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Gaza war throws focus on Israeli minorities
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Gaza war throws focus on Israeli minorities

Federation committee says rising tensions threaten coexistence

Israeli Arab Committee cochair Phyllis Bernstein, center, and Bob Kuchner, chair of the Greater MetroWest federation’s Israel and Overseas Committee, second from right, visit with Bedouin educators in Jaffa last February.    
Israeli Arab Committee cochair Phyllis Bernstein, center, and Bob Kuchner, chair of the Greater MetroWest federation’s Israel and Overseas Committee, second from right, visit with Bedouin educators in Jaffa last February.    

Economic equality and civil rights for Israeli Arabs, Druze, Bedouins, and other minorities in Israel have taken on new urgency since the end of the recent Gaza conflict, say local leaders active on the issue.

The revenge killing of a Palestinian teen in July and Arab-Israeli opposition to the Gaza war brought the predicament of Israel’s 1.7 million Arabs into stark relief.

Throughout the war, Israeli Arabs faced discrimination from the streets, where Jewish protesters chanted “Death to Arabs.” Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman called for a boycott of businesses owned by Arab Israelis who participated in a one-day strike to oppose the war.

Meanwhile, most Arab Israelis opposed Israel’s Gaza operation, according to an Aug. 11-12 poll by the Israel Democracy Institute. 

“During the Gaza conflict, the Israeli Arab community was in a state of turmoil,” said Amir Shacham, associate executive vice president for Israel and Overseas at the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ. “Definitely the situation after the summer is more complicated than it was before.”

A year ago, the federation’s Israel and Overseas Committee established the Israeli Arab Committee. It is cochaired by Phyllis Bernstein of Westfield, Jim Paul of Summit, and Carol Simon of Millburn.

It is part of a list of federation overseas committees that includes the Partnership2Gether sister-city programs, the Religious Pluralism Committee, programs in Ukraine, and the Ness Fund, a bequest that aids economic development in the Negev.

“It is probably the most critical issue inside Israel today,” said Paul. “You see a much clearer path toward resolution of the relationship between the haredim and everyone else than the one between Israeli Arabs and Jews.”

The plight of Israel’s Arabs — about one-fifth of Israel’s eight million citizens — was a topic at a mid-September meeting of the Social Venture Fund for Jewish-Arab Equality & Shared Society. The SVF was established in 2007 by Jewish Federations of North America to address “the unmet needs of Israel’s Arab citizens,” according to its website. 

Greater MetroWest is a full participant in the fund, along with a range of foundations and the Jewish federations of San Francisco, Washington, and Toronto.

“This is an important issue in the way civil rights was an important issue in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s,” said Simon in a Sept. 23 phone interview. “It goes to the notion of a shared society in Israel. Because we are involved with Israel as a federation, we need to take a place at the table. We need to raise awareness of the issue within our own community. We can play a part as Israel grapples with these issues,” said Simon, who attended the SVF meeting along with her cochairs.

To Bernstein, Arab equality is an issue of burning importance.

In the wake of the eight-week Operation Protective Edge, which began July 8, she said, “relations between Jews and Arabs have deteriorated in many parts of Israel, and that has lasting effects,” she told NJ Jewish News in a Sept. 17 phone interview. 

“Arabs were targeted with comments on social media. They lost their jobs. Jews and Arabs did not travel to each other’s towns, and Arab businesses suffered. Arabs were beaten up in public by Jews, and it became commonplace to hear ‘Death to Arabs’ on the streets — and that is not a good thing.” 

Bernstein is particularly concerned with the situation of the Bedouins in the Negev, a region that is especially vulnerable to rocket attacks from nearby Gaza. (Last month, responding to complaints that the Bedouin lacked shelters, the UK chapter of the Jewish National Fund purchased three mobile bomb shelters for Rahat, a predominantly Bedouin city.) 

‘In our interest’

In February, Bernstein and her husband, Robert Kuchner, who is chair of the federation’s Israel and Overseas Committee, visited Bedouin communities and schools that Arab and Jewish children attend together.

She believes multi-ethnic education is one way to overcome Israel’s social and economic inequities. 

“Helping minorities is good for the country,” she told NJJN. “We as American Jews know that because we are a minority. We want all Israeli citizens to succeed.”

Shacham said the federation is working to improve Arab-Jewish relations by sponsoring partnerships with the Druze village of Horfesh in the north and a project in the Bedouin village of Al Kassum in the Negev. Both partnerships “are intended to foster dialogues and social interaction between Jews and Arabs,” Shacham said. 

“In March, when we will have ICE, the Israel Center Experience in Israel,” said Shacham, “we want to bring together members of the three communities — the Druze, the Bedouins, and the Jews — for an encounter.”

“This is a turning point,” Bernstein insisted. “Either we accelerate all these fragmentations and tensions and economic issues — which will hurt society — and eventually they are going to erupt. Or we will help these people. If we give them the education and opportunity that exists 

“It’s clear that Israel has a clear choice: Pursue a path toward a shared society or continue toward more manifestations of racism toward Arabs in Israel,” Bernstein asserted.

Shacham and Simon have another point of view.

“I don’t like the term ‘racism’ because of its historical meaning,” Shacham replied. “But I will say there are cases of discrimination, and there are cases of even aggressive hate crimes from both sides, and we need to deal with them in a most serious way.”

Simon said she also “would not use the word ‘racism’ either. There are very strong feelings and it is a very loaded word.”

In a poll taken last year, the Israel Democracy Institute found that nearly half of Jewish Israelis believed that Jews should have more rights than Arabs in Israel and that nearly half would not want to live next to an Arab family.

Asked whether non-Jews can ever gain full equality in a country that considers itself a “Jewish state,” Shacham split his answer into two parts.

“One thing is a matter of feeling. The other is a matter of practical terms — of human rights, of civil rights, of economic rights, of different things the state is giving. It is a Jewish state and the Arab population is a minority. They still need to get total citizens’ rights and human rights. I think it is wrong if we discriminate against them because they are a minority,” said Shacham.

Although he believes “this is definitely an Israeli issue, we also think it is higher or larger than an Israeli issue, and that is why the Jewish community in the Diaspora should also be dealing with it. It is no less important for Israel than other things.”

“I think the Arabs can have full equality within a Jewish state,” said Paul. “There can be equality in education and economics, and I’d like to see a hell of a lot more ability of one person to be friends with another without wanting to kill or be isolated from each other. 

“We have to raise the educational level of the Arabs,” he added. “I think full equality can be achieved, but I am not sure how long it will take.”

This article includes reporting from JTA.

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