If the Abraham Fund has its way, all Israeli students will soon be ‘saying it in Arabic.’ The proposal is part of a wide-ranging initiative for advancing coexistence and equality in Israel.Rami is an Israeli Jew and Najar is an Israeli Arab who see each other regularly on the soccer field near their homes in Haifa. But aside from an occasional nod or pass of the ball, the two rarely communicate.
It’s not for lack of desire, but a lack of knowledge. Because even though Najar, like most Israeli Arabs, understands and speaks Hebrew fluently, Rami can’t speak or understand Arabic.
If the Abraham Fund has its way, all Israeli students will soon be ‘saying it in Arabic.’ The proposal is part of a wide-ranging initiative for advancing coexistence and equality in Israel.
With Arab and Druse Israelis now totaling 1,250,000, about 18% of the total population (nearly every fifth Israeli) is a non-Jew. Even though Israel’s Arabs enjoy far greater freedom and opportunity than their Arab neighbors in the countries bordering Israel, the dilemma of Israel and its Arab citizens can be encapsulated in a single question – how can the country best maintain its identity as a Jewish state and simultaneously honor its commitment to uphold equality for all citizens, Jews and Arabs alike?
Asserting that “meaningful coexistence can only be achieved in an environment of social equality and economic opportunity,” the Abraham Fund’s Platform for Action outlines a set of strategic principles for advancing shared citizenship and equal rights, and offers a six-point plan to put these principles into action.
“Improving living standards and creating equal opportunity for Israel’s Arab community is an urgent public issue that transcends traditional notions of ‘left’ and ‘right’ and is imperative for the future security of the State,” says Ami Nahshon, President and CEO of the New York-based organization that fosters coexistence between Israeli Jews and Arabs. “We are calling on Israel’s government and citizens to place the issue of coexistence at the top of the domestic agenda and to take concrete steps to advance the full participation of Israel’s 18 percent Arab minority in all aspects of Israeli society.”
The main points of ‘A Platform for Action’ call for:
** Appointing a cabinet minister and/or a senior government executive with broad responsibility for advancing Jewish-Arab relations.
** Enacting affirmative action legislation and policies to increase representation of Israeli Arabs and other underrepresented minorities in public service, academia and the private sector.
** Developing a multi-year plan and funding mechanism for closing the gaps in government spending for education, health, welfare, and infrastructure in the Arab sector.
** Mandating the teaching of conversational Arabic language and Arab culture as a required component of Israeli public education.
** Advancing coexistence education by making courses and demonstrated competence in the skills and principles of democracy, tolerance, and the obligations of citizenship, a requirement in all elementary and secondary schools.
** Establishing an international public-private partnership to expand the scale, impact, visibility and funding for coexistence activities throughout the country.
According to Nahshon, the platform has received widespread support since it was released in late 2003.
“We’ve held a series of meetings with government officials, cabinet minister and representatives of the prime minister. The clarity and focus of the platform has been well received, and overall, the broad-based response both in the government and private sector has been positive,” he told ISRAEL21c.
And there have already been some concrete results regarding the plank about teaching Arabic in schools. Last month, Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav announced a program in which fifth-graders in about a third of Haifa’s Jewish schools will be required to study spoken Arabic and culture.
“Mayor Yahav’s plan was a visible result of our platform. He made his announcement in conjunction with the Abraham Fund at a joint event in Haifa. There, he endorsed our platform plank and challenged the Ministry of Education to respond,” said Nahshon.
The Abraham Fund chose Haifa due to its mix of Jews and Arabs. Arabs, who comprise roughly 10 to 11 percent of the city’s population of 271,000, often live side by side with Jews.
“Haifa is very unique in its relations between Arabs and Jews,” Roni Grossman, the municipality’s spokesman told The New York Jewish Week. “We really do live together. The mayor is a Jew and the deputy mayor is an Arab. The mayor’s personal assistant is an Arab. The treasurer is an Arab,” she added.
“We live together, Jews and Arabs, but we can communicate in only one language,” Nahed Allo, assistant to Mayor Yahav, told the NYJW. “The vast majority of Arab citizens of Israel speak Hebrew, but that doesn’t mean that we wouldn’t welcome others to learn our culture through our language.”
Nahshon sees the Haifa initiative as a litmus test that can eventually spread to the rest of the country, but he cautions that patience is an imperative.
“The partnering with between the Haifa municipality and the Ministry of Education to begin this process is a welcome development. We think mandating the teaching of conversational Arabic is an important cultural initiative and it helps Israeli society recognize the need to bring the Arabs and Jews in Israel closer together. It will now be a long, complicated process of creating new facts on the ground. It’s not an initiative that will be realized overnight. It will take years,” he said.
But Nahshon says the Abraham Fund is willing to work in the long run to achieve its goals, and adds that the initiative has received wide support from American groups too.
“We believe that the Abraham Fund is the most broadbased, mainstream entity working today that advocates coexistence between Jews and Arabs. We’re a non-partisan centrist voice on these issues, and that uniquely positions us to present a plan that can be accepted by a wide majority. Therefore, we have a unique role to play in mobilizing both Israelis and Americans to help push forward this idea.”
The Abraham Fund was established in 1989 by Alan B. Slifka, an American businessman and philanthropist, and Dr. Eugene Weiner, a writer, educator and rabbi.
Nahshon said that the platform, which was developed with the assistance of Jewish and Arab experts from government, academia, law, and journalism, and representatives from several American Jewish organizations, was presented to American Jewish leadership at the recent General Assembly in Jerusalem to overwhelmingly positive reception.
And Nahshon disclosed that there are contacts underway to recruit various Diaspora and Israeli philanthropists to forward the idea.
“We’ve had preliminary conversations with branches of government on the concept of creating an independent non profit organization that would encourage Diaspora funding as well as Israeli philanthropists to join with the government in a coexistence project that would focus on lessening the gaps between the Jews and Arabs of Israel,” he said.