On My Mind: Infinite possibility

Sarah Kreimer epitomizes the principle that Israel’s most precious resource is its people.

December 5, 2016 21:48
4 minute read.

MEMBERS OF an EU delegation to promote Arabs in the hi-tech sector gather together in Nazareth. (photo credit: TSOFEN)

Hope is a precious commodity. Transforming hope into consequential actions takes visionary individuals unfazed by obstacles that invariably arise to block idealistic intentions.

Since Israel’s independence, inspired political leaders and average citizens have made extraordinary strides in nearly every field, but bridging the divide between the Jewish majority and Arab minority has remained a continuing challenge. Too often incidents highlighting tensions and controversies capture the headlines, while tangible achievements helping both Arabs and Jews have received insufficient attention.

This might begin to change with the publication of a new book, Vision and Division in Israel: Forty Years of Activism Along the Seam, by Sarah Kreimer, one of the pioneers of Jewish-Arab relations. “Our country today is a joint venture of Arab and Jewish citizens, albeit still not equitable,” writes Kreimer in her memoir, which describes her work over the past four decades throughout Israel.

A native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Kreimer, like many other young American Jews, first visited Israel with a youth group. She returned in 1980 to live in the Arab village of Tamra, working for Interns for Peace, then one of the leading coexistence organizations.

Her experience organizing cooperative projects over two years in Tamra and neighboring Jewish communities convinced her that Jewish and Arab “conceptions of one another could change through well-constructed action.”

In 1984, she decided that Israel was where she belonged and immigrated, determined to do what she could to help build an Israeli society that fulfills the promise stated in the Declaration of Independence, that all citizens of the state are treated equal.

Three years later she launched the Center for Jewish- Arab Economic Development (CJAED). It aimed to create a more level playing field for economic development, and encourage synergy between Arab and Jewish business ventures. It was an innovative approach, a step beyond episodic dialogues and meetings of Jewish and Arab schoolchildren.

Kreimer was convinced that establishing and fostering meaningful interactions would be the game-changer for achieving positive Jewish-Arab relations. Over 14 years, she and an Arab colleague, who became the center’s co-director, facilitated joint ventures between Jewish and Arab communities and investments in local Arab economies. In one of its first reports, the center “identified tremendous economic potential in the Arab sector and a high cost to Israel’s economy because of the lost potential.”

The path was not smooth. “We had lots of failures,” Kreimer recalled during a visit to New York last month. While the challenges Kreimer faced were sometimes daunting, and she catalogs in her memoir the pitfalls of enduring suspicions and the impact of the wider conflict, the groundbreaking successes generated by her vision broke down barriers, providing enduring models for further cooperation that benefit Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens.

The government accepted and implemented some of the center’s recommendations in the 1990s, including hiring Arab professionals in government ministries, helping nurture B&B and other tourism in Arab communities and planning industrial zones in Arab localities.

In 1999, the center created MATCH (Matching Arabs to Careers in Hi-Tech). With the cooperation of Arab mayors and the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry, an incubator called New Generation Technology (NGT) opened in Nazareth. It was an innovative precursor to current projects focused on encouraging Arab students to study science, firms to hire qualified graduates and investors to examine opportunities in Israeli Arab communities.

Indeed, components of the government’s current plan to invest more than $4 billion in Arab communities, as well as ongoing efforts to increase Arab participation in higher education, can be traced back to Kreimer’s forward-looking initiatives.

“All the things the government is doing now with the five-year plan we had said in the 1990s,” Kreimer said at a New York event to discuss her book. She will be speaking at the YMCA in Jerusalem on December 15.

In the heyday of the peace process in the 1990s, Kreimer also recognized opportunities to expand the center’s work. A series of industry-specific conferences – construction, textiles, food, plastics and hi-tech industries – brought together Israeli Jews and Arabs with Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, as well as with business leaders from Egypt and Jordan.

Today, resolving the wider conflict seems more elusive than ever. Yet, there is growing recognition that “even if we separate and coalesce into two states, the Israeli state would not be entirely Jewish,” Kreimer writes. Fostering positive, constructive Jewish-Arab relations and including the minority more fully in Israeli society are critical for the country’s continued growth and security.

Kreimer epitomizes the principle that Israel’s most precious resource is its people. Those who share her belief in what she calls “infinite possibility” can move mountains.

The writer is the American Jewish Committee’s director of media relations.

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