator as well as the CEO for a few years. My current role at the organization is a direct result from participating in the German-Israeli Sustainability Fellowship program.
What were your expectations when you applied for the fellowship? Did you have specific goals in mind, something you were hoping to achieve?
When I first saw the call for applications, I thought this would be a great opportunity for a young professional starting out in the field, but I didn’t think about myself for that post. After talking to the fellowship organizers about the opportunity, I realized that as a veteran in the field of sustainability in Israel, the fellowship could actually provide a very good opportunity to build on my previous work and explore the issues I’m working on from a different socio-cultural perspective, and learn about best-practices from around the world. I was curious to learn about what was going on in Germany and across Europe at the intersection of democracy and sustainability, specifically on the topic of public participation around climate issues. Coming from the Israeli context, I was dissatisfied with the prevailing attempts to engage the public in Israel and was therefore looking for new methods, tools and inspiration, and it seemed to me that the fellowship program was a good place to take my exploration efforts to the next level. Also, from my past experience at the Heschel Center, where we also run a fellows program, I am well aware of the added-value of fellowship programs and the opportunities they offer in terms of learning and networking. In the end I decided to go for it, knowing that I could make good use of it, but it turned out to be even a greater success beyond my already optimistic expectations.
Can you tell us a bit more about the fellowship itself?
The fellowship program took place in Potsdam, Germany, a different context entirely from where I usually live and work. In the beginning, you have to pull yourself out of your comfort zone and settle in, not knowing what the rules and norms are. There's that disorientation but you have to take the time for that first stage to wash over you. I began to meet people and they were friendly and very supportive. My host institution was IASS Potsdam, an institution that has a tradition of working with fellows, so I was able to orient myself pretty quickly. I came with a bucket list of things I wanted to learn and I sent out a few dozen emails to relevant people and immediately started to set up meetings.
I came with a lot of motivation to make the most of the fellowship as it was limited to four months. I used my time to do a lot of reading and organize meetings on the issue of public participation around climate policy issues, which helped me to narrow down the topic of my research project and my paper, which eventually focused on citizens’ assemblies. Although I have spent many years working at the nexus of sustainability, democracy and education, I didn’t know much about citizens’ assemblies before joining the fellowship, as this wasn't something on anybody's radar in Israel. As this topic continued to emerge during my conversations with various experts during the fellowship, I came to realize the importance and potential of this method. I was pretty flabbergasted that I, as someone who has been working for decades at the nexus of sustainability, democracy and education, was not aware that there was so much going on already in other places in the world.
What were some aspects of the fellowship that you particularly liked?
During the fellowship there were a few ongoing practices that were very helpful. Every two weeks there was a fellows meeting, where fellows could raise issues and bring in their research. There was also the tradition of a “Tuesday Talk”, where anyone at IASS could present a research project or an idea they wanted to get feedback on. It was a tradition that the fellows would give at least one Tuesday Talk, and I had one set up for me early on in my stay. I did a session on the connection between the crisis of democracy and of sustainability. I used participatory tools and people were very keen to participate. Through this, I learned what I needed to know more about, what the questions were and what the focus should be.
I think that fellowships offer a unique opportunity to step out of one’s usual day to day routine. It forces you to be more on the edge of your senses and to learn new things. The fellowship gave me a great degree of freedom to explore topics that were new to me and I flourished under these conditions that allowed me to experiment, meet people and get exposed to new ideas and ways of thinking.
The fellowship was also very useful for my work as it allowed me to break away from my day-to-day and delve into a new field. When you have to focus on your daily work, it’s nearly impossible to really commit yourself fully to researching a new topic. The fellowship not only provided me with an opportunity to commit myself to researching this field, but also provided me with perfect conditions that allowed me to prosper.
The international setting of the fellowship contributed greatly to the success of the program, and to my project in particular. Having worked in the field of sustainability in Israel for over 20 years, one gets to know almost everyone and what they do in the field. Participating in such an international fellowship opened a door for me to a whole new ecosystem, allowing me to exchange with various experts, who while working on the same topics, come from very different socio-cultural backgrounds and bring very different methods, ideas and experiences. This aspect of the program was especially exciting and invigorating for me, both on a professional and personal level.
The fact that the fellowship took place in Germany played a role as well, given my personal biography. Taking a walk along Wannsee was nothing short of mind-blowing for me as son of a Holocaust survivor. Through the fellowship, I visited Germany for the first time in my life, and although the German-Israeli context was not the reason for me to apply for this particular program, it turned out to have added another dimension to my experience of the program. My peers in the program came from diverse professional backgrounds and countries and they all had their thoughts and feelings about the Second World War and the Holocaust, which provided a unique setting for deep and thrilling conversations and discussions. This is another aspect of the fellowship, which though not connected directly to my research on sustainability, was incredibly enriching and inspiring.
Finally, I was able to make very good friends during the fellowship, which was a great additional asset. I think that the general atmosphere of openness and exchange of perspectives and ideas was helpful in that regard. Upon the completion of the program, we decided that we will continue to have a conversation every three months and we were able to keep it up via Zoom, largely thanks to the fact that we were able to forge a strong connection during the fellowship. I really treasure that.
