Opinion

Why It's So Hard for U.S. Jews to Have a Serious Conversation About Arabs in Israel

The most polarizing voices on the left and the right police and dictate how we in the U.S. Jewish talk about and engage with Israel, Birthright and Arab society

Two Israeli Arab women wait for transportation in front of a wall mural and a sign in Arabic reading 'Sana's bridal shop' in the northern Israeli Arab town of Umm Al-Fahm. April 23, 2009
Muhammed Muheisen / AP

Taglit-Birthright Israel, arguably the most successful Israel-engagement initiative in American Jewish life, has been the subject of increasing scrutiny for its handling of Israel-Arab issues, specifically Israel’s Arab citizens, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, in its educational tours.

This scrutiny has come in the form of articles, op-eds, walkouts and protests by American Jewish student activists, stating that Birthright is not representing Israel with adequate forthrightness and complexity or, worse, deliberately omitting or whitewashing Israel’s difficult realities.

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I am in full support of the call to have Israel’s most prominent and complex challenges part of Jewish educational frameworks, and believe it should be well-heeded. But isolating Birthright on this issue is misguided.

This is not only because Birthright is in the midst of a serious, multiyear effort - unmatched in American Jewish life - to bring Israel’s Arab society into educational tourism, but because laying the blame on one prominent institution understates the challenge of doing this education effectively and misses the educational call to the U.S. Jewish community as a whole.

As co-founder and co-chair of the Inter-Agency Task Force on Israeli Arab Issues, the only organization dedicated to raising awareness about Israel’s Arab citizens in the American Jewish community, I know about these challenges, and about Birthright’s efforts, from up close.

Over the past three years, the Task Force and Birthright have been working in close partnership to extensively research Arab and Jewish-Arab initiatives, engage leadership and map potential site-visits that could be part of educational modules in Israel’s Arab society - an effort that is as important as it is sensitive and complex.

Together we also implemented a training module, required for and gradually being completed by all 450 Birthright tour educators, to prepare and expose these guides to Israel’s Arab society, its challenges and aspirations, through meaningful engagement with Arab community leaders in Arab towns and mixed Jewish-Arab cities.

Men dressed up as Santa Claus are seen in a street ahead of an annual "Christmas Run" in Mi'ilya, a Christian Arab village in northern Israel. December 21, 2018
\ RONEN ZVULUN/ REUTERS

The Task Force was a natural partner for Birthright in this endeavor because of its extensive knowledge of Israel’s Arab society, deep familiarity with the sensitivity of these issues among U.S. Jewish communities, and commitment to a strictly educational approach. Since it was created in 2006, the Task Force has become a trusted resource among conservative and progressive Jewish communities alike, and was brought on by Birthright to help incorporate this approach into their platform.

Given Birthright’s scale and reach, its deepening engagement with Arab society issues has the potential for wide-reaching impact, benefitting Israeli and American Jewish societies well beyond the immediate purpose. But Birthright can only go so far on its own.

There are ample Arab leaders and Arab and Jewish-Arab organizations in Israel ready and interested in sharing their stories and perspectives with Birthright groups. Unlike much of Israel, however, Arab society has almost no educational tourism activity, and lacks capacities and infrastructure to host even a fraction of the 50,000 individuals Birthright brings to Israel each year.

We often hear of economic gaps in Israel, particularly between Jewish and Arab citizens, but it is not widely recognized that this means, quite literally, few public spaces, auditoriums, academic institutes, even roads and parking that can safely accommodate five busloads of visitors at a time, multiple times a year.

It also refers to wide gaps in the number of skilled personnel - individuals with the experience, English language skills and exposure to the kind of polished presentations needed for a meaningful two-hour educational module at this scale.

Arab leaders in the field understand the need and want their story to be part of the "story of Israel" that program participants hear. Developing these capacities would go a long way toward resolving not only the pace at which Birthright can effectively incorporate these issues into more of its platforms, but the range of in-the-field learning opportunities available for Jewish communities. This kind of access is essential for addressing the intensifying polarization about Israel in American Jewish communities that has all but paralyzed our ability to learn about its deepest challenges.

Today, an educational visit in which Jewish and Arab community leaders speak about their challenges and differences, and about their capacity to work together towards common goals, would be subject to equally vigorous attack by those who fault it for diluting reality, as by those who consider it too critical of Israel.

Beduin citizens of Israel demonstrating in Beer Sheva against demolition orders for buildings in Beduin villages in the Negev unrecognized by the state. 7 July 2017
\ Eliyahu Hershkovitz

It is no surprise, then, that many Jewish communal organizations are reluctant or ill-equipped to bring these issues into their Israel-engagement work. But this leaves much of the younger generation disillusioned and harms the institutions we depend on for American Jewish life.

Learning about Israel’s Arab society - and, I would argue, the West Bank and Gaza - does not have to be political, advocative or inherently divisive. Rather, done right it is engaging, complicated and inspires deeper connection.

Birthright is taking the lead in bringing Israel’s Arab citizens into educational tourism on an unprecedented scale. It is vital that we do not stand aside when they are attacked as a result of our community’s difficulty in addressing these issues as a whole.

Rather, we can do more education at home on these issues to diffuse the appeal of the most polarized voices, and we can help strengthen Arab society’s capacities to participate in and be part of this meaningful engagement.

Brian Lurie, co-chair of the Inter-Agency Task Force on Israeli Arab Issues, is a former president of the New Israel Fund and former executive vice president of the United Jewish Appeal. Twitter: @IATFisraelarabs