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Entering Turbulent Waters, U.S. Jews Launch Task Force to Aid Israeli Arabs

May 3, 2006
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They live just a mile apart, but odds are Eldad Garfunkel and Kasim Abu Raya would not ordinarily have met. As a Jew and an Arab, both Israeli citizens, their paths seldom crossed. Such is life in Israel.

Then a new school opened in town, thanks to an Arab-Jewish coeducational organization called Hand in Hand. Teachers pledged to teach Arab and Jewish kids under the same roof, emphasizing values of coexistence and democratic engagement.

Intrigued by the concept, Garfunkel and Raya took a chance and signed up their children.

Now, eight years later, the two men are in frequent contact. Raya’s son has Jewish friends sleep over during the holy month of Ramadan, Garfunkel’s kid had a row of Arab students at his bar mitzvah, and both men claim a new understanding for those on “the other side.”

A new task force on Israeli Arabs, founded by a broad coalition of American Jewish groups, hopes this type of exchange can become the norm rather than the exception in Israel.

The coalition includes the Anti-Defamation League, Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, New Israel Fund, UJA-Federation of New York, American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies and the Alfred and Hanna Fromm Fund. It represents a major push on an issue that had been on the American Jewish community’s list of priorities several years ago, but was then eclipsed by the intifada.

Leaders of the new Interagency Task Force on Israeli Arab Issues told participants at a New York City symposium last week that they can no longer ignore the demographic realities of the Israeli Arab situation.

According to data from Sikkuy — The Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality, Arabs, who make up roughly 20 percent of Israel’s population, have a poverty rate three times higher than that of Israel’s Jewish population. They also face political, medical and educational inequities, the center said.

In addition to socioeconomic strain, Israeli Arabs face attitudinal biases on the part of their Jewish counterparts. Nearly 63 percent of Israeli Jews say they view the Arab population as a security threat, according to a report issued in March by the Israel-based Center for Combating Racism. The study also showed that 40 percent of Israeli Jews believe the state should encourage Arabs to emigrate, and 34 percent believe Arab culture is inferior to Jewish culture.

The hostility toward Israeli Arabs stems in part from a tendency for Israeli Jews to question the loyalty of their Arab neighbors, Sikkuy officials said.

“In Israeli Jewish minds, sometimes — oftentimes — Israeli Arabs are connected with Palestinian Arabs in the West Bank and they are being blamed for what’s going on there,” said Shuli Dichter, co-executive director of Sikkuy. “But they are a totally separate collective with a separate agenda and needs.”

But recent history has shown that the issue is not so simple. Opinion polls show that Israeli Arabs increasingly are identifying as Palestinian rather than Israeli and — led by political leaders who often seem to go out of their way to provoke the Jewish majority — the community is seen as increasingly radical.

When the intifada began, Israeli Arabs staged massive riots in solidarity, and Israeli Arabs were involved in a number of terrorist attacks during the five-year uprising, using their freedom of movement as Israeli citizens to aid Palestinian suicide bombers.

“We can’t just look at this as an academic issue, or even a social issue,” said Alan Slifka, who founded The Abraham Fund, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting coexistence between Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens. “This is a defense issue.

“It’s kind of like if you have someone on drugs and you don’t get them to rehab,” he continued. “You’re enabling a bad situation to get worse.”

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents, underscored that point.

“We will not be at peace externally unless we have security internally,” he told the symposium.

Looking in from the outside, American Jews wonder what role they should assume on a difficult issue. Brian Lurie, president of the Fromm Fund, said the agency would try to avoid politics, but other task force members questioned how exactly to pursue their agenda.

“We don’t want to define the identity of Israelis,” Abraham Foxman, national director of the ADL, cautioned. “The advocacy belongs to Israel. We are a support base trying to develop strategies for how they can do this.”

Hoenlein concurred. “We’re not telling the government of Israel what to do,” he said. “We’re talking about what we can do.”

So why are influential Jewish leaders bothering to tread in such waters?

Larry Garber, executive director of the New Israel Fund, cited the Bush administration’s agenda of democratization in the Middle East as an impetus.

“Israel prides itself, appropriately, on being a democracy,” he said. “One of the areas appropriate to show how strong the Israeli government is is in this area of minority rights.”

Others said the climate in Israel, with Ehud Olmert as prime minister, is ripe for such an initiative.

“Ehud Olmert, because he was minister of Israeli Arab Affairs, has really got to know the situation we’re talking about,” Lurie said.

The seven-person task force, which is planning a fact-finding mission to Israel in June, said the issue requires a paradigm shift on the part of Israeli citizens. If the operation is to succeed, Israelis need to see the well-being of Israeli Arabs as a general Israeli issue, not a specifically Arab one.

“If you care about Israel, you need to care about the totality of Israel,” Foxman said.

Added Amal Elsana Alh’jooj, who directs the Arab-Jewish Center for Equality, Empowerment and Cooperation: “Minority issues are not only the issue of the minority.”

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