Members of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ’s Israeli Arab Committee spent three days in March surveying social and economic conditions in Arab communities in Israel.
They met with Druze, Bedouin, Christian, and Muslim Israelis and visited federation-sponsored programs in several areas of the country.
And even as they saw the benefits of educational and economic development programs, the 10 participants also learned of disparities in infrastructure and transportation, and saw how some Israeli Arabs do not see — or don’t want to see — themselves as full citizens of the Jewish state.
“Clearly this is a critical issue for Israel, and when I look at Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, it has to figure out what to do with the Israeli Arabs,” said committee cochair Jim Paul of Summit.
“From an economic point of view they are nowhere near in as good economic shape as the Jews,” he said. “It is a two-tier system, and when I look at the ‘separate but equal’ system we had in the United States, well guess what? It is somewhat like that. There are times when both sides want to see the other side disappear, but that is not going to happen.”
During the March 15-17 visit, the group visited women involved in a lace-making cooperative; a program called Youth Futures for young people at risk in the Druze village of Horfesh; an investment fund, founded in Nazareth by a Canadian-born Jew, that employs 130 Arab Israelis in a software firm; and a Hand-in-Hand School in Kfar Saba, where Jews and Arabs learn together in Arabic and Hebrew.
“They become friends and their families become friends,” said committee cochair Phyllis Bernstein of Westfield. “But there aren’t enough of those programs. If you think about the whole country and there are only a few schools like that, it is a pebble. We need money to build more of them.”
Carol Simon of Short Hills, the third cochair, said, “I believe that the sharing of economic, social, and political reality between Israeli Arabs and Israeli Jews is a fundamental issue today, and we as American Jews can have a role in that conversation.”
“The infrastructure in many Arab communities is not what it should be and how people get to school becomes an issue,” said Bernstein. “There is no easy way for people to go back and forth to high school and college with public transportation.”
In terms of language, Bernstein feels “there is a need for Arabs to have better Hebrew skills and for Jews to have better Arabic skills in a country that has two languages. The folks we met with want their society to integrate and be a part of Israel.”
The federation gave the Israeli Arab Committee full committee status in 2014. Even before then, the federation supported several ventures like the JFNA Social Venture Fund for Jewish and Arab Equality and Shared Society, the Inter-Agency Task Force for Israeli Arab Issues, Youth Futures, and the Women’s Program in Horfesh. The federation has also lent a hand through its Partnership2Gether projects and Ness Fund.
The latest visit took place just before the Israeli elections and ended just before Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a video warning his followers about the strength of the Arab-Israeli vote. Even before that controversy, however, the mission-goers heard from Arabs who said they feel disenfranchised.
“In Nazareth we visited young Arabs who say, ‘I am an Israeli.’ They are proud of that. But they are way, way off from getting equality,” said Bernstein. “The government has a long way to go, and some members of the Knesset have indicated to Arab citizens, ‘We don’t want you.’”
They also learned the complicated reality of Arab-Israeli identity.
“There are all kinds of Israeli Arabs and they are not united,” said Simon. “Certainly some of them consider themselves both Israelis and Palestinians.”
Simon told NJJN she observed “some very disturbing things.”
In one town, some Arab citizens consider the Israeli flag, which features a star of David, and the national anthem, “Hatikva,” which talks of the “Jewish spirit,” as “signs of non-democracy.” A leader of a coexistence group said he and many Israeli Arabs “feel they need to be changed before Israel can be called a democracy,” she said.
In a Bedouin town, Simon spotted a Hamas flag. “The mayor humphed and phumphed and said, ‘We have some people who are Islamists.’ There it was, a Hamas flag on Israeli soil, and these are people who are looking to partner with us.”
But, Simon added, “this does not mean we throw up our hands and say, ‘We can’t do anything.’ But when you want a voice at the table and you want to have partnership projects, you have to understand the full situation — the things you like and the things you don’t like.”
Nevertheless, she said, “we all felt comfortable. I did not hear anyone say they felt unsafe or insecure in any way.”