On My Mind: American Jews and Israeli Arabs

We need to show more interest in Israel’s biggest minority.

By
August 10, 2011 06:25
3 minute read.
Kenneth Bandler

Kenneth Bandler 58. (photo credit: Courtesy)

 
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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 radar.

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.

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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 said.

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 ago.

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 Israel.

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 communities.

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.

The 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.

A 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 America.

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.

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