"A strange process happened during [this summer's] war," Jewish Agency spokesman Yarden Vatikai told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday. "We reached the conclusion that we have to invest in coexistence."
The agency brought many Jewish and Arab children from the Galilee southward, out of range of the Katyusha rockets.
"We saw many meetings - some for the first time - between Jews and Arabs," Vatikai said. Since one of the Jewish Agency's goals is the "social development of the Negev and the Galilee," he noted, "we decided that part of this development must include improving the relations between Arabs and Jews."
Jewish Agency chairman Ze'ev Bielski will tour the Galilee on Thursday to see first-hand several projects run by the Abraham Fund and financed by the agency that are intended to promote coexistence.
The Abraham Fund was founded by American Jewish philanthropist Alan Slifka and Rabbi Eugene Weiner of the University of Haifa's Department of Sociology in 1989. Weiner passed away in 2003.
The fund, which has offices in Jerusalem and New York, seeks to create "equality and joint life among Israeli citizens," according to spokeswoman Maya Popper.
With an annual budget of about NIS 11 million financed by donations from the UJA Federation of New York, the European Union and private donors, the Abraham Fund works to create "what was once called coexistence, but we call equality, cooperation or a shared society," Popper said.
The partnership among the Abraham Fund, the Jewish Agency, the United Jewish Appeal and the United Jewish Communities is "groundbreaking, said representatives from both the Fund and the Jewish Agency.
"We all think that in 2006, you can't declare that you're working to develop the Negev and the Galilee without dealing with [coexistence]," said Vatikai. "It's a topic that's very problematic; there's a lack of dialogue."
Vatikai rejected the criticism that was raised, particularly among American Jewish donors, of the Jewish Agency's work with Arab communities in the North.
"This isn't going over easily among the Arabs either," he said. "Part of the Arab press [in Israel] is supportive and part is aggressive. For many years, we were considered the most Zionist and problematic organization. They thought that part of our purpose was to take away their lands. This simply isn't true. The world moves forward, and we've moved forward," Vatikai said.
Bielski will visit the Language as a Cultural Bridge project, which seeks to "institutionalize spoken Arabic and Arab culture as a required subject in Jewish elementary schools," Popper told the Post. "Until today, [Jewish children] either study classical Arabic, which doesn't help them to speak with local Arabs, or don't learn Arabic at all," she said.
Another program Bielski will see first-hand is the Mirkam Encounters in the Galilee project, which was started in the wake of the summer's war with Hizbullah. Ten Jewish elementary schools and 10 Arab elementary schools in the mixed towns of Acre, Haifa and Ma'alot-Tarshiha, hold cultural and educational events together. The project is meant "to break the stereotypes we saw during the war," Popper said.