Gerhard Richter, considered by some the world’s greatest living painter, has said, “Art is the highest form of hope.”
On a recent three-day trip to Israel organized by the Inter-Agency Task Force on Israeli Arab Issues and the Jewish Federations of North America Social Venture Fund, 25 North American Jews witnessed this hope first-hand in Umm El-Fahem, Israel’s largest all-Muslim city.
Our group — comprised of federation professional and lay leaders, representatives of many philanthropic foundations, and representatives of direct service agencies like the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee — dodged a sudden downpour of rain and hail to meet with former Israeli police officer turned art visionary Said Abu Shakra, founder of the Umm El-Fahem Art Gallery. There we learned about the transformation that Said is bringing to his city through educational work with Jewish and Arab students and his dreams of building Israel’s first Arab art museum.
Seated on cushions on the ground in a space rivaling any gallery in Manhattan’s Chelsea district, we met with Shuli Dichter, head of the bilingual Hand-in-Hand School. He stressed the critical importance to Israel’s future of shared Jewish and Arab work for the betterment of society. We quickly learned that Said is not alone in his vision and action.
This trip reminded me of my very first visit to Israel in 1982. At that time, I saw Israeli Arabs transitioning from a traditional to a modern way of life and thought: How will Jewish and Arab citizens coexist in Israel? How will they build the state together? These questions are still on my mind, and the study tour began to address them.
The task force, the co-organizer of the study trip, was formed in 2006 to educate North American Jews on the issues facing Israel’s Arab citizens, who make up 20 percent of Israel’s total population. This minority has faced inequality for far too long. The Israeli government and leading thinkers have recognized socio-economic gaps facing the Arab sector as “one of Israel’s most pressing domestic issues.” Deep gaps exist across all aspects of daily life — in education, employment, healthcare, infrastructure, and women’s issues. One figure summed up the whole picture for me: Fifty percent of Israeli Arabs live below the poverty line, compared to 15 percent of the Jewish population.
These statistics weigh heavily on me. For generations my family has lived as a minority, so I have a direct interest in minority rights. Jews are a minority in America, have experienced inequality, and have learned from these experiences. As Jews, we share a tradition that emphasizes caring for others, and we strive to be a light unto the nations. And so I ask, shouldn’t we have a have stronger interest in improving minority rights in Israel?
In 1948, Israel’s Declaration of Independence provided clarity on this issue and called for equality for all of Israel’s citizens, Jews and Arabs alike. It “ensures complete equality of social and political rights of all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race, or sex.” It also asks the Arab inhabitants of the State of Israel “to preserve peace and participate in the upbuilding of the State on a basis of full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its provisional and permanent institutions.”
The good news is that the Israeli Arab and Jewish leaders we met with are committed to solving the most critical challenges like economic development and education. We heard from government representatives, NGOs, academics, artists, business and community leaders, activists, media figures, and even a Druze philanthropist. Their mission is not new, but it is urgent. Israeli Arabs need capacity-building to close gaps created over the last 60 years. Aiman Saif, director general of the Economic Development Authority of the Minority Sector in the Prime Minister’s Office, informed us that not integrating Israeli Arabs into the economy translates into a loss for Israel of $8.2 billion every year. Failing to adequately address this problem is a missed opportunity for the country. Hearing about improvements like recent government investments and meeting with Arab sector leaders gave me optimism.
There is also the critical need to integrate Israeli Arabs into higher education to combat unemployment. At the Technion, we met Daoud Bshouty, dean of undergraduate students. A math professor, Bshouty is head of the Landa Equal Opportunities Project, which is working strategically to help Arab and other minority students overcome educational and social gaps. After lunch with promising Israeli Arab students at the best technical university in the world, I left feeling that the program is destined to change Israel and produce some of its future high-tech and engineering leaders.
I care deeply about Israel and its prosperity. I care about all of its people and believe that issues facing the Arab citizens of Israel are among the most important issues facing Israel today. There are terrific people working to make the country better. We met them, we heard their stories, and they transformed my thinking. American Jews must educate themselves on the main issues facing Israeli Arabs and work within their organizations’ mandates to create change.
On a visit to the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, I saw a fantastic one-man show by Said’s brother, Walid Abu Shakra. This exhibit for me represents real integration and hope and I encourage you to visit it on your next trip to Israel.
Phyllis Bernstein of Westfield is a board member of the Jewish Federation of Central NJ and sits on the Jewish Community Endowment Foundation and has worked with the Jewish Federations of North America Social Venture Fund for Jewish-Arab Equality and Shared Society.