US Jewish groups to address Israeli-Arab difficulties

American Jewish C'tee: It's in Israel's strategic and moral interest to try to diminish disparities between Jews and Arabs; 'Arab Labor' to be screened.

Arabic language signs in east Jerusalem 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Arabic language signs in east Jerusalem 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
WASHINGTON – While the Israeli press has recently been filled with stories of rising anti-Arab sentiment, a coalition of Jewish organizations in Washington is looking to raise awareness and improve the situation of Arabs in Israel.
“It’s in Israel’s strategic and moral interest to try to diminish the disparities” between Jews and Arabs there, said Melanie Maron, director of the American Jewish Committee’s Washington office.
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The organization is a major sponsor of a forum on the subject to be held at the Washington Jewish Community Center on Sunday.
“The importance of it has only been underscored by what we’ve been seeing in Israel, and some of the discomfort that North American Jews feel about what they see coming out of the far Right in Israel,” she said.
Just last month, dozens of Israeli rabbis urged Jews to refrain from renting homes to Arabs. Though Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu strongly condemned the rabbis’ call, it was backed by 44 percent of the public, according to a recent poll.
Sunday’s forum, however, had been organized well before the rabbis announced their position, and will address systemic issues such as economic inequality, empowering women and integrating the Beduin sector.
More than 200 members of the local Jewish community are expected to attend panels run by both Jewish and Arab speakers.
The event will kick off with an address from Noam Katz, the Israeli Embassy’s minister for public diplomacy, detailing the government’s efforts to reach out to and integrate the Arab community.
“We understand that it’s an important issue,” said embassy spokesman Jonny Peled of the decision to participate. “There’s no doubt we face challenges and difficulties in Israel.”
The agenda also includes a lighter take on the treatment of Arabs, with a screening of an episode of the hit Israeli sitcom Arab Labor. Written by Israeli Arab journalist Sayed Kashua, it humorously explores the headaches and obstacles of living as a minority in the Jewish state.
The show was also screened at the JCC as part of Washington’s 21st annual Jewish film festival, where it was warmly received. Laura Cutler of American University’s Center for Israel Studies, who introduced the screening, explained that “this series really deals with the complexity of being an Arab in Israel.”
Rabbi Sid Schwarz, founder of PANIM and author of Judaism and Justice, who also helped organize Sunday’s event, said the show and other parts of the forum were part of an effort to educate the American Jewish community on the experience of Arab Israelis.
But, he said, Arab Labor also illustrates that the Israeli public as a whole is aware of the problems that exist.
“Israelis don’t have their heads in the sand on this issue,” he noted.
He said that was particularly important because American Jews could be reluctant to say anything critical about Israel.
“They’re going to learn about the complexity of the issue,” Schwarz said of Sunday’s forum. “They’re going to find out there’s a long road to go to full equality.”