Teaching a class at Tel Aviv University during the recent Gaza conflict, Rabbi Naftali Rothenberg noticed that his Arab students were demonstrating visibly different body language.
“They looked three feet tall,” he said. It was totally understandable, he said, given that they were surrounded by fellow students with loved ones in the military, including some on the phone with them as the Arab students walked in.
He promptly reoriented his lecture and focused on a subject not often highlighted: the Jewish debt to Arab philosophers and how great medieval thinkers like Saadia Gaon and Maimonides acknowledged that debt. Some of the Jewish students took exception — the secular students in particular, Rothenberg said — but it had the effect he intended. By the end of the class, the Arab students were standing tall again, he said with a smile.
Rothenberg’s efforts to integrate Israeli Arabs into his country’s mainstream was the topic of a talk he gave Dec. 13 at Congregation Beth Hatikvah, the Reconstructionist synagogue in Summit.
Titled “Why Israeli Arabs Are a Jewish Issue,” his talk was hosted by the Israel Program Center of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ and the Inter-Agency Task Force on Israeli Arab Issues, a national coalition. About 50 people attended.
Phyllis Bernstein of Westfield cochaired the event with Kala and Jim Paul of Summit. A longtime federation activist, Bernstein has been at the center of efforts to extend the federation’s philanthropic work in Israel to include Bedouin and other Arab groups. She met Rothenberg, senior research fellow at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute and a champion of Arab minorities in Israel, in that connection a number of years ago.
In her introductory remarks at the event, Bernstein said that 50 percent of Israel’s Arab citizens live below the poverty line, compared to 15 percent of the Jewish population.
“Knowing means caring as much as possible,” she said. “Clearly, this isn’t a top priority for American Jews, but the picture is not all bleak.” The Inter-Agency Task Force — assisted locally by the GMW federation — has been raising awareness of Israeli Arabs among the nearly 100 Jewish foundations, agencies, and federations on its membership rolls. Most recently it joined with The Abraham Fund to focus on increasing voter participation among Israeli Arabs.
Fair treatment of minorities, said Rothenberg, is a fundamental Jewish value, especially when Jews are the dominant majority: Arabs form only 20 percent of the Israeli population — or 16 percent “if we don’t calculate in the Arabs who have refused Israeli citizenship,” said Rothenberg.
“I’m not just speaking about being nice to minorities,” he said in his talk. “I’m speaking in the interest of the strength of our nation-state.”
Rothenberg, who lived in West Orange for a number of years and is also community rabbi of the West Bank settlement of Har Adar, cited Torah sources to back that point. Deuteronomy 23:17, he said, is referring to minorities when it says: “He shall dwell with thee, in the midst of thee, in the place which he shall choose within one of thy gates, where it liketh him best….”
The only exception to that rule, he pointed out, are border areas, where the “strangers” within the population might ally with enemy forces. In other words, he said, the view was realistic, while still protective of minority rights.
American donors to Israel might say, “I want my money used for Jews and for Jewish causes,” he said. But the great rabbis taught that donations can be restricted to certain uses but not with the “Jews only” proviso, he said.
With humor and a shrug, Rothenberg made it clear that many Jewish Israelis disagree with his calls for equality, and that he finds himself at odds with Arab leaders who take a militant stand against the state. But his efforts to build understanding have also drawn enthusiastic support. Last year, Rothenberg was awarded the Liebhaber Prize for the encouragement of religious tolerance in Israel.
When it comes to dealing with Israel’s minorities, Rothenberg said, “we need to speak in the language of our culture” and in that way make the strongest possible statement “that Israel is more democratic than almost any other democratic state.”