Alan Slifka of Manhattan is founder and president of the 11-year-old Abraham Fund, which funds programs in Israel that promote coexistence between Jewish and Arab Israelis. Slifka recently received a citation for the nonprofit organizationís work from Knesset Speaker Avrum Burg and Rabbi Michael Melchior, minister of diaspora social affairs.
Jewish Week: The Abraham Fund has funded 500 Jewish-Arab organizations and programs over the years, but many Israelis still do not appear to respect differences.
Slifka: What has increasingly happened in Israeli society is that it has been exposed to a series of deep rifts that are becoming wider and deeper. There is a rift between the secular and religious, between the Ashkenazic and Sephardic, between Russians and old timers, between Europeans and other Israelis, and between Jews and Arabs.
In light of the divisions between Jews in Israel, do you envision modifying your group’s mission to address those concerns as well?
I don’t think it will be modified, but increasingly our activities are in partnership with organizations that are interested in the Jewish-Jewish issue. Increasingly, when thoughtful people speak about a vision of Israeli society in the next 25 years, the need for tolerance across the face of Israeli society becomes more evident.
What was your reaction when you learned that some Israeli Arab Knesset members had publicly encouraged Hezbollah attacks on Israeli troops in southern Lebanon?That we have a ticking time bomb. What we see is a growing feeling of frustration among Israeli Arabs and a growing lack of education in the coexistence area. There’s nothing wrong with their frustrations. The issue is whether one responds by creating institutions that can create bridges, that can create understanding, and that can reduce the feelings of inequity. If institutions can be built, these passions can be reduced.
Why do you believe such programs make a difference?
The Jewish Community Association in Israel did a study of the coexistence projects in 10 community centers. At the end of the year, it found that the extent of tolerance between Arabs and Jews had roughly doubled. Also, it found that the students’ own pride and awareness of their own cultural heritage had increased by 50 percent. What’s significant is that when you do coexistence work, not only do you learn to respect other persons, but you become aware of your own traditions. So it’s a win-win educational experience.
How would you assess your group’s success?
We’ve reached 100,000 people, half Israeli and half Arab. Eleven years ago, we identified 282 institutions doing our work and now there are over 500.
Is coexistence foreign to Israelis?We [Jews] have been a minority for 3,000 years; we don’t have a great deal of majority consciousness. The population of Israel consists of big segments that have come from Arab countries and Central and Eastern Europe where democracy and tolerance are not academic subjects. So in Israel, we have to teach minorities to be responsible minorities and the majority to be a moral majority.
A recent poll found that fewer and fewer Israeli Arabs see themselves more as Israelis, reversing a finding of just a few years ago.
It worries me because the trend is going in the wrong direction, and part of that trend is due to the increased Palestinization of Israeli Arabs. They are increasingly thinking of themselves as Palestinians residing in Israel rather than as Israelis. It is not unreasonable to think of oneself as Palestinian Israeli, but you have to think of yourself as Israeli.
How do you respond to such a poll?
It reaffirmed the importance of our work and the need to expand it. We must recognize that this is an important and potentially dangerous situation. …What is important is to retain the character of a Jewish state, one that is inclusive, democratic and tolerant, because it is very hard to educate an Arab minority to accept being part of a Jewish state. They would prefer to call Israel a state of its citizens, rather than a Jewish state. That would de-Judaize the state. That’s why the only way of getting Arabs to buy into a Jewish state is to ensure that it is inclusive and democratic.