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NEW YORK - The Jewish community in the United States is gearing up for a new challenge: raising funds to promote equal rights for Israel's Arab minority. Having proved its strength in struggles for the Jews of Russia, Ethiopia and Iran, American Jewish organizations are now readying to help improve the lives of Arab Israelis.

At a symposium in New York two weeks ago, Jewish community leaders unveiled a coalition of charities and organizations whose representatives will form a task force to oversee aid to the Arab sector. The conference was attended by representatives of more than 60 private and public charitable foundations, heads of Jewish organizations and officials from key Jewish federations.

Many Jewish philanthropies in the U.S. have for years been directing funds to welfare projects in the Arab sector, but conference organizers said that the broad array of representatives in attendance and their practical decisions marked a historic turning point in the community's priorities.

The co-executive director of Sikkuy - Israel's Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality, Shuli Dichter, praised American Jewish leaders. "We are happy to see that Diaspora Jews finally understand the importance of equality in Israel and are starting to think of Israel in realistic rather than idealistic terms," he said.

"I hope the Americans will influence the Israeli government to fulfill its duty in the Arab sector and the Jewish Agency to alter its investment plan," he added.

Abraham Foxman, whose Anti-Defamation League is part of the task force, said they had paid attention to the Palestinians and neglected Arab Israelis. "Jewish delegations visited Ramallah, but skipped over Wadi Ara," Foxman said.

In Foxman's view, equal rights for Arab Israelis is "a strategic matter" that will contribute to Israel's safety. The immediate aid goals, he said, will target the Arab education system, employment and small businesses, and will improve the economic situation of Arab Israelis.

Brian Lurie, president of the Alfred and Hanna Fromm Fund, who initiated the task force, said he had spoken recently to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert about the plans to enlist the American Jewish community to help Arab Israelis and met with a favorable response. Lurie stressed that effort will be made to ensure the task force remains apolitical.

The speech by Rabbi Naftali Rutenberg of the Van Leer Institute Jerusalem created a stir when he mentioned that the duty to distribute aid to minorities equally is ingrained in Jewish scripture, and quoted the relevant references.

Arab Israeli organizations greeted the new initiative with a degree of skepticism. The Higher Arab Monitoring Committee chairman, Shauki Hatib, welcomed any investment that raises the quality of life of Arab citizens. But officials at Mossawa Center - the Advocacy Center for Arab Citizens of Israel, said that American Jewish donations that previously went mainly to Jewish communities had widened the socio-economic gaps between Jews and Arabs. The problem is not financial, Mossawa director Jafar Farah said, but rather relates to a human rights dialog that the state must respect. Working to change the discriminatory policy of Israeli governments is what matters, he said