TORONTO — It’s essential to improve the socio-economic status of Israel’s Arab minorities and incorporate them more fully into Israeli life, participants at the second Irwin Green Conference in Toronto were told.
“There is a significant deficit of resource allocation, of public attention… There is a profound under-representation, in fields of higher education and in various sectors, of Israel’s minorities,” said DJ Schneeweiss, the Israeli consul general for Toronto and Western Canada, at the conference organized by the Israeli Arab issues committee of UJA Federation of Greater Toronto. The theme of the conference, held at the Lipa Green Centre March 3, was “Israel’s untapped potential.”
“This is a drag on the economy, on our society, a potential time bomb and we have to address these inequalities,” Schneeweiss said.
Amal Elsana Ahl’jooj, a Bedouin woman living in Israel, said Israel’s minorities must have access to the same education and basic necessities that everyone else has. She’s the fifth of 13 children, and she grew up with no water, no schools, no health clinics and no infrastructure.
“I didn’t choose to be an activist. I had tasks to do,” she said.
At age five, she was the family shepherd, but there was one bright side, she said – “I had the great opportunity not to be raised in the kitchen. I was raised in the mountains, by myself.”
Her grandmother was the one who encouraged her to change their way of living, Ahl’jooj said. “She taught me you don’t have to cry and see yourself as a victim. You have to see yourself as someone who’s able to change her own situation, take the lead and do things you believe in.”
Even at five years old, she became aware that women were not equal in her society, she said. “Seeing your mother giving your brother a nice piece of chicken and not you, only because you are a girl. And they got a new coat, and you did not, only because you are a girl. This is very painful for a child,” she said.
She also noticed very early on that she was a second-class citizen in Israel. “I remember the day when the police forces came to destroy my aunt’s house. I asked my father why and he said, ‘Because we are Arabs.’”
She said she came to the conference to describe her situation and offer hope.
At 14, she started teaching women in her village how to read and write – her mother was one of her first students. At 17, she established the first Bedouin women’s organization dealing with women’s rights in a patriarchal society.
One of the biggest challenges she deals with, she said, is that there is “no connection between democracy and minority rights. The average person will travel from his own city to Eilat, passing through the Bedouin villages and not asking himself a single question [about] why these people living without water, without electricity.”
In order to change the situation, she founded the Arab Jewish Center for Equality, Empowerment and Cooperation (AJEEC) in 2000, which focuses on strengthening Jewish-Arab relations.
It’s a huge challenge – Arab Bedouins and Druze make up only a small percentage of Israel’s minorities.
Raya and Maimoon Azmi, a Druze couple who spoke at the conference, believe the Israeli government needs to create more inter-communal co-operation.
“The first time you meet a Druze is in the army,” Raya Azmi said. “Why don’t [Jewish Israelis] have trips to our villages, and not only to eat pita?”
The conference is named for philanthropist Irwin Green, who believed that more equality can strengthen the future of Israel. In 2000, at age 90, he became aware of Jewish-Arab inequalities and he established a development centre for Arab kids, two computer centres, a soccer field, a community centre and a youth centre, his son, Don Green said.
“His last project was a vocational school for Arab women,” Green said. “He passed away in Israel, a few months before he turned 100.
“He firmly believed in the importance of education [as] the key for people to advance themselves in Israel.”