druze arab woman 298.88.
(photo credit: AP)
The greatest challenge that Israel faces, next to the conflict with the Palestinians, is how to approach the Arab minority within Israel, according to a panel held this week in New York.
Given America's civil rights history, some say, American Jews may have a particular role to play when it comes to improving the rights of Israeli Arabs.
"Eventually the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be solved, and then it will be a matter of how Jews and Arabs will live together in Israel," said Dr. Eli Rekhess of Tel Aviv University in his opening remarks at Monday's conference.
The panel - organized by the Israel Democracy Institute - offered participants an overview of the political, economic and social challenges facing Israel regarding its Arab minority, which makes up roughly 20 percent of the population, and offered visions for how the situation could be improved, including recruiting the involvement of Diaspora Jews.
Conference participants represented a range of Jewish organizations, including American Friends of the IDI, the Jewish Federation, and the New Israel Fund.
The role of "world Jewry" should not be overlooked, said Prof. Mordechai Kremnitzer, who said Israel's treatment of the Arab minority is "shameful."
"The State of Israel must be encouraged by Jews outside Israel," said Kremnitzer, who is considered a possible candidate for Israel's Supreme Court.
"The shame in the way Arabs are treated is the shame of all Jews," he said.
The recent war with Lebanon brought the issue to the forefront of the American Jewish awareness, when some Jewish activist groups protested that a percentage of the money collected by local Jewish federations for postwar recovery was distributed to Arab citizens of Israel.
"A year ago, the majority of the American Jewish community didn't know there were Arab citizens," said Haim Simon, executive director of the Givat Haviva Educational Foundation, the American arm of the Israel-based Givat Haviva Institute, which has worked extensively on trying to bridge the gaps between Jews and Arabs within Israel.
American Jews have a particularly important role to play, according to Simon, who pointed to the history of civil rights in America as a potential educational tool.
"I do believe as American Jews, that we have a skill that needs to be tapped. We have an innate understanding of pluralism and equality, we went through this already, and we can ensure that Israel doesn't get stuck with a separate but equal policy."
The meeting in New York came at the heels of the recent uproar over the nomination of Labor MK Ghaleb Majadle to an empty cabinet post, which was mired in charges of racism.
The conference made clear just how complicated the subject of Arab Israelis is, even in Israel. It touches upon the core of Israel's identity.
"Many people think that the Jewishness of the state justifies discrimination," said Kremnitzer. "Arab citizens deserve equality, the state owes them this right."
A recent survey of Arab and Druse adults conducted by the Jaffe Institute showed that 75% of the 510 participants said they experienced discrimination in the national, economic, social or cultural spheres.
"We don't need cosmetic changes, we need a new beginning," said Kremnitzer.
One of the obstacles, however, continues to be the lack of willingness from Arab leadership to legitimize Israel as a Jewish state, according to Kremnitzer. "This attitude makes having a new beginning difficult rather than easier," he said.