What did you take away with you from the fellowship?
In my case the answer is very straightforward: After having researched the topic of citizens’ assemblies in the context of climate protection and putting together a policy paper as part of the fellowship, I decided that I wanted to import this concept to Israel. In the two years that have passed since the completion of the fellowship, I dedicated my time and energy to translating my policy paper from the fellowship into reality, by launching the first citizen assembly in Israel, with the support of the Heinrich Boell Foundation’s office in Tel Aviv.
At the beginning, people around me were skeptic, saying that things like citizens’ assemblies might work in Europe, but are not relevant for the Israeli context, but I was convinced that it made sense, and worth a try at the very least.
The Covid-19 outbreak and the ensuing lockdowns made it somewhat harder to get started with physical meetings, so we started to bring together volunteers and interested members of the public to a series of online meetings. The fellowship was very helpful here as well, as I could reach out to experts outside Israel that I got to know during the program and speak to us about how they were working on these issues in their home countries. For example, we had a very interesting online talk with experts from IASS on Berlin’s Citizens’ Council and then other meetings and workshops followed. Through the fellowship, I was able to enter a global network of professionals that were working on the topic and the connections that were created during the fellowship played a pivotal role in advancing the project. Through this series of online meetings, we were able to bring together a group of volunteers that wanted to promote citizens’ assemblies in Israel. We worked on a strategy and a work plan and are now already in touch with multiple municipalities in Israel that are interested in setting up such assemblies.
Due to the volatile situation in Israeli politics at the national level over the past few years, we decided to focus our efforts on the municipal level as a first stage. We drafted a call for proposals and disseminated it among Israeli municipalities. To my surprise, 22 local authorities applied to be the first ones to host a citizens’ assembly in Israel, which was mind boggling to me. In the end, it was decided to carry out the process with the town of Kiryat Tiv'on, which lies in the north of Israel, not far from Haifa.
The policy topic that was chosen to be discussed in the assembly was how to reach zero-waste in Kiryat Tiv'on. With most of the waste in Israel going to landfill, the country has got a huge crisis in waste management, being one of the worst of in the western world in per capita terms. We were able to engage a survey group on a pro bono basis to build the random selection mechanism of the assembly’s members. Statistically, it had to fulfil some criteria that would reflect the composition of the population, such as equal gender representation and socio-economic background. The municipality was supportive of the initiative and helped in generating a media buzz around the assembly, so much that it became the “town talk”. We brought in facilitators and experts that educated the selected assembly members on the topic of waste management. Furthermore, we invited other relevant stakeholders from civil society, government and other local authorities to learn about the process and how it works with the hope of expanding the methodology to other places. All of this is a direct result of the fellowship and it is truly satisfying to see all the reading, meetings and conversations becoming a reality.
In your opinion, what is the added value of the international dimension of the fellowship program, and in the context of policy exchange in general?
First, without the international aspect of the fellowship program, I wouldn’t have been exposed, let alone engage in such an effective way with a topic that hadn’t been developed in my home country. The inspiration, know-how and network that served to jumpstart this process in Israel are a direct result of that sustained international exchange. Second, the exchange goes on, I am in touch with the people I spoke to during the fellowship and am now part of an international network with likeminded peers from other countries that share my professional interests and goals.
The international dimension of the program has also fed into my own Israeli citizen assembly project. While it is a local project in its very essence, the international dimension continues to inform its activities. For example, one of my fellowship peers connected me with the head of waste strategy in Wales, which is a global forerunner when it comes to recycling and waste management. In the past, they were landfilling about 96% of their waste and today, they are recycling nearly 70% of their waste. This know-how is incredibly relevant and valuable for Israeli policy debates. We are seeing all kinds of ripple effects on different levels, even the Israeli Minister of Environmental Protection is taking great interest in our project. Looking back on these two years and how it all started with me unpacking my bags, thinking on how to best use the time that I have in the fellowship, I think that's pretty amazing how it all turned out.
We talked about the need to meet other experts and go beyond your national borders to identify best practices. After going through this process and seeing what it can give birth to, what would you say is the potential of such fellowship programs in tackling grand societal challenges?
We're still structured around local and national identities, but it's a global world that we live in. Science and policy call for international cooperation as Corona showed, and climate change solutions cannot happen without everyone getting on board. It's a paradox because in the end our solutions are almost always local, because no one's going to take a solution that doesn't fit in their local context. This tension between the local and the global is not going anywhere in the near future. Exchanges could be real part of the solution in terms of opening people up to ideas and innovations. We're human beings, we learn through contacts in relations with others. New ideas don't happen immediately, it took a while for me to focus on what I really wanted to learn and who would be the people I could learn from. It also demands time, energy and money for organizations to be able to organize such programs, but I think it's worth the effort. I think it's really the difference between having a one-time encounter and having a fellowship program that allows for a deeper exchange over an extended period of time. I really appreciate the fact that the partner organizations not only understand the potential of international exchanges on matters of policy, but has actually launched such a program that made my journey possible.
The opinions expressed in this text are solely that of the author/s and/or interviewee/s and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Heinrich Böll Stiftung Tel Aviv and/or its partners.