Putting Israeli Arabs On The Front Burner
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Putting Israeli Arabs On The Front Burner

Rare daylong conference aims to inform philanthropic community about an often-overlooked population.

Fida Nara, co-executive director of Mahapach-Taghrir, discusses her organization’s work, which is committed to helping Arab and Jewish families in what she calls Israel’s geographic and social peripheries. With her is Edan Ring, Sikkuy’s director of public affairs. Michelle Gevint Photography
Fida Nara, co-executive director of Mahapach-Taghrir, discusses her organization’s work, which is committed to helping Arab and Jewish families in what she calls Israel’s geographic and social peripheries. With her is Edan Ring, Sikkuy’s director of public affairs. Michelle Gevint Photography

The one question he’s asked time and again is, “What’s a nice Jewish boy like me” doing trying to improve the lives of Israel’s Arab citizens, Jack Gorman, a leader of UJA-Federation of New York, said Sunday while addressing a seminar on the matter.

But Gorman, chairman of federation’s Marginalized Populations in Israel Committee, told his audience he has three answers to the query: a passion for social justice, especially among Jews in the Baby Boomer generation; a personal desire to reconnect to the Muslim world, which, he said, had given refuge to his Spanish-born ancestors after the start of the Inquisition in 1492; and the realization that the only way to sustain Israel’s economy in the long run is to see that all its citizens thrive.

On the latter score, Gorman later pointed out to The Jewish Week, a recent study showed that 50 percent of Israel’s first-graders came from the Arab and charedi, or fervently Orthodox, communities — two populations in which poverty, unemployment and underemployment run high. Projecting ahead, he said, Israel’s economy is bound to tank in 20 years unless something is done to reverse the fortunes of those communities.

Gorman was one of a dozen speakers at a daylong conference in Midtown sponsored by Sikkuy (“Opportunity” in English), an Israeli NGO committed to advancing equality for Israel’s Arab citizens. Underwritten by UJA, the Social Venture Fund for Jewish-Arab Equality and Shared Society, and other donors, the conference discussed new strategies for achieving those goals, along with the history of the cause and what it has achieved so far.

“It’s the first time we’ve done such a thing in many years.”

“It’s the first time we’ve done such a thing in many years,” said Edan Ring, the agency’s director of public affairs, adding that it was meant to be an exchange of knowledge among leaders and professionals in the field. But he added that organizers also hoped to draw “elements within the Jewish philanthropic circle who support Israel but haven’t thought of Israeli Arabs as relevant to their work. We wanted to inform them of the complex reality and challenges, as well as the opportunities and potential. Some of the people in the room here are not your usual, ultra-liberal names and organizations.”

The achievements in recent years are obvious, both in Israel, where the government made a decision three years ago to equalize public spending in Arab and Jewish communities, and in the U.S., where an increasing number of organizations are involved in the effort. Other successes within Israel have included a new rule from the Ministry of Transportation ordering that electronic signs on buses appear in Arabic as well as Hebrew, Ring said.

But the challenges were underscored on the very same day of the seminar by a development not mentioned at the event — a false news story posted on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Facebook page regarding Israeli Arabs. Published by Arutz Sheva, a right-wing news outlet associated with the settler movement, the story concerned a moment of silence at a soccer game in Sakhnin, an Arab city in Northern Israel, in memory of the 10 Israeli-Jewish teens drowned in flash flood last week. The story, as well as Netanyahu’s Facebook post, claimed that Arab soccer fans jeered during the moment of silence — a flat-out lie, according to Israeli journalists.

The incendiary post, for which Netanyahu has yet to apologize, is only the latest example of what many Israelis consider anti-Arab incitement from government ministers and the prime minister himself, said Ron Gerlitz, Sikkuy’s co-executive director, in an interview with The Jewish Week. A similar moment took place two years, during major brush fires in and around Haifa, when Netanyahu and Gilad Erdan, Israel’s public security minister, blamed the fires on arsonists from the Arab community — allegations that never bore out.

“Things are getting out of control. It’s like the blood libel against the Jews of Europe.”

Gerlitz describes the government as schizophrenic, adopting an enlightened policy in regard to economic development while, at the same time, contributing to an increasingly hostile political climate against Israeli Arabs. He also believes the climate could jeopardize progress in the economic sphere and, even worse, lead to an escalation of attacks between Jews and Arabs.

“Things can get out of control,” said Gerlitz, who shares his title with Rawnak Natour, an Israeli-Arab woman who also attended the seminar. Of the prime minister’s Facebook post, he said, “It’s like the blood libel against the Jews of Europe.”

Meanwhile, Gerlitz said, Sikkuy works on two tracks, which sometimes places the organization in a delicate position. One involves working intensively with government ministries to implement the order adopted three years ago, known as Government Decision 922. The other involves advocating in other ways for a shared society, such as pushing for the fair representation of Arab citizens in the civil service, and condemning anti-Arab incitement.

It’s the work around “922,” as it’s called for short, that involves most of Sikkuy’s efforts. The government decision doesn’t automatically place funds in the hands of Arab communities and institutions, said Carl Perkal, Sikkuy’s director of resource development. Instead, he explained, Arab cities hoping to create or expand a particular service have to apply for the funds, just as Jewish municipalities do — an intricate, bureaucratic process that often involves conducting a needs assessment, holding public hearings and developing a master plan.

Just to take one area, most Arab municipalities have traditionally lacked any sort of public transportation. But before they receive public funding to create a bus system, they need to assure the government that their roads are wide enough to accommodate the buses or to create a master plan that would build those roads. Another area involves the need for day-care centers, but before receiving the allocation, they may need to locate available land, make sure they have a sewage infrastructure and, as Perkal put it, “on and on and on.”

The problem is that many Arab communities lack the capacity to do that footwork, either because they’re short of staff or the staff members they do have are trained in other areas. That’s where Sikkuy has stepped in, providing the urban planning, legal and public policy experts to help Arab municipalities develop the capacity and infrastructure to apply for funds, said Perkal, an American immigrant from Laurelton, Queens. Sikkuy has received grants from Federation, as have such groups as Injaz, an NGO that helps to professionalize Arab municipalities, and the Arab Center for Alternative Planning, which does urban planning in Arab communities.

In addition to the UJA-Federation and the Social Venture Fund, other organizations represented at the conference included the Abraham Fund, the Alan B. Slifka Foundation, the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, the Givat Haviva Educational Foundation and the Charles H. Revson Foundation.

Meanwhile, UJA-Federation’s commitment to the cause was emphasized at the opening of the seminar by Jeff Schoenfeld, its president, who said in a speech that the organization’s support of equality and shared society “may not be particularly popular with many of our donors.” But he called federation’s involvement “the right thing to do,” saying that “the Jewish community knows what it’s like to be a minority in society.” He added that federation’s leaders “are committed to fostering a fair, democratic and thriving Israeli society that treats all citizens equally.”

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