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Israel’s Arab Minority Since Intifada, Coexistence Groups Say They’re Needed More Than Ever

November 11, 2002
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In the two years since the Palestinian intifada erupted, Arab-Jewish coexistence projects in Israel have wavered and faltered — but never ceased.

If anything, those who work on finding a way for Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs to live together in peace have renewed their vision and redoubled their efforts.

Call them dreamers, consider them idealists, but they believe it is the only way out of the current quagmire.

“I want working solutions that represent the future of Jewish-Arab relations,” says Mohammed Darawshe, a former leader of the Democratic Arab Party and currently the public relations director of Givat Haviva, a coexistence educational campus near Hadera. “We need to find a model for the Middle East. It’s possible, but very difficult.”

No one is denying that it’s a tough time for the local coexistence industry: It’s hard to find tourists willing to travel to Israel to visit or support coexistence projects, and nearly impossible to move beyond the basic issues of the Israeli- Palestinian conflict.

Yet the interest in promoting such projects is still there. While government funding has fallen, funds from foundations, Jewish federations and private donors outside Israel — funneled through the Jewish Agency for Israel and earmarked for 25 coexistence projects — have increased since the intifada began in September 2000.

In 2000, for example, $207,000 was allocated to Arab-Jewish projects. The figure doubled to $410,000 in 2001, and rose to $456,000 in 2002.

Around 10 percent to 15 percent of the Israeli population participates in coexistence programs each year, said Batya Kallus, director of grants at the Abraham Fund, a not-for-profit organization that promotes coexistence.

She also estimated that close to $10 million a year — from the European Union, Israeli government ministries and American Jewish fund-raising efforts — is funneled into coexistence programs.

Givat Haviva operates on a $4 million annual budget, $2 million of which comes from public and private sources in the United States and Europe. About 3 percent of its budget comes from Israel’s Education Ministry, down from 20 percent before Israel’s current economic crisis.

Still, projects continue to grow and even flourish. To date there are more than 100 coexistence programs in Israel.

The number hasn’t fallen since October 2000, when Israeli Arab riots in solidarity with the intifada shook the Jewish majority to its core.

For their part, many Arabs argue that the strong police response — 13 rioters were shot dead — shows the establishment’s indifference to Arab life.

Arabs, who represent about 16 population of the Israeli population, are especially numerous in the Negev, in and around Jerusalem, in Haifa and the Galilee, and in the Triangle, an area running along the porous border with the West Bank from Umm el-Fahm in the north to Kfar Kassem in the country’s center.

In each region, coexistence takes place both formally, through programs and organizations, and casually.

One recent day, for example, a group of Arab high school students on a school trip listened quietly to a description of a Jewish revolt at the ancient synagogue of Gamla on the Golan Heights, then trekked off to see the site’s waterfall.

During olive-picking season, Israeli Arab women can be seen plucking hard green olives off squat olive trees in downtown Jerusalem, while cars inch by during early morning traffic.

“We all live here, in the city, in the country,” describes Suleiman Assi, the Arab mayor of Kfar Bara, a small Arab town in the center of Israel. “There are work issues and social issues, issues of freedom and democracy. But we have to make it work because this is all we have.”

On Givat Haviva’s sprawling campus, established in 1949 as the national educational center for the Kibbutz Artzi Federation, Jewish and Arab teens recently finished building a mud hut to use as a type of coexistence clubhouse.

Elsewhere on the campus, Arab women learn computer skills in an ongoing course with instructors from Haifa’s Technion — Israel Institute of Technology, and Jewish adults study Arabic in an intensive eight-month course.

Part of Givat Haviva’s goal is to shape and train the next generation’s leaders. Like many other coexistence projects, the center’s activities are based on a mix of education and idealism.

A similar concept is used to educate and mold the 123 Jewish and Arab students, from kindergarten through fourth grade, who attend the Jerusalem Bilingual School.

Bilingual skills form a major component of the school curriculum, but what most attracts parents is the educational opportunities of a multicultural school in a city that is holy to several religions.

