As Jews from around the world come to Israel, the country has learned to incorporate Americans, Russians and Ethiopians into its society.
That’s why Ami Nahshon believes the country is now up to the task of integrating its nearly 1.5 million Arab citizens into society as well.
“I think this is the next great national challenge for Israel: the absorption of its ‘internal immigrant’ population,” he said.
Nahshon is the president and chief executive officer of the Abraham Fund Initiatives, a non-profit based in New York and Jerusalem focused on the issue of co-existence: or how to promote and increase cooperation between the Jewish and Arab populations in Israel.
Nahshon came to Pittsburgh last week to meet potential donors in the area and to talk with leaders of the United Jewish Federation. He said the American Jewish community — through its philanthropy, politics, business interests and family connections — plays an important role in Israeli public policy, citing opposition to attempts to modify the Law of Return for converts to Judaism and efforts to integrate Ethiopian Jews as examples.
“When the American Jewish community puts its mind to it, it has a voice in Israel,” Nahshon said, “a very powerful voice.”
Nahshon makes that claim based on his professional experience. Before assuming his post with the Abraham Fund in 2003, he spent nearly 20 years as the chief executive officer of the Jewish Community Federation and Foundation in Oakland, Calif. — one of the first federations in the country to support the work of the Abraham Fund.
Understanding race relations in Israel is important for UJF because of its Partnership 2000 relationship with Misgav and Karmiel. Those and other communities in Galilee region of northern Israel have sizable Jewish and Arab populations living nearby.
The Abraham Fund sees these “mixed cities” as a priority for national unity.
In a June position paper, the organization said Israeli Jews and Arabs live increasingly close geographically, but “continue to live in separate life circles, in mutual alienation and fear.” It said the country needs a “systemic approach” to address the issue in each city.
“Continued disregard of the current trends and their implications, and implementation of a ‘fire-fighting’ policy that grants ‘too little and too late,’ is sure to increase the risk of re-igniting Jewish-Arab conflict, and will overshadow the enormous potential mutual benefits that the mixed cities and regions offer,” the paper concluded.
Riots between Jews and Arabs in the northern city of Acre last October showed what can happen when the two groups are unable to live together within one community.
Some saw Acre as a microcosm for the country. Rabbi Yossi Stern, head of the Yeshiva Hesder-Acre, was widely quoted at the time calling coexistence a “slogan” and saying, “Acre is a national test case. Acre today is the Land of Israel in 10 years.”
Nahshon said coexistence was a marginal concern for Americans and Israelis in 1989, when the Abraham Fund was founded, but the issue is now “on the table,” meaning the debate is no longer about whether coexistence must be addressed, but about how best to address it.
As proof, Nahshon cites the Inter-Agency Task Force on Israeli Arab Issues, a coalition of more than 80 North American Jewish organizations — from the Orthodox Union to the Union for Reform Judaism — trying to advance equality between Israel’s Jews and Arabs.
“I think task number one on this issue for the American Jewish community is to become educated about it,” he said, “to understand what people like me mean when we say, ‘If you love Israel, you also need to care about Israel’s Arab citizens.’”
Named for the shared patriarch of Jews and Muslims, the Abraham Fund creates grass roots initiatives to promote coexistence. These include efforts to make Arabic language study a mandatory subject in Israeli schools, to improve relations between Arab citizens and Israeli police departments and to increase opportunities for Arab women in the workforce.
One of the initiatives is “Mirkam in the Galilee,” an attempt to turn the Beit HaKerem Valley into a “coexistence zone,” a model for cooperation between Jews and Arabs.
Mirkam in the Galilee began in 2001 by encouraging interaction between Jewish and Arab students in three cities: Karmiel and two Arab townships. The initiative now includes 47 Jewish and Arab communities in the region, including the Misgav Regional Council. The expanded initiative includes environmental, health, city planning and tourism components.
Nahshon believes Jewish-Arab coexistence is both a moral and a practical imperative for Israel. He said all Israeli citizens — Jews and Arabs — should be able to expect the same opportunities, but he also cited research showing how the nearly 1.5 million Arabs in Israel constitute 20 percent of the population, but only around 8 percent of the economy.
“If the Israeli economy more fully utilized and integrated the Arab community, that would make a huge difference in Israel’s gross domestic product and Israel’s economic self-sufficiency,’ Nahshon said.
The Abraham Fund and others must build “a groundswell of popular demand,” because “the Israeli political system doesn’t have incentives built into it for solving this problem,” he said.
Another obstacle, Nahshon said, is that Jewish-Arab relations exist within the more complex framework of Israeli-Palestinian relations, meaning each succeeds and fails with the other. He said cooperation between Jews and Arab increased after the Oslo accords in 1993, but others believe cooperation declines during the second intifada in 2000.
There are also challenges on a local level.
Misgav and other Galilee communities have been in the news recently for trying to establish bylaws requiring residents to, among other things, adhere to “Zionist principles.” Council leaders say each community has the right to preserve its “social fabric and ethos” and the bylaws don’t contradict with broader efforts at coexistence in the region. Those opposed call it a civil rights issue and an attempt to exclude Arabs.
In early 2008, some Arab groups lead a “partially successful” boycott of Jewish philanthropists from the Inter-Agency Task Force on Israeli Arab Issues because of Diaspora Jewish support for the idea of Israel as a Jewish state, Haaretz reported last year. The newspaper also reported that Israeli Arab leaders condemned the boycott.
Nahshon accepts both the successes and setbacks. He noted that the United States has been struggling to improve race relations for centuries.
“Israel has very far to go, and doesn’t have the luxury of 200 plus years that the United States had to cope with these issues,” he said. “The meter is running in Israel.”
(Eric Lidji can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)