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Time to broaden dialogue on Israeli Arabs: UJA

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Elie Rekhess, left, and Jeffrey Stutz [Andy Levy-Ajzenkopf photo]

TORONTO — Helping Israeli Arabs succeed economically and socially will guarantee a strong Jewish and democratic state.

That was the message put forward at a Nov. 27 conference hosted by the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto’s committee on Israeli and Arab issues.

A packed hall of about 150 people at the Lipa Green Building listened intently.

It was the first conference in Toronto of its kind, and was part of a series that had held prior events in Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia.

The committee, created in May 2010, exists to encourage dialogue within the mainstream Canadian Jewish community on the sometimes thorny topic of how Israeli Arabs are treated in Israel.

Jeffrey Stutz, the committee’s chair, said its goal is to communicate the importance of strengthening the Israeli Arabs’ social, economic and educational situation.

“Israel will be strengthened as a Jewish and democratic state by ensuring that its Israeli-Arab minority enjoys equal rights and opportunities,” he said.

Israeli Arabs constitute about 20 per cent of Israel’s population.

Aside from Stutz, speakers at the conference included Israel’s consul general to Toronto, Amir Gissin; Prof. Elie Rekhess, an expert on Arab-Israeli relations with Tel Aviv University’s Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and Arab Studies; Abeer Halabi, a Druze social worker with Israel’s Merchavim Institute for the Advancement of Shared Society; Raji Srouji, a Palestinian and the sports manager of the city of Nazareth, and Rabbi Baruch Frydman-Kohl of Toronto’s Beth Tzedec Congregation.

Also speaking were two Israeli medical students living in Toronto, one Jewish, the other Palestinian – Anat Kapelnikov and Alaa Amash respectively – who spoke of their experiences getting to know each other’s cultures and breaking through social barriers to become friends.

Gissin said he was speaking as a representative of all Israelis and that the 1.4 million Israeli Arabs had been “marginalized.”

“It’s reflected in the way resources are allocated to them,” he said. “Under Israeli law, all citizens are equal. When Israeli citizens stand before the court, there is no difference between Jews and Arabs. No, the difference is on another level.”

Gissin then laid out two sets of statistics that caused the crowd to gasp. The first was the comparison of how many Jewish – excluding the haredi community – and Israeli-Arab women participate in Israel’s workforce.

Nearly 66 per cent of Jewish women versus only 23 per cent of Arab women are participants in Israel’s working sector.

“This gap represents hundreds of thousands of women who could be in the workforce,” Gissin said.

The next statistic, the one that drew the more audible gasp from the audience, was the comparison of Jews to Arabs living at or below Israel’s poverty line as defined by Israel’s statistics bureau.

While approximately 12 per cent of Israeli Jewish households fell into this category, more than 57 per cent of Arab households were defined as poor.

“This is an unacceptable gap,” Gissin said. “The main challenge of the Israeli government is to narrow these gaps.”

 During his address to the audience, Rekhess said that Israel’s real problems don’t lie in the West Bank or Gaza. The challenge going forward is how to keep the country both Jewish and democratic.

“There cannot be a more controversial topic,” he said. “There is a demographic problem. The Arab birthrate… is still higher than the Jewish growth rate.”

And 83 per cent of the population of Arabs in Israel identify as Muslim, with the other 17 per cent split evenly between Christian Arabs and Druze.

This leads to serious questions on how to continue to integrate the majority Israeli-Arab Muslim population into a Jewish democratic state.

The conference provided no answer to that question. Instead, it was intended to engender debate on the issue.

Rekhess said the government has to “acknowledge” this issue as a first step. Furthermore, he said, it’s both a Jewish and moral imperative to solve the problem, and that by doing so, Israel’s economy and its international image will improve.

He said there would be “a price for neglect.”

For her part, Halabi said she has grown to understand both the Jewish and Arab points of view on Israel’s nature, but that as a Druze, she still feels uncomfortable with her own identity.

“I’m a Palestinian, a Druze and an Israeli. But my identity is in conflict,” she said.

Srouji said he felt that as a Palestinian, he could integrate into a Jewish Israel and still keep his identity. But there were serious issues for the government to address.

“Only three per cent of the government workforce is Arab,” he said, adding that nearly 500 Arab towns within Israel’s current borders had “disappeared” since 1948.

He said his programs helping Jewish and Arab children play sports together in Nazareth held out the rays of hope for a future peace between the peoples.

“Children [naturally] play together when you leave them alone,” he said.

Rabbi Frydman-Kohl said he believes there are ways to help Israel stay Jewish and still be a true home for Israeli Arabs as well.

By way of example, he used the Canadian and Israeli national anthems to illustrate how solutions can occur and identities are maintained without strife.

He noted that the French version of O Canada contains a line that speaks of “marching with the cross.”

“Canadian Jews know how to deal with that… they don’t sing that line,” he said to laughter, alluding to how Israeli Arabs might choose to deal with a similar awkward moment in Hatikvah.

In his closing remarks, Rabbi Frydman-Kohl said conferences such as this one help “maintain the possibility that we can hold Israel together as both a Jewish and democratic state.”

Stutz said his committee will now focus on efforts to publicize more events, recruit volunteers and ultimately become part of the Jewish Federations of North America’s (JFNA) Social Venture Fund for Jewish-Arab Equality and Shared Society.

The cost of joining the fund is $50,000 a year, Stutz said. Twenty members currently administer the fund.

“It would give us a seat at the table and help [the Canadian Jewish community] have a say” on what projects the funds are allotted to in Israel, he said.

Gail Zucker, JFNA’s senior director of consulting, told The CJN that the social venture fund has “raised more than $3.5 million since its inception in 2007 and allocated over $3 million towards a portfolio of programs in the areas of education and economic development, with a particular focus on women’s empowerment and capacity building.”

For more information, visit www.jewishfederations.org/page.aspx?id=176993

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