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Federation boosts Israeli Arab advocacy
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Federation boosts Israeli Arab advocacy

Long-standing forum for minority issues gets upgraded status

To add impact to its work, the Israeli Arab Educational Forum of Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ has been given official committee status. The move gives it a place at the table in setting the federation’s priorities and highlights the GMW community’s concerns about the well-being of Israel’s minorities.

In addition to funding projects supporting economic and cultural projects in Israel, the committee aims to raise awareness locally of issues facing Israel’s Arab, Druze, and Bedouin communities.

Its inaugural event will take place on Wednesday, March 26, at 7:30 p.m. at the Wilf Jewish Community Campus in Scotch Plains. The guest speaker will be Israeli entrepreneur Itzik Zivan, a leader in developing projects in the Negev that support the interests of the region’s Jews and Bedouin.

Paula Saginaw, vice chair of the organization’s Israel and Overseas Committee and chair of its overseas committee, pushed for the upgrade. She said, “Israeli Arab issues have clearly grown in importance over the past few years and are one of Israel’s greatest challenges. Having a single committee in Greater MetroWest devoted to addressing these challenges underlines its significance and strengthens its position” under the federation’s Legow Family Israel Program Center.

The federation, she pointed out, has been involved in several initiatives regarding Israeli-Arab issues: the Arab Israeli Social Venture Fund, the Israeli Arab Educational Forum, and the Interagency Task Force on Arab Israeli Issues, as well as Youth Futures and the Women’s Program in Horfeish. The federation has also lent a hand through its Partnership2Gether projects and Ness Fund.

“We have also been deeply involved in strengthening the Negev in a multitude of ways,” Saginaw continued. “Rather than each of these efforts functioning independently, we believe that by combining them into one single Israeli Arab Committee, we will operate more efficiently and empower its members as a collective.”

Phyllis Bernstein of Westfield and Jim Paul of Summit, who started the forum in 2012, are cochairing the new committee together with Carol Simon of Short Hills. Working closely with Heather Sorkin, the IPC operations manager, they plan more of the kind of gatherings that have included a visit by award-winning Bedouin teacher Musa Abu-Kaf; Rabbi Naftali Rothenberg, a proponent of integrating Israel’s minorities; and other Israelis active in efforts to build inter-group communication.

Already about 18 people have joined the Israeli Arab Committee.

“For people who care about Israel and about the future of Israel,” Bernstein said, “it’s very important to do whatever we can to improve the lives of the Arab citizens of the country and to support the government’s efforts to enable them to integrate into a shared society. It’s a good investment.”

The Jewish community in America, she said, cares about the minorities in Israel, “but they don’t hear much about them.” Her own concern began in 1982 when she and her husband, Robert Kuchner (current Israel and Overseas chair), visited Israel. “I started asking our tour guide questions about the Bedouins and the Arab citizens up north, and after every trip I had more questions.”

The new committee status, she said, “gives me hope. With administrative help from the staff, we’ll be able to organize more programs. We’ll also be in a better position to connect with other groups to cosponsor events.”

Like Bernstein, Paul and his wife, Kala, have been concerned about conditions facing Israeli Arabs since going on a GMW federation mission several years ago coordinated by the task force. They returned this week from another trip to Israel, during which they spent time teaching English to Jewish children in one town, and Bedouin children in another.

“At this point I see the main thrust of the committee as education — of ourselves and other members of the federation — on this issue,” Jim Paul said. “What makes and strengthens Israel is the full inclusion of all its Jewish and non-Jewish citizens. As a federation we already allocate money for various programs for the Israeli Arab community. Hopefully in time, we will be able to allocate a bit more.”

Said Simon: “There was no single ‘aha’ moment for me; rather, I have become increasingly aware that Arab citizens of Israel represent 20 percent of the population, yet there are terrible disparities in their economic, social, and educational opportunities. For example, more than half of Israeli Arab families live below the poverty line versus 15 percent of Jewish families; only 21 percent of Israeli Arab women are employed, versus 57 percent of Jewish women; only 63 percent of Israeli Arab youth reach the 12th grade, as compared with 93 percent of Jewish youth.

“I look forward,” she continued, “to the committee taking a leading role in educating the Greater MetroWest community about the situation of Israel’s citizen Arabs, Druze, and Bedouin and about how this affects Israel’s democracy, security, and economy.”

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