It's Good to Talk, Jewish and Arab Citizens Rediscover

Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger
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Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger

The October 2000 riots, the Or Commission determined, harmed relations between Jews and Arabs. The violence "widened the divide, reduced contacts between the societies and increased the level of suspicion and hostility."

Spontaneous meetings between Jews and Arabs have diminished over the course of the past three years and numerous polls have indicated that alienation between the two peoples has increased.

Nevertheless, organized gatherings of Arab and Jewish citizens held in the name of "coexistence", once a target of criticism and disparagement from both sides before the intifada, are now a blossoming business that brings in millions of dollars every year. The organizers of these meetings claim that there are a wide variety of such groups and their numbers are now unprecedented.

The Coexistence Organizations Network, which launched its Web site two weeks ago, has recently signed a Jewish-Arab philharmonic ensemble as the 101st member of its network.

Dan Patir is managing director of the Abraham Fund Initiatives, an umbrella organization supporting dozens of groups which jointly established the network together with the Citizens Accord Forum. He reported that the number of requests he now receives from groups seeking funding for coexistence projects has risen to the level before the outbreak of violence three years.

Dr. Yifat Maoz, of Hebrew University's communications department, has researched coexistence groups and says that in comparison to other countries suffering from ethnic and national tensions such as the United States and Northern Ireland, "relative to its population, Israel is positioned at a very high level."

It is difficult to obtain accurate data on the number of Arab and Jewish participants and activists, the amount of money invested in the projects (according to an estimate made at the end of 2002, amounts reach some $9 million annually) and whether these figures have been on an upward or downward trend since October 2000.

From the Abraham Fund Initiatives website (www.coexnet.org.il), one can see that the scope of daily joint Arab-Jewish activity is quite extensive. Dozens of organizations are operating around the country and dealing with a rich variety of issues, including economic development, welfare, education, youth movements, environmental protection, culture, art and academic research. The fund claims these activities draw tens of thousands of participants, and that the numbers are rising.

Following the October 2000 events, there was a half-year freeze on the activities of these groups, according to Maoz.

"Many of the participants, Jews and Arabs, cut ties, initially out of shock and fear, and then later out of anger or the realization that these meeting failed at the decisive moment," she says.

Criticism of the coexistence organizations, contemptuously called "dukis" (from the Hebrew word for coexistence, dukiyum), stems from the fact that despite the widespread participation, their influence on bridging the Arab-Jewish divide was negligible.

Some of those criticizing the groups claimed that the removal of barriers between Arabs and Jews could only be accomplished via significant actions designed to influence policy. Groups like Ta'ayush and Sikkuy, for example, act to create a political reality and thus lost their place in the network of coexistence groups.

Groups conducting what Maoz calls "traditional" coexistence activities (not attempting to influence policy) are far more popular. Nevertheless, there have been changes in the contents of their meetings.

"In the 1990s, there were Arabs who asked to speak about problems at meetings with Jews," she says. "They said that coexistence reinforced the status quo and that meetings over humus are not enough for them."

But after fall 2000, despite the increased need to deal with the conflict between the two peoples, many of the participants ironically demanded that other matters be dealt with. "There were Arabs who realized that arguing with Jews was useless and so they said, `Okay, we might as well just eat hummus together'," Maoz explains.

Of the 46 organizations Maoz examined in her research, only three were established as a result of an Arab initiative and most receive their funding from Jews in the United States and Germany.

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