Task force takes up Israeli Arabs’ plight

Sheik Mohammed Kiwan, left, imam of the town of Majed-El-Croum, and Rabbi Gavriel Va'aknin, right, of Carmiel, discuss interfaith dialogue among religious leaders in northern Israel. (Courtesy the Abraham Fund)

Sheik Mohammed Kiwan, left, imam of the town of Majed-El-Croum, and Rabbi Gavriel Va’aknin, right, of Carmiel, discuss interfaith dialogue among religious leaders in northern Israel. (Courtesy the Abraham Fund)

NEW YORK (JTA) – While the plight of Israeli Arabs has long been a cause for the more liberal groups in Jewish communal life, a task force started last year has helped push the issue more into the American Jewish mainstream.Nearly one in five Israeli citizens is Arab, yet this population of 1.2 million
still is seeking equality in Israeli life.That creates a potentially
explosive situation, says the executive director of the Interagency Task Force on Israeli Arab Issues.”Jewish-Arab relations in Israel is the most pressing domestic issue
facing Israel today,” Jessica Balaban says. “The 20 percent minority
cannot be ignored.”This week the task force is holding conferences in New York, Los
Angeles and San Francisco to raise awareness of the issue.Israeli Arabs in the past several years have become increasingly discontent with the disparity between Jews and Israelis in terms of education, social welfare benefits and representation in government.In October 2000, 13 Arabs and one Jew were killed during riots in Arab villages. The riots led to a report by the Or Commission and two subsequent reports warning that unless Israel works to create an equal society, the civil unrest could become rampant and more violent.Tensions have mounted on both sides.Jewish Israelis chafe as prominent Arab Knesset members have met with Israel’s enemies in Syria and Lebanon.And in recent months, as groups such as the Israel Democracy Institute push for Israel to draft a constitution that codifies rights for all Israeli citizens, Israeli Arab groups have published four separate position papers on their rights.The most eyebrow raising, titled “The Future Vision of the Palestinian Arabs,” was drafted in December by 40 Israeli Arab intellectuals. It denigrated Israel’s history, and called for the right of return of Palestinians to Israel and changing the Israeli flag to feature something less inherently Jewish than the Star of David.But Balaban said that paper and others spurred conversations,which led Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to announce last month that he will hold a conference focused on expanding dialogue between Israel’s Jewish and non-Jewish citizens.Progress has been made by the Israelis, especially in the months following the Lebanon war last summer. The government and the Jewish Agency for Israel stepped in to help Arab villages recover from Hezbollah rocket fire, and Jewish Israelis recognized that Arabs also were under attack.Those involved in the cause say the American Jewish community must
press for more advances, which is why the task force was formed in
January 2006. It provides educational resources, as well as a
vehicle through which organizations and foundations can convene on
projects.Among its some 66 members are key American Jewish organizations and private
foundations. They include the Anti-Defamation League, the Conference of Presidents
of Major American Jewish Organizations and the United Jewish Communities;
eight Jewish federations from major cities; and major private
foundations such as the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Foundation, the
Samuel Bronfman Foundation, the Everett Foundation and the Koret
Foundation.
It has also been able to enlist the Reform, Conservative and Modern Orthodox movements.”For the first time you have a broad range of American Jewish
organizations working on addressing minority rights in Israel, and
particularly Israeli Arab rights,” said Larry Garber, president of the
New Israel Fund and a member of the task force’s steering committee.
“And there are a number of specific events that have happened as a
result.”Supporting the Arab Israeli cause has not been an easy sell in Orthodox circles. When the Jewish Agency allocated money it received from the UJC’s Israel Emergency Campaign to help Arab towns rebuild after the Lebanon war, some of the strongest critics were Orthodox.But Nathan Diament, the director of public policy for the Orthodox Union, said the modern Orthodox community generally understands the need to help Israel’s Arab citizens.”I think people appreciate that the Jewish community overall raises funds to help people in need in Israel, and that part of helping Israeli society be a better society is dealing with all the segments of that society and we can’t ignore that,” Diament said.Despite an annual budget of only about $400,000, the task force has made headway in its efforts, according to
Rabbi Brian Lurie, the head of the Hanna Fromm Foundation and a member
of the task force steering committee. Jewish philanthropy sectors in recent months have formally placed
the issue on their agendas. At its General Assembly in November,
the UJC ran four sessions dedicated to the plight of the Israeli Arabs.Also at the assembly, UJC passed a resolution urging Jewish federations
to work with the Jewish Agency and the JDC to educate American
Jews about the Israeli Arabs’ situation, consider missions to Israel to
engage with Israeli Arabs and help build an Israel that benefits all of
its citizens. In addition, the UJC started the Venture Fund for Jewish-Arab Equality and
Coexistence to help foster relationships between Jewish and Arab
Israelis.In March, the Jewish Funders Network held several sessions at its annual conference in Atlanta that dealt with the issue.Garber acknowledges that until recently, only a handful of groups were pushing the cause. Even some members of the task
force have been quiet about their educational missions to Israel.Lurie said he made two previous attempts to start the task force, but
in the shadow of the second intifada it could not find traction. Now,
however, diverse voices in the Jewish community have allowed the message
to seep into the mainstream, he said.”On this side of the ocean,” Garber said, “there is an appreciation of the danger Israel faces by not dealing with the issue and the sense that this is core to our own Jewish values. We can talk about how the Arab minority in Israel is doing better in socioeconomic terms than Arabs in other Arab countries, but we as Americans don’t appreciate that African Americans or native Mexicans are doing better than people living in Africa or Mexico.”We want to see that people are treated equally and provided the same opportunities to develop. If Israel is going to remain a democratic state, it needs to figure out a way to do the same.”

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