Political leaders gathered on Thursday to take
part in the 5th annual Jaffa Convention on relations between Jewish and
cabinet ministers and more than a dozen MKs attended and spoke about
the challenges facing the non-Jewish population in its search for
equality in the Jewish state.
The conference, which took place two days after Israel received
a stinging report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and
Development criticizing it for its large social gaps that disadvantage
Arab Israelis and haredim, was once again held under the slogan "A Call
Many of the speakers referred to the report, describing it as a
"mirror for the Israeli society," and expressing hope that change could
"The day has come to turn over a new leaf in the
relationship between the State of Israel and the Arab minority," said
Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar (Likud). "Though it is in the common
interest of all Israelis to do so, there are two main obstacles
preventing it from happening: first, the Arab-Israeli and the
Israeli-Palestinian conflicts, which strongly influence the Arab-Jewish
relationship and will continue to do so until they are resolved; and
second, the strong currents in both the Arab and the Jewish populations
that promote segregation and alienation of the Arab population from the
Sa'ar said that to solve the problem, both sides must instill
in the next generation a message of coexistence. National service for
the Arab population could go a long way towards changing people's
perceptions, he said.
also spoke about the gaps in the Arab education system, saying that
although his ministry was working to better fund the Arab schools,
changes must also be made within the communities themselves.
"We need to move towards a new system of selecting teachers and
principals in the Arab sector. It's not always the case that the best
educators are given the jobs, and that has to change," said Sa'ar. "I
believe that education is the key to solving inequalities as well as
changing perceptions… The political leadership on both sides must send
out a clear message against racism. There will always be two peoples
here and change must come."
Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai (Labor) said that until the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict was resolved, equal rights would never be
on the top of the national agenda, but that on the local level things
could be corrected more easily. He cited Jaffa as an example of the
course of actions that should be followed.
"Over the past decade we have invested more than a billion
shekels in Jaffa. The investments were directed towards physical
improvements, but also towards things like education, health and
welfare," said Huldai. "We are proud to be hosting this convention
here. This convention is not afraid to put things on the table and say
they need to be fixed. That is a vital first step."
Former Meimad MK Michael Melchior, the founder and chairman of
the Citizens Accord Forum for Jews and Arabs in Israel, which organized
the convention, said it was impossible to wait for the external
conflict to end in order to solve the internal inequalities. In a state
that describes itself as Jewish and democratic, Arabs should not be
subject to the kind of discrimination that currently exists in terms of
practical realities and government policies, he said.
"The dialogue that arises from fear and suspicion escalates
into hatred, and as we saw in the last election [in February 2009],
hatred generates votes," said Melchior. "We have to create a new
dialogue. It is inconceivable that the Jewish state be associated with
alienation of a minority. It is inconceivable that a Jewish state
includes the reality of discrimination."
Hadash MK Afo Agbaria, the chairman of the Knesset's
Arab-Jewish Relations caucus, said time was running out on solving the
internal conflict and that he saw the rift between the sectors
continuing to diverge.
"I don't accept the notion that our problems can't be solved
until the Palestinian conflict comes to an end. As citizens of Israel,
I see no reason why we should be held hostage. We have been here since
the birth of the state and for more than 62 years we have shown that we
are in favor of peace and helped build the state. The Arab citizens can
be a bridge for peace," he said.
Agbaria's caucus co-chairwoman, Kadima's Orit Zuaretz, said a change of priorities had to be expressed in government budgeting.
"It reeks of hypocrisy and double standards when the government
and the Knesset speak of equality and at the same time hold discussions
on loyalty tests and promote segregation laws," said Zuaretz. "A
democracy is tested on its attitudes towards its minorities and we all
know that if you are not wealthy, fair-skinned and educated, your
chances of succeeding in life are reduced. If you are a Beduin woman
from Rahat, nobody glances in your direction."
Zuaretz said that the caucus planned to continue promoting
equality for all citizens. She called on Sa'ar to promote Arabic
studies in the education system, for the establishment of a day
dedicated to Arab studies and for the mandatory teaching of Arabic for
all students, starting in first grade.
Opposition leader Tzipi Livni (Kadima) said equality was not a
favor meant for a certain population but an integral part of the state
and its values.
"Throughout the state's existence we have not provided the
Arabs with equality. We all know it, but have done nothing to correct
it," she said.
Livni said that the conflict with the Palestinians had a
critical effect on Arab-Jewish relations because the conflict was one
of nationalities. The only solution to the conflict was two-states, and
once that was achieved the Arabs in Israel would have to let go of
their national aspirations and seek to integrate fully in Israeli
society, she said.
"The Arab leadership must come out and say that they want to be
full citizens in the State of Israel and be willing to fight for their
rights. I will fight alongside you in that battle," said Livni.
Government Services Minister Michael Eitan
(Likud) celebrated the fact that there were five ministers from his
party in attendance. He said that he hoped the message of equality and
integration that came from the leadership would trickle down to the
party's members and that the dialogue would continue within society.
Affairs Minister Avishay Braverman (Labor) spoke about his commitment
to the population groups under his charge. The desire for full equality
was not only just, but also smart. The major source of growth for the
future of Israel rested in the young Arab population, and instead of
turning them into adversaries, Israel should enlist them in an effort
to boost prosperity, he said.
The discrepancies between Arabs and Jews in Israel was one of
the main problems holding Israel back from gaining membership in the
OECD, Braverman said. Israel met most of the requirements to join the
group of developed countries, including regarding GDP and
entrepreneurial activities, but when it came to employment inequality,
Israel was in last place among all developed countries, Braverman said.
"We should use the OECD report as a mirror, so as to better see
ourselves and what we have to amend," said the minority affairs
Braverman announced that the cabinet would hold a special
meeting dedicated to the Arab minorities, where he would push for
ministers to commit to real funding and improvements, specifically in
education, housing and employment.
Silvan Shalom (Likud), deputy prime minister and the minister
of Negev and Galilee affairs, spoke about the importance of changing
the national priorities. Instead of focusing on external and security
issues, Israel should look inwards and solve the urgent problems that
exist in education, health and welfare.
only way to overcome the financial gaps between the populations was to
make higher education more accessible to the Arab population, Shalom
Other speakers were Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Binyamin
Ben-Eliezer (Labor) and ministers without portfolio Bennie Begin and
Yossi Peled, both from the Likud. The American ambassador, James
Cunningham, was unable to attend as scheduled due to a meeting with US
Mideast envoy George Mitchell, who is in Israel for a round of
diplomatic meetings. Cunningham's deputy, Luis Moreno, spoke in his