The Jewish Appeal for Israeli Arabs

Diaspora organizations and donors, almost exclusively in the U.S., are giving more to Israel's Arabs.

Yair Sheleg
Yair Sheleg
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Yair Sheleg
Yair Sheleg

It's not every day that an American Jew receives honorary citizenship from an Arab city in Israel. Three weeks ago this happened to Irwin Green, 95, of Detroit, who was made an honorary citizen of Nazareth at a ceremony dedicating the magnificent new Early Childhood Center that Green donated to the city ($750,000).

Nearly five years ago one of Green's friends proposed he donate a joint tennis center for [Arab] Nazareth and [Jewish] Upper Nazareth. "That was the first time," says Green, "that I learned there were over 1 million Arabs in Israel, and about their difficult situation."

There was increasing pressure from the Upper Nazareth Municipality to have the center built in its jurisdiction, and Green decided to donate to Arab Nazareth. Nazareth Mayor Ramez Jeraise was invited to Green's home in Detroit to decide on a project, and that's how the Early Childhood Center was conceived.

The Green family center is an example of a new trend seen in recent years - donations by Diaspora Jewish organizations and philanthropists (almost exclusively the United States) to the Arab sector in Israel. As Green said, they are not doing this for purely humanitarian reasons, but also through their growing recognition that "promoting equal rights and the status of the Arabs in Israel is very important to the state as a whole."

Who is giving

Four particularly prominent bodies are involved in the new trend. One is the New Israel Fund, an American-Jewish fund set up in the early 1990s out of a desire by North American liberal Jewish donors to invest not only in the promotion of Zionism (immigration and settlement), but also in the liberal image of the Israeli society. This led to donations to liberal religious movements for both welfare activities and investments in the Arab sector (in welfare and coexistence projects).

The second is the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), the American-Jewish welfare society. The JDC has been involved since Israel's establishment, in the Arab sector too, through its donations to welfare activities (especially for seniors and children) throughout the country. Elliot Goldstein, JDC Israel director of relations with Jewish communities in the U.S. says, however, that since the late 1990s there has been a marked trend toward unique investments in the Arab sector. Unlike the past, funds are also raised specifically for this sector.

Thus for example, the Everett Foundation, set up privately by an established New York family, initiated a project to advance the Druze community (among other ways, by helping Druze teens study for matriculation exams, including coordinating with the Israel Defense Forces for deferring their induction dates for this purpose). The Lurie Foundation in San Francisco chose to help the Bedouin sector, including financing the salary of the Bedouin representative who works to promote the status of the unrecognized Bedouin villages in the Negev.

The third body is The Abraham Fund Initiatives, set up about 15 years ago by American Jewish millionaire Alan Slifka, which promotes coexistence between Jews and Arabs. Theoretically at least, this fund should not be donating to services provided for the Arab public, but rather only to joint educational programs. In practice, the situation is different with a flexible definition of contributing to coexistence. Thus for example, Executive Vice President Dan Pattir relates that one of the fund's main projects over the past two years is the training of community policemen in the Arab sector. The justification for sponsoring such a project by a fund that deals only with coexistence is that "most policemen serving in the Arab sector are Jews, so there is a great need for appropriate training for this type of job."

The fourth body is the Forum for National Consensus, founded about four years ago at the initiative of Labor Party Knesset member Michael Melchior (as minister of Diaspora relations and social affairs). Unlike the other bodies, the forum is not a body that distributes funds, but rather contributes by matching up Jewish donors with Arab sector projects (one such project was the Green center in Nazareth) and in promoting the public and parliamentary lobby for advancing the Arab sector (the Knesset lobby is headed jointly by Melchior and Hadash MK Issam Makhoul.

The activities of these organizations are meeting the growing desire by Jewish-American philanthropists to donate to the Arab sector. What is new about this trend is that it no longer involves lone philanthropists with liberal approaches and concern for minorities, but also the Jewish establishment. At first this was manifest in the interest of the Jewish federations (the umbrella organizations of communities in various cities). The most prominent of these is from San Francisco (traditionally a liberal area), which a few years ago decided its whole contribution to early childhood education in Israel would go to the Arab sector.

"This is being done," says Deborah Fried, early childhood coordinator of Ashlim, part of the JDC, "out of recognition of the fact that the problems of young children in Arab society are both different and more neglected than in the Jewish sector."

$10 million annually

The October 2000 riots undoubtedly boosted the trend. Pattir says the following the riot his organization altered an important principle in its policy.

"From being an organization that dealt solely with handling requests," explained Pattir, "since October 2000 we have also initiated projects that seemed important to us, such as the teaching of Arabic in Jewish schools and the preparation of a special curriculum on coexistence."

