Hundreds gathered at Jaffa’s Jewish-Arab community center on Thursday for the sixth annual Jaffa Convention, held to discuss relations between Arabs and Jews in Israel.

According to organizers, this year’s convention – which came after the controversial “rabbis’ letter,” which called on Jews not to rent or sell houses to Arabs, and Israel Beiteinu’s “loyalty oath” bill – is the biggest they’ve ever held.

Those in attendance included lawmakers from across the political spectrum, from MK Zevulun Orlev (Habayit Hayehudi) to Ahmed Tibi (United Arab List- Ta’al). The conference also hosted dozens of locals and community and business leaders from all parts of the Arab sector and their Jewish counterparts.

The convention’s panels discussed a wide range of topics, including economic cooperation, housing, and the future of Arab-Jewish relations.

Former welfare minister MK Isaac Herzog (Labor) addressed the conference, relating how he visited Safed two weeks earlier to meet with students from Safed Academic College who were at the center of a campaign against Arab residents of the city.

He repeated his statement about how aspects of the ethnic discourse in Israel today remind him of “Alabama in the 1940s,” and expressed his belief that Israel’s Arab sector needs to be further incorporated into society because it “has vast potential that can benefit the state.”

He also called on the sector to increase opportunities for women, saying that he had still not seen a single woman serving on the city council of an Arab community in Israel.

Intelligence Agencies Minister Dan Meridor (Likud) told the conference: “Now that after thousands of years we [Jews] are once again independent and a majority, how we treat our minorities is the true test for Israel.”

Meridor compared the rabbis’ letter to anti-Semitic measures once undertaken in Nazi Germany, and said: “It is the role of community leaders on both sides to make serious efforts to fight these sorts of phenomena.”

Retired Supreme Court justice Yitzhak Zamir said recent anti- Arab actions like the rabbis’ letter give the appearance that Israelis “have taken a turn toward days in the distant past.” He called on the state to ensure that the protection afforded under Israeli law is manifested in the reality on the ground.

“The law ensures equality in employment and forbids discrimination in hiring for people from all sectors. We know that the reality is far from what the law dictates,” Zamir said, adding that the state must increase the number of Arabs performing national service.

Today, Arabs constitute only about 5 percent of those performing national service, even though they are around 20% of the population.

The Jaffa Convention is organized by the Citizens’ Accord Forum and the Arab Jewish Community Center in Jaffa, and is considered the largest of its sort dealing with the issue of Arab-Jewish relations in Israel.

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