NEW YORK, Dec. 5 (JTA) North America’s Jewish federations, long sources of funding for Israel and its Jewish citizens, are now considering devoting money to Israel’s Arab sector.
In the half-century since Israel’s founding, Jews around the world have raised billions of dollars for Israeli Jews.
Only in the past two decades have a handful of left-leaning Jewish groups, like the New Israel Fund and the Abraham Fund, sought to improve the status of the state’s Arab citizens and Arab-Jewish relations.
Now, with Israeli leaders describing the discontent among Arab citizens as a potential threat to the country’s future, mainstream Jewish groups such as the United Jewish Communities, the federation’s umbrella organization, are discussing the possibility of raising funds to improve social and economic conditions for Israeli Arabs.
A delegation of UJC leaders is currently in Israel on a fact-finding mission to determine how best to address new Israeli needs, including programs for Israeli Arabs.
The discussions are preliminary. But the fact that mainstream Jewish leaders are openly discussing the possibility of investing in Israeli Arabs particularly at a time when the prospects for peace between Israel and the larger Arab world are dim is a significant, some say “revolutionary,” shift for American Jewish federations.
The discussion comes as the Israeli government is preparing to implement a $1 billion project addressing various educational and infrastructure needs for the Arab sector.
Announced shortly after Israeli Arabs rioted in solidarity with the Palestinians’ uprising erupted in late September, the program is described by many in Israel as a sort of “affirmative action” for Arabs.
Arabs comprise 18 percent of the Israeli population, but generally are poorer and less educated than their Jewish counterparts.
Many say they feel like second-class citizens. They say they face various forms of discrimination and that their villages and institutions historically have not received as much government funding as Jewish ones.
According to the Abraham Fund, government funding to Arab and Druse municipalities was less than one-half the funding per person given to Jewish locales in 1994, the latest figures available from the group.
For now, plans to fund Israeli Arab programs are still in the “embryo” stage, said Robert Schrayer, the UJC’s national chair for campaign and financial resource development.
A number of mainstream Jewish leaders including the chairman of the executive of the Jewish Agency for Israel have expressed discomfort with the concept, saying that funding for Israeli Arab is the responsibility of the Israeli government, not world Jewry.
As part of a larger effort to respond to new Israeli needs, as a result of the current violence and dimmed prospects for peace, UJC leaders are currently “trying to find ways of improving the standard of living for Arab Israelis,” Schrayer said.
Funding possibilities include “infrastructure, housing, social welfare programs and economic development,” he said.
In the past two months, several Israeli officials have spoken to American Jewish leaders about the need to invest in the Arab sector.
In an October speech to UJA-Federation of Greater New York donors, Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg called tensions in the Israeli Arab community a “civic volcano within Israeli society.”
“The unity of the Israeli people is no less important than the unity of the Jewish people,” said Burg, a past chairman of the executive of the Jewish Agency.
Burg’s sentiment was echoed in recent meetings between federation officials and Knesset members, according to John Ruskay, executive vice president of the New York federation.
“From right to left,” Israeli leaders “all indicated how serious they consider this issue for the future of Israel,” Ruskay said.
At a session during the UJC’s General Assembly last month, Israel’s minister for Israeli society and world Jewish communities spoke of this need.
“We need your help with this,” Rabbi Michael Melchior said.
Some suggest that helping Israeli Arabs is a cause that might resonate with American Jews.
“It’s clearly not a fringe issue if the Israeli government is putting it on the table,” said Gary Tobin, president of the San Francisco-based Institute for Jewish and Community Research, which has studied Jewish philanthropic trends.
“There are primary values of democracy and equality among citizens,” he said, issues that “are precious to American Jews as Americans.”
It “would not be much of a leap for them to help support the same issues in the State of Israel,” Tobin said.
Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University, said American Jews might not have considered helping to fund Israeli Arabs during Israel’s early years, but now “may see this as a way of having a positive impact” on Israel.
American Jews are likely to draw parallels between the situation of Israeli Arabs with that of disadvantaged minorities in the United States, like blacks, Sarna said.
But others say the analogy is inexact, particularly when many Jews fear the Arab community is a “fifth column” that could collaborate with the Palestinians to destroy the Jewish state.
Even in left-leaning groups like the New Israel Fund, there is not universal support for helping Israeli Arabs. A recent NIF program in New York about the situation of Israel’s Arabs drew over 50 people, but not all were sympathetic to the Israeli Arab speaker.
One man in the audience accused the Israeli Arabs of being disloyal to Israel, and others in the audience suggested that the speaker, an employee in group’s Haifa office, had been too “one-sided” in his complaints about discrimination.
Projects for Israeli Arabs have been “probably the most controversial” aspect of the NIF’s work,” Norman Rosenberg, the group’s executive director, said. The NIF also funds civil rights projects relating to religious pluralism and women’s rights.
Stephen Hoffman, executive vice president of the Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland, said it might be more appropriate for private foundations and the Israeli government, rather than federations, to invest in Israeli Arabs.
“I’m less focused on the controversy than I am on what’s our mission: the general development of Israel or the Jewish development of Israel?” Hoffman said.
“Do we run Jewish campaigns for the development of the Arab sector in Israel?” he asked. “That debate needs to be aired before we jump in.”
Steven Nasatir, president of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, said he does not envision federations investing large amounts in Arab projects.
“There may be areas where Jewish communities abroad could be helpful, that’s a possibility, but I think the major responsibility is” the Israeli government’s, he said.
“American Jews’ primary concern is Jews,” Nasatir said.
Although “personally I think more needs to be done” for Israeli Arabs, he said, “I don’t think that’s a major thrust of the federations.”
However, Stephen Solender, president and CEO of the UJC, said the federations should not let the potential controversy stand in the way of getting involved.
Although he is concerned that supporting the Arab sector could alienate donors, “sometimes you have to lead and try to bring those people along with you.”
Rather than investing in projects specifically for Arabs, some federation leaders seem more comfortable with the idea of joint Jewish-Arab projects that strengthen ties between the two communities.
Sallai Meridor, chairman of the executive of the Jewish Agency, said Arab infrastructure is “mainly the responsibility of the State of Israel,” but “there’s clearly a need” for more coexistence projects.
Robert Aronson, executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, said his community already supports various Jewish-Arab efforts including a hospice for Jews and Arabs in the Central Galilee, its sister region through the Partnership 2000 program.
Several Israeli Arab riots occurred in the region, which includes Nazareth, when the Palestinian violence began in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Aronson said his federation is interested in funding additional Jewish- Arab projects, but not ones that are simply about dialogue.
Instead, he would like to see “result-oriented” projects that bring Jews and Arabs together to address shared needs like health care.
In addition, the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston also is talking with its Partnership 2000 sister city, Haifa, about Jewish-Arab coexistence projects.
If the mainstream Jewish community also helped sponsor Israeli Arab and Arab-Jewish projects, it would be “revolutionary,” said Danny Weiler, director of European development for Givat Haviva, an Israeli educational institution that promotes democracy and civil rights in the Jewish state.
“In a democracy, you must give money to all parts to the majority and to the minority,” he said.
“If American Jews are concerned about the security of Israel, giving money to the Israeli Arabs means as much to Israel as having a strong defense,” Weiler said.
“Security doesn’t only mean tanks and guns, but a strong democracy with equal rights where the majority and minority can live together.”