In what is being hailed as a dramatic shift in approach at the Jewish Agency, the organization that some Israeli Arabs have viewed as out to steal their land has agreed to support the New York-based Abraham Fund Initiatives in its efforts to teach conversational Arabic and culture to elementary school children in northern Israel.
“It’s a sea change” for the Jewish Agency, said Ami Nahshon, president and CEO of the Abraham Fund Initiatives. “It has marked a significant departure both in practice and in policy at the Jewish Agency, which was focused on the Jewish community and was created to promote aliyah and rescue and relief” for Jews.
But last summer’s war with Hezbollah changed all of that because both Israeli Arabs and Jews in northern Israel suffered property damage from Hezbollah rockets, and an almost equal number of Israeli Jewish and Arab civilians were killed
“The war created trauma and death and the Jewish Agency took a look at its responsibility [to the people of Israel] in a new way and began providing relief services to Arab Israelis alongside Jewish Israelis,” Nahshon said. Under the new partnership beginning next month, the project — called Language as a Cultural Bridge — would teach conversational Arabic to 7,000 Jewish youngsters in 40 schools. This is in addition to the 7,000 Jewish youngsters taking the classes this semester in about 60 schools in four cities. The cost of the overall project is about $2 million.
The partnership comes at a time when some American Jewish groups loudly protested allocating any money to Israeli Arabs that was collected from American Jews in an emergency campaign by Jewish federations for the postwar recovery effort in Israel. And it comes at a time when the appointment of an Israeli Arab, Raleb Majadele, to a ministerial post in Israel has been delayed at least one week after one Israeli lawmaker charged the nomination was a “blight” on Zionism. Some Israeli Arabs criticized the appointment of the first Arab to the cabinet as an attempt at tokenism and patronage. The nomination, said one observer, merely served to uncover “the latent racism of some of its citizens.”
Ze’ev Bielski, the Jewish Agency chairman, told a gathering of Jewish and Arab mayors in the Galilee that his organization was entering into the partnership with the Abraham Fund because one of its “main goals is the building of an integrated Israeli society in which all are equal.” In another joint project of the two groups, children from 20 pairs of Jewish and Arab elementary schools in Israel’s mixed cities and regions are holding joint cultural exchange gatherings. Yarden Vatikai, a Jewish Agency spokesman, told The Jerusalem Post that his organization is committed to the development of the Negev in the South and the Galilee in the North and that it requires working with Israeli Arabs. “You can’t declare that you’re working to develop the Negev and the Galilee without dealing with [coexistence],” he said. “It’s a topic that’s very problematic; there’s a lack of dialogue.” Vatikai acknowledged that there has been mixed reaction in the Israeli Arab community, saying: “For many years, we were considered the most Zionist and problematic organization. They thought that part of our purpose was to take away their lands. This simply isn’t true. The world moves forward, and we’ve moved forward.”
Michael Jankelowitz, the Jewish Agency’s liaison to the foreign press, pointed out that although this is not the first time the Jewish Agency has worked with Israeli Arabs, it is the first time it is working with a foundation for this purpose. He pointed out that when UJA-Federation of New York worked with Israeli Arabs in the past, it did so through the Jewish Agency. David Mallach, managing director of the Commission on the Jewish People, said UJA-Federation worked with Israeli Arabs in the city of Ramla during Project Renewal in the 1980s and 1990s.
“At that time, Ramla was about 20 percent Arab, so we worked with them and we worked through the Jewish Agency,” he said.
Jankelowitz sought to downplay the significance of the Jewish Agency partnership, saying it did not represent a “change in the mission” of the organization. “What we have to be cognizant of is that Israeli Arabs are citizens of Israel and we want to develop the Galilee and the Negev for the betterment of all Israelis,” he said. “The chairman of the Jewish Agency believes that the development of the Galilee is for all the citizens of the Galilee. The chairman is a former mayor of Ra’anana and he has always had excellent relations with Arab mayors who live in the Galilee and Negev. … Every Jewish Agency head brings issues that are close to his heart and this is something he feels has to be addressed.”
Mallach said he believes this development represents a “long-term trend in Israeli society towards increasingly seeking to work with the Arab community to bring them into greater participation in the totality of Israel.”