Asking American Jews to support Israel’s Arab communities is a tough challenge, according to Jim Paul. What is needed, he said, is a greater awareness — for example, of the fact that 62 percent of Arab Israeli children live below the poverty level, compared to 23 percent of the Jewish children.
“Jewish Israelis see the situation very differently than American Jews do, and they’re concerned about the situation,” Paul, a Summit resident, told an audience in Scotch Plains on March 13. “They see it as affecting the long-term viability of the Israeli state. The disparity between how they live versus the way Arab Israelis live has to be addressed, sooner rather than later.”
In an attempt to broaden awareness of Israel’s minorities, Paul and Phyllis Bernstein of Westfield cohosted a lunch-and-learn seminar on “shared society in Israel” at the Wilf Jewish Community Campus in Scotch Plains. It featured two Israeli speakers with very different approaches but similar goals for empowering Israel’s diverse populations.
The seminar was sponsored by the Israel Arab Study Group of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ’s Legow Family Israel Program Center, the JCC of Central NJ, and the Inter-Agency Task Force on Israeli Arab Issues, a coalition of North American Jewish organizations, foundations, private philanthropists, and international affiliates.
Gal Peleg Laniado, the U.S. representative for the Givat Haviva Educational Foundation, outlined for the gathering of some 20 attendees the organization’s aspiration to build “an inclusive, socially cohesive society in Israel by engaging divided communities in collective action.”
The Israel-based group has sought to build bridges between Jewish and Arab communities, as well as secular and religious groups, men and women, and poor and affluent communities, said Peleg Laniado. Givat Haviva has linked Arabs from Kfar Kara, near Haifa, with Jews from neighboring Pardes Hanna-Karkur, and groups in two other areas.
The communities have established programs — supported by the local municipal authorities — that meet goals outlined by both groups. They include a theater program for teens, a video project to record seniors’ life stories, and first aid training for women.
The hope, explained Peleg Laniado, who is also the area shaliah, or emissary, of the Hashomer Hatzair Youth Movement in North America, “is to replace division with joint activities and hostility with a win-win dialogue. Once a sustainable framework for cooperation has been created, hopefully then we will not be needed, and we can pull back.”
In her talk, Chagit Rubinstein, director of the Microenterprise Initiative of Koret Israeli Economic Development Funds, spoke of the need to encourage investment in small businesses as a way to ease inequities in Israeli society.
Rubinstein said 20 percent of the entire population lives below the poverty line. Some 40 percent of those people have jobs but earn less than $550 a month for an individual, less than $1,500 for a family of four.
Small businesses, she said, can be the way out of poverty, “but banks and other financial institutions, like insurance and credit card companies, generally ignore micro-enterprise,” making it impossible for the poor to get “unstuck.”
Since 2006, Rubinstein said, she has overseen micro-loans to 2,393 people, almost all welfare-dependent women, Jews and Arabs, and Negev Bedouin women. The loans are guaranteed by others in their group, and repayment begins after a month. The method works, she said. “We have less than a 2 percent loss on the loans, which is very low.”
With support from the Israeli government, Koret is planning to assist women in the Orthodox community in Jerusalem. After that, Rubinstein said, they hope to work with Ethiopian Israelis.
Peleg Laniado, speaking after the discussion, said he had been worried about how his presentation would be received, but he was pleasantly surprised. “You could tell from the questions that these people were very well informed,” he said, “and that they really care about the situation in Israel.”