January 21, 2008

Jewish philanthropists work with Arab and Jewish leaders to try to bridge the chasm.For the past 60 years, Diaspora Jews have been deeply engaged in building a national home for the Jewish people. Our priority has been helping Israel to build hospitals and universities, absorb waves of Jewish immigrants and develop the country’s infrastructure. Focused on the survival of the Jewish State, we failed to realize that both our philosophy and our philanthropy were leaving behind 20 percent of Israel’s citizens – the indigenous Arab minority.

The issue of building a just and inclusive society for all citizens of Israel was the challenge that brought 60 American, British and Canadian Jewish philanthropists to Israel last week. During three intense days, we met with Arab and Jewish leaders who are committed to partnership and change, and learned more about the chasm that separates the Jewish and Arab communities.

We learned about a faltering educational system reflected in declining academic achievement, seen most acutely within the Arab schools. We learned about widening socioeconomic gaps, shortages of social services, the lack of programs for Arab youth at risk; and employment practices that limit opportunities for Arab college graduates to participate in the knowledge economy.

We also heard about crushing pressure on Arab municipalities to provide for their communities’ basic infrastructure needs; festering and unaddressed issues of land allocation and planning, most acutely felt within the Negev Bedouin communities; and longstanding exclusion of Israeli Arabs from meaningful participation in the state’s political processes.

During our trip we also heard from a member of a kibbutz that was established in the state’s early days to be a “security wedge” between Arab villages to the north and south. Listening to how the kibbutz had been constructed on land that was both purchased and confiscated from Arabs, we realized that the clock could not be turned back. We understood why our host felt obligated to pursue solutions that would benefit both the Jewish and Arab communities in the region.

While we were in Israel we were also surprised to learn that a few outspoken members of the Arab community had called for a boycott of meetings with our group. While the call to boycott fell on deaf ears among the vast majority of Arab leaders, it taught us an important lesson: that the lines of conflict in Israel are not between the Arab and Jewish communities, but rather between those Jews and Arabs who embrace a vision of a just and inclusive society and those who seem intent on pursuing an agenda of separatism and alienation. This only served to strengthen our commitment to advancing our vision of a society in which all citizens enjoy equal opportunity and feel equally at home, rather than being distracted by the separatist voices within the political fringes of both communities.

Until recently, few Diaspora Jews understood the importance of supporting Jewish-Arab cooperation. But this is beginning to change. Today American Jews help support some of the 200-plus Israeli organizations working in the field of coexistence and equality.

And recently, 70 major American Jewish nonprofit organizations from across the political and religious spectrum formed a powerful new coalition to tackle these issues and take action.

Although Israel’s government will be a critical part of the solution (just as it has been a part of the problem), American Jews and philanthropists have a meaningful role to play in advancing the vision of an inclusive society. How? By providing support to Arab and Jewish NGOs, using our influence to advocate for government action and drawing upon international experience in majority-minority relations.

From a deep and fundamental commitment to the welfare of a Jewish democratic Israel, we are determined to address what we believe is Israel’s central domestic challenge. We are gratified to find that senior Israeli government leaders, the Jewish Agency and other key institutions are more responsive to the agenda of inclusion and equality, and are beginning to translate words into deeds.

We invite all Israelis — Jewish and Arab — and Americans to join us in this critical undertaking.

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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

Executive Director

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