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Israeli Arab guides both sides to coexistence
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Israeli Arab guides both sides to coexistence

Olfat Haider is unlike any Israeli her audience in Scotch Plains was likely to have met before. But then, she is also unlike any Israeli most Israelis have ever met.

The tall, slender woman is a mountain-climber — scheduled to go to the South Pole in November with an international women’s expedition — and a former member of the Israeli national volleyball team.

She is also a Muslim Arab, committed to using her athletic prowess to build understanding between different groups in her home country.

One such effort in 2004, the Breaking the Ice program, involved a group of Jews and Palestinians who climbed a peak in Antarctica — now named Israeli-Palestinian Friendship Mountain.

“When everyone is tired and cold, it doesn’t matter to them who’s Arab and who’s Jewish,” Haider told a group of about 15 people who gathered to hear her on May 16 at the JCC of Central New Jersey.

Speaking with her were Chris Silver, acting director at the Inter-Agency Task Force on Israeli Arab Issues, and Asaf Ron, the executive director of the Beit Hagefen Arab-Jewish Center. The Haifa-based center organizes cultural and community programs to foster coexistence between the two groups.

Haider, 41, program director at Beit Hagefen, is studying for a master’s degree in gender studies, hoping to expand her ability to empower other women. “They look at what I do and they say, ‘Oh, I couldn’t do that.’ I like to show them that they can,” she said.

At Beit Hagefen, she said, she found a venue that supports her own ideals and the principles she was brought up with: to respect the shared humanity of those around her. Haider said the center takes mixed groups of students at Haifa University on Breaking the Ice hikes on the weekends. She also led a group on a 15-day hiking trip to the Alps.

She told the gathering, hosted by Jewish Federation of Central NJ’s Women’s Philanthropy, that she likes to convey the message: “We can make a change.”

In 2008, Haider brought a group of Jewish and Palestinian kids to the United States to climb in the Appalachian Mountains. She has also worked with black and white Americans, bringing those same lessons to bear in an Outward Bound program.

“I definitely believe that problems here between the majority and the minority are similar to what we have in Israel,” she said. “Just there we also have a ‘small conflict’ on top that makes it more complicated, but the issues are the same. The question is how to overcome discrimination, and build bridges.”

Haider and Ron were in the United States on a speaking tour sponsored by the IATF. They added Scotch Plains to their itinerary at the request of Phyllis Bernstein of Westfield, a Central federation board member and supporter of the Jewish Federations of North America’s Social Venture Fund for Jewish-Arab Equality and Shared Society.

Bernstein, who has championed the Central federation’s outreach to Bedouin communities in the Negev, met Ron during a three-day study trip to Israel in March.

Ron said the center is home to a theater that has been a training ground for Arab actors in Israel. The center hosts multicultural festivals and tours of Haifa and showcases the work of artists not often seen by the general public.

“We have six departments at the center,” Ron said, “and the only thing we agree on is that we don’t have to agree on everything. If you’re dealing with art, you don’t have to argue.”

Questioned by audience members about the inequalities faced by Arab Israelis, Silver stressed that while there is still serious inequality, a great deal of progress has been made. For example, he said, public transportation and day care facilities have been introduced in cities that had none, enabling more Arab women to get paying jobs. With support from the right wing as well as the left, “hundreds of millions of [government] dollars have been spent on the Arab sector, in an attempt to improve conditions and lessen inequities.

“People in the U.S. might think all you hear out of Israel is the bad news, but a lot of really inspiring work is being done on these issues,” Silver said. Building trust is a key element.”

Ron agreed, pointing out that while 40 percent of Israeli doctors are Arab — and many Jews trust them to put themselves in their care — Arabs are generally excluded from any defense industry contracts, and that means excluding them from most engineering jobs.

But on the bright side, he said, “We’re not the only ones doing this kind of work. A lot of people realize it’s needed, to make sure Israel’s future is bright and prosperous.”

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