Jewish support for Israeli-Arab causes goes mainstream, irking some

A controversial poster depicting an Israeli soldier reaching for a Palestinian woman's breast was created by Israeli-Arab groups that receive funding from American Jews. ()

A controversial poster depicting an Israeli soldier reaching for a Palestinian woman’s breast was created by Israeli-Arab groups that receive funding from American Jews. ()

Israeli Arabs and Jews participating at a meeting organized by the Negev Institute for Strategies of Peace and Development's Arab-Jewish Community Volunteer Year Program, which receives funding from Diaspora Jews. (UJC Social Venture Fund)

Israeli Arabs and Jews participating at a meeting organized by the Negev Institute for Strategies of Peace and Development’s Arab-Jewish Community Volunteer Year Program, which receives funding from Diaspora Jews. (UJC Social Venture Fund)

NEW YORK (JTA) — When the Reform movement passed a resolution endorsing advocacy for Israeli Arabs, it wasn’t the first time an American Jewish group had backed the cause of Israeli-Arab equality.

In recent years, a growing number of American Jews have thrown their support toward Israeli-Arab causes, including civil rights and advocacy organizations, women’s empowerment courses, student-exchange programs and even film festivals.

More than 80 Jewish groups belong to the Inter-Agency Task Force on Israeli-Arab Issues, which works on behalf of equal treatment of Israeli Arabs and Jews.

The Jewish federations’ Venture Fund for Jewish and Arab Equality and Shared Society, a mix of 21 private family foundations, federations and philanthropists, has raised more than $1 million for Israeli-Arab causes since its launch in 2007. And in 2006, the Jewish Agency for Israel announced it would invest in projects benefiting Israeli Arabs, scrapping a policy, in place since its founding in 1922, of exclusively helping Jewish causes.

Last week’s unanimous endorsement of the cause by American Jewry’s largest religious movement, at the biennial conference in Toronto of the Union for Reform Judaism, was the latest sign that Jewish support for Israeli-Arab causes has gone mainstream.

"There’s no doubt that more money has been given to this issue then ever before. It’s become a mainstream issue," said Rabbi Brian Lurie, co-chair of the Inter-Agency Task Force, a former CEO of the Jewish federation of San Francisco and one of the key Jewish activists raising money in the Diaspora for Israeli Arabs. "Whether your mind-set is equality, whether it’s the security of Israel, whether it’s building bridges, all three reasons are involved and these are compelling reasons."

Arab citizens constitute approximately 20 percent of Israel’s population of 7 million. Though they have the same rights accorded Israel’s Jewish citizens, studies have shown that Israeli Arabs routinely suffer from employment discrimination and receive fewer government funds than Israel’s Jewish sector in such areas as education, infrastructure and welfare.

In 2006, an Israeli government committee set up to investigate riots in October 2000, in which Israeli police fire left 12 Arab protesters dead, determined that Israel long had neglected its Arab citizens. The Or Commission finding helped pave the way for mainstream Jewish groups to support a cause long championed by organizations such as the New Israel Fund and the Abraham Project.

Not everyone is happy about it.

Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, says American Jews should not be sending funds to an Israeli community that is disloyal toward Israel. He cited visits by Israeli-Arab lawmakers to enemy states such as Syria by way of example.

"I think it’s a mistake to be raising money for Israeli Arabs, at least until they show their support for Israel and its rights," Klein said. "There’s been an inverse relationship between the monies being allocated to the Israeli-Arab communities and their loyalties and commitment to Israel."

The New Israel Fund, for example, has come under fire for its support of Israeli-Arab advocacy groups that take controversial positions, including calls for eliminating Israel’s Jewish character. Just last week, three NIF-funded Arab Israeli groups were behind a poster for a conference on women’s rights in the Arab world that suggested Israeli soldiers sexually violate Palestinian women, prompting critics to cry foul.

The NIF defended its position even as it criticized the poster.

"While we certainly defend the conference as appropriate — and as always, may disagree with our grantees on some key issues but see no reason to force them into ideological lockstep — there’s no question that the poster in question is unnecessarily provocative and misleading," NIF communications director Naomi Paiss told JTA.

Other Jewish organizational officials say the Israeli-Arab community needs to be held to account.

"We need to hold the leaders of the Israeli-Arab community or any other community to be responsible," said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish American Organizations, which is a member of the Inter-Agency Task Force. "That means that when there are incitements or actions that are detrimental, they need to counter it.”

Warning that some of the money donated with the intent of bolstering Israeli society by reaching out to Israeli Arabs is used for "questionable purposes," Hoenlein said donations by Diaspora Jews should be put to use effectively "to counter the Islamist forces, encourage moderation and create conditions that are inductive to it."

American Jews who support funding Israeli-Arab causes say they do so out of concern for Israel’s democracy and Jewish values.

"Israel’s strength and survival depend on the democratic nature of the Jewish state," said the Reform movement’s resolution on the issue. "These imperatives require that we be ever sensitive to the aspirations and just demands of Israel’s minority citizens."

Jessica Balaban, the executive director of the Inter-Agency Task Force, says her mission transcends political and ideological boundaries.

"With better education, people understand that improving the quality of life for the Arab citizens of Israel is not only a moral imperative but also in our self-interest, and it’s been well received by the Arab community here," she told JTA by phone from Israel.

Rabbi Pesach Lerner, vice president of the National Council of Young Israel, an umbrella organization for Orthodox synagogues, said he objects to funding Israeli-Arab causes as a matter of priorities.

“Tradition teaches us priorities, and those priorities dictate that we give to our own families first," Lerner said. "Jews in Israel have needs, and you don’t see the Arabs giving money to the Jews."

Rabbi David Ellenson, president of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, subscribes to an opposing theological view. Quoting the biblical injunction to "welcome the stranger in your midst," Ellenson says it’s a religious imperative — and eventually it will strengthen Israel.

"In general,” he said, “I think that people who are treated with respect and dignity tend to respond to those who treat them this way.”

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