Expert fosters business ties among Arabs, Jews

Expert fosters business ties among Arabs, Jews

Helmi Kittani, director of the Center for Jewish-Arab Economic Development, argues that Arab-Israeli business cooperation will help “create a more healthy society.” Photo by Robert Wiener
Helmi Kittani, director of the Center for Jewish-Arab Economic Development, argues that Arab-Israeli business cooperation will help “create a more healthy society.” Photo by Robert Wiener

An Israeli-Arab expert in economic development is asking American Jews to help strengthen business ties between Israel’s Arab and Jews.

“Supporting and promoting economic cooperation by Arab and Jewish businesses is a great way to create a more healthy society,” said Helmi Kittani, addressing leaders at United Jewish Communities of MetroWest New Jersey. He came to UJC offices on the Aidekman campus in Whippany on June 1.

Kittani is director of the Center for Jewish-Arab Economic Development in Herzliya, a 22-year-old joint venture he created with Sarah Kreimer, an American-born Jewish woman.

His organization is developing joint employment zones in Bedouin areas of the Negev and the Jewish area of Megiddo, and making loans — but not grants — for developing pilot projects.

In the Mevo Carmel area, the center is serving as a small-business incubator, fostering cooperation between Arab communities and Jewish kibbutzim and moshavim.

Kittani boasted that his center has “helped more than 4,000 small businesses to open in Arab villages and towns. It is a huge revolution,” he said. “We have 80 percent of men supporting involvement of their women in the economic life,” he told leaders of UJC MetroWest and its Community Relations Committee.

His stop at the Aidekman campus was the start of a two-week tour of Jewish organizations, universities, and family foundations on the eastern seaboard.

A key part of the center’s agenda is to incorporate Arab women in Israel’s business sector to bolster their families’ incomes.

“Traditionally, Arab women have not been a part of the economy — not as employees and not as business owners,” he told the Jewish leaders. “Now, because of economic reasons and because there are more highly educated Arab women, people want higher income to give their kids more opportunities and increase their quality of life.”

Asked whether he experienced obstacles soliciting support from Israeli Jews, Kittani said, “Contributions to Arabs within Israel [are] contributions to Israel, not to Arabs. The interest of all of us in Israel, especially Jews, is in integrating the Arab community within the mainstream of Israel. Ten years ago, the only donors were left-liberal families. The last few years, many Jewish organizations are helping Arabs integrate within Israel.”

“I totally agree with you,” said UJC MetroWest executive vice president Max Kleinman. “To the degree that Israel integrates its Arab citizens to have as much equality with its Jewish citizens, I think that’s great.”

Kittani’s own background speaks to such integration into mainstream Israeli life.

He was born in the Arab village of Baqa el Gharbiye. He graduated from Tel Aviv University with a degree in investment and banking and worked as director of management training at Bank Hapoalim, Israel’s largest bank.

“My home is Israel,” Kittani told NJ Jewish News, “and I’ll continue to live and I’ll die in Israel. The only answer is a two-state solution. [The center] will stay in Israel. We could really be a good bridge toward creating a good relationship between Palestine and Israel. It is my dream.”

Given the previous day’s news of a violent high seas confrontation between the Israel Defense Forces and a flotilla of ships bound for Gaza, NJJN asked Kittani whether the political and military tensions undermine his plans for economic coexistence.

“Yes, sometimes we are facing problems that the Arabs are sometimes not interested in cooperating with the Jews, and the opposite — that the Jews are not interested in relationships with Arabs,” he said. “I think what we do is not easy for all of us. By starting with the economy, we are creating a social relationship for both sides.”

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