It’s a different approach than just letting meals of gefilte fish and hummous substitute for real coexistence, says Ibrahim Abu Shindi, who runs coexistence activities at the Arab-Jewish Community Center in Jaffa. He also runs the Citizens’ Accord Forum, a brainchild of Israel’s former deputy foreign minister, Rabbi Michael Melchior, that keeps a network of coexistence organizations across the country.

“This isn’t just talk, it’s ‘kiruv,’ ” Abu Shindi said, using a Hebrew term with religious nuances for bringing people together. “It’s to hear and understand and be together, to go deep and not disconnect from one another.”

The question, or challenge, is whether these programs can effect real change in the way Arabs and Jews view each another.

For the coexistence professionals, the answer is yes: They are diehard optimists who have been in the field long enough to be pragmatic about Israel’s long-term options as a Jewish country with a growing Arab population.

Many believe that a binational “state of all its citizens,” rather than a Jewish state, is the only solution for Israel’s future.

“We talk about everything out loud,” including the idea of a binational state, “even though many Israeli Jews don’t want to hear about it,” said Sarah Ozacky-Lazar, co-director of Givat Haviva’s Jewish-Arab Center for Peace. “We have to deal with alternatives because we all know it’s bad the way it is now.”

They operate according to a simple formula: Recognize our differences, honor them and find common ground.

“The more difficult the situation, the more challenging our work becomes,” said Dan Pattir, chief operating officer of the Abraham Fund. “There is an accumulation of fear, frustration for Jews and disenchantment for Arabs.”

Founded in 1989, the fund supports some 300 coexistence projects each year, and in all has given more than $8 million to some 600 projects. The number of proposals the fund entertains is growing, up 20 percent in 2002, according to Pattir.

In the last two years, the fund has wanted to do more to strengthen cooperation. Pattir calls it breaking down “du-kiyyum,” the Hebrew term for coexistence, which actually means dual existence.

“Some Arabs say, give us ‘kiyyum,’ ” existence, “and then we’ll take on the ‘du’ ,” or dual, Pattir said. “We say, ‘Let’s tackle both at the same time.’ “

The fear and disenchantment on both sides clearly predates the intifada. For Jews, fear has ebbed and flowed with the political and security situation, with outbreaks of war or political tussles with their neighbors.

They have become accustomed to living with and among Israeli Arabs; but they shy away from hearing Israeli Arabs increasingly describe themselves as Palestinians.

Israeli Arabs find themselves frustrated by their second-class status in Israel and the physical and psychological barriers that impede their success.

Despite their growing identification as Palestinians — and an increasing number of incidents in which Israeli Arabs have helped Palestinian terrorists — few seem willing to give up the political and economic benefits of Israeli citizenship.

A recent poll of 509 Israeli Arabs from northern Israel, commissioned by the Jewish-Arab Center for Peace, found that 68 percent rejected proposals to annex their communities to a future Palestinian state. Only 18 percent said they would be willing to relinquish their Israeli citizenship.

Despite the radical Islamic Movement’s strength in the area, more than 70 percent of respondents said they would be willing to participate in social, economic and political activities to improve relations between Arabs and Jews.

Such sentiments had helped create a new focus in the coexistence industry even before the intifada began.

In the past decade, coexistence projects — which traditionally were initiated by Jews but now are initiated by both sides — have begun looking at issues from both Arab and Jewish perspectives. Ozacky-Lazar calls it a revolution.

Yet given the atmosphere since the peace process collapsed, Ozacky-Lazar and others worry about future funding and organization.

“After Sept. 11, it’s hard to talk about Arabs, and Jews give less to these kinds of programs,” Ozacky-Lazar said.

People question whether they want to give money “to Arabs,” agreed Pattir. But, he thinks, it’s more necessary now than ever.

“We say, for the sake of Israel’s future, we need to narrow the gaps in Arab-Jewish relations,” he added. “Once upon a time we were looked upon as dreamers. But coexistence organizations have always seen the writing on the wall, even 10 years ago.”

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