Encouraging American Jewish interest in the 20 percent of Israeli citizens who
are not Jewish has been a longstanding challenge. For a long time learning about
the history and concerns of the Arab minority visiting their communities, or
engaging with their representatives who come to the United States on speaking
tours, was relegated to a very low priority, often barely on the
The top priority has always been, and largely still is, concern
for the ever-present threats from Israel’s neighbors. When the Israeli-
Palestinian conflict is resolved, attention can be paid to Jewish-Arab relations
in Israel, has been the mantra of those who, while at least acknowledging the
issues, prefer to delay dealing with them in any way. But that eludes the
dynamics inside Israel and the complexities of evolving majority-minority
relations that do not await the peace process.
In recent years, a sea
change in American Jewish thinking about Israeli Arabs has begun, thanks largely
to the Inter-Agency Task Force on Israeli Arab Issues. It is the first
mainstream effort to deal with the lives and aspirations of the 1.5 million
Arabs in Israel.
“We are contributing to the discourse,” Jessica Balaban,
executive director of the Inter- Agency Task Force, explained recently in her
New York office.
Given the wider conflict, there are concerns over the
roles, positive or negative, Arab citizens play in Israeli society. The task
force provides vital information to deepen understanding and offers resources
for those who want to engage the issues more fully, either on visits to Israel
or from their communities in the US.
The group’s website,
www.iataskforce.org, created with the assistance of Professor Elie Rekhess, one
of Israel’s top experts on Israeli Arabs, has an extensive online library, which
Balaban says will continue to expand.
Visitors to the website will find
hundreds of articles on Israeli Arab communities and personalities, on the
economic, social and political issues of chief concern to the Arab minority and
on how successive Israeli governments have been addressing them, as well as
public opinion surveys. Those who want to engage in advocacy will find
information, including a list of pending Knesset legislation – much of it
controversial– regarding the Arab minority.
Balaban emphasized that the
task force does not do advocacy. “We leave advocacy to the advocates,” she
That’s understandable, given the breadth of organizations that have
become taskforce members. Yet, the fact that these varied groups have joined is
a significant achievement for a group founded only five years
Current members include more than 90 organizations – including my
own, AJC – Orthodox, Conservative and Reform movements, 20 federations, 40
foundations, and others.
FOR MANY years, initiatives dealing with Israeli
Arabs emerged from small organizations and individual philanthropists, who
recognized the importance of educational and economic development programs aimed
at improving the lot of the Arab minority and improving Jewish-Arab relations in
My own introduction to the world of Israeli Arabs came almost by
chance nearly 30 years ago. While working in Tel Aviv, I spent a weekend in
Tamra, an Arab village near Haifa, where my sister had been living for two years
as a participant in a program nurturing cooperative projects with nearby Jewish
Following that eye-opening experience, I searched for more
examples of innovative Jewish-Arab relations projects. Back then I found
isolated examples including several American Jewish federations that had offices
in Israel and were supporting discreet projects in Arab communities.
turning point, says Balaban, was the second Lebanon war, when Arab citizens, who
live in large numbers in the Galilee, became targets for Hezbollah rockets just
like their Jewish neighbors. “It was a watershed moment,” says Balaban.
small group of American Jewish organization leaders and philanthropists gathered
and launched the task force. Since 2006, it has made progress in starting to get
discussion of Israeli Arab issues on the American Jewish agenda, including at
major gatherings such as the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North
Going forward, this mainstream initiative needs further
encouragement and support.
Constructive and cooperative Jewish-Arab
relations in Israel will help advance democracy.
That’s a goal American
Jews have a vested interest in.
The writer is the American Jewish
Committee’s director of media relations.