Political leaders gathered on Thursday to take part in the 5th annual Jaffa Convention on relations between Jewish and Arab citizens.
Seven 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 to Action."
Many of the speakers referred to the report, describing it as a "mirror for the Israeli society," and expressing hope that change could be achieved.
"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 state."
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.
Sa'ar 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.
Minority 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 minister.
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.
The only way to overcome the financial gaps between the populations was to make higher education more accessible to the Arab population, Shalom said.
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 place.