In the middle of the road part of the Jewish establishment, the October riots and the intifada deterred Jews from helping the Arab sector and prompted them to focus more on assisting Jewish victims of Arab terror.

An initiative by Brian Lurie in November 2001 reflects the two sides of the coin. At that time Lurie, former executive director of the United Jewish Appeal in the U.S., convened a conference of the heads of the local Jewish federations, in an attempt to recruit them to assist the Arab public in Israel both in money and in information campaigns stressing the importance of promoting their status. From Lurie's point of view, the timing of the conference was prompted by the October riots, but he also feels it failed due to that timing.

"The initiative," explains Lurie, "was born out of a feeling that the condition of Israel's Arabs, and the problems of how they are treated by state authorities, is an essential issue concerning Israel's future and her security. On the other hand, it is clear that during that period this was not a top priority for American Jews. Some of them were even opposed to it because to them "Arab" was identified with terror."

In any event, the phenomenon of Diaspora Jewry's contribution to the Arab sector in Israel is still just beginning. "It is an exaggeration to speak of Jewish "enlistment" to the cause of the Arab public," says Melchior. "We are still in the initial stages of Jewish awareness of this issue and its importance, and are far from active enlistment."

This is even more evident in monetary terms: Eliezer Yaari, executive director of The New Israel Fund, estimates the sums transferred by Diaspora Jewry to the Arab sector at less than $10 million. Still, the beginnings of a trend are evident, in the large projects that have been initiated in this area: a forum of representatives of the American-Jewish organizations that will follow the condition of Israel's Arabs and determine ways to assist them; and a project for collating information on Israeli Arabs, which will be relayed to the American Jewish leadership (via Sikkuy the Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality).

There are some, like Yaari, who feel the most significant contribution that American Jews can make to Israel's Arabs is not monetary, but rather political. The assumption is that even if the Israeli government is not very attentive to calls from the Arab sector itself, it will listen better to the American-Jewish establishment, if it decides to enlist to the Israeli Arab cause (as has happened in the case of American Jewish enlistment to the cause of Ethiopian Jewry in general and the Falashmura in particular).

This awareness is being translated into action among Arab activists in Israel. About two months ago a delegation from the Mossawa Advocacy Center for Arab Citizens in Israel traveled to the U.S. for a series of meetings with representatives of major Jewish organizations. For the first time, it was not the Jewish philanthropists who had asked to hear about the Arabs' distress, but the Arabs themselves who initiated the mission. Mossawa Director Jafar Farah says they also had not come for money, but for political support.

"From our point of view," says Farah, "the world Jewish community is second in importance only to the Jews in Israel with respect to the future of the Arab public."

The mission was well-organized and the delegation enjoyed significant coverage in the Jewish press in the U.S. Farah was particularly impressed with the willingness of people from the Q.Anti-Defamation League to enlist in activities for the sake of Israel's Arabs.

Does the appeal to American Jews attest to recognition of the Jewish-Zionist character of the State of Israel?

Farah's response indicates otherwise. "It is more complicated than that," says Farah. "We recognize the fact that this country is the expression of the self-determination of the Jewish people, and we certainly recognize the special status Jews from around the world have in Israel. But there is a difference between `the Jews' right to self-determination in Israel' and the definition of the country as the `state of the Jewish people.'"

Will the connection with Diaspora Jewry have a political price for Israel's Arabs, with respect to the ability of the Jews to demand that the Arabs tone down their extremist rhetoric?

One Arab activist interviewed for this article says of course, citing that even at the Durban UN World Conference Against Racism in 2001 a few Arab organizations refrained from signing the sharply anti-Israel document drafted by the forum of non-governmental organizations, in response to an unequivocal threat that if they signed the document, support for their causes would be withdrawn by the Jewish foundations.

Farah, on the other hand, claims that his organization, at least will not be prepared to pay such a price. "We feel that the Arab public has to change its approach and to appeal to the `mainstream' sector of the Jewish public, in Israel and around the world. Today this approach is spreading among the Arab organizations, including the Islamic Movement. Whereas the early demonstrations for the release of [the movement's leader] Sheikh Raed Salah were only in Arabic, now the demonstrations also include signs in Hebrew. Still, we will not agree to change our positions for the sake of the relationship with the Jewish organizations. On the contrary, I believe in taking money only from the foundations that share our agenda. We have already declined offers of donations from Jewish organizations and funds due to agenda differences."

Farah says that this is also the reason that the meetings with the Jewish organizations in the U.S. did not focus on requests for funds, but rather on political assistance.



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