‘Social cohesion’ drives the Arab-Israeli conversation

‘Social cohesion’ drives the Arab-Israeli conversation

Amnon Be’eri SulitzeanuPhotos courtesy of Amnon Be’eri Sulitzeanu
Amnon Be’eri SulitzeanuPhotos courtesy of Amnon Be’eri Sulitzeanu

Via Pittsburgh, Arabs and Israelis discussed inequality equitably. Thabet Abu Rass and Amnon Be’eri Sulitzeanu, co-executive directors of the Abraham Fund, recently took part in Pittsburgh’s second annual Arab-Israeli Education Day. Sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s Community Relations Council, the Pittsburgh Area Jewish Committee and the Inter-Agency Task Force on Israeli Arab Issues, the April 3 program was held at Rodef Shalom Congregaiton and welcomed 65 attendees, said Josh Sayles, CRC’s director.

“The panelists really did an amazing job of facilitating an important conversation of what needs to change in Israel, while at the same time demonstrating strong support for Israel’s right to existence and the Jewish people’s right to self-determination in the land of Israel,” said Sayles.

Joining Rass and Sulitzeanu as panelists were Dalia Fadila and Michal Steinman. Fadila is president of Al-Qasemi Engineering and Science College (located near Haifa), an expert on organizational development and a researcher of American literature, women’s literature and ethnic studies. Steinman is executive director of the Inter-Agency Task Force on Israeli Arab Issues and oversees its strategies and operations including member engagement, education, outreach and communications.

“There are issues of inequality between Arabs and Jews in Israel, and it’s a difficult conversation to have within the Jewish community,” Sayles said. “I think one of the reasons why it’s so difficult to have the conversation in the community is because in the non-Jewish world a lot of anti-Semites like to disguise their anti-Semitism in anti-Israel activity. And so it’s a difficult balance to have a real conversation about the problems in Israel … and about some of the inequalities surrounding the Arab population in Israel. But it’s a necessary conversation.”

Following the program, Rass and Sulitzeanu met with The Chronicle to describe their work with the Abraham Fund.

“Our main purpose is to raise awareness among Jews and Jewish communities with what we describe as one of the most critical relations between the Jewish majority and Palestinian minority within Israel,” said Sulitzeanu, adding that most people believe “Palestinian” refers to Arabs in the West Bank or Gaza when in fact the term also includes Arab-Israelis.

“Israeli society is actually mixed, it’s binational — 80 percent are Jews and 20 percent are Arabs,” he said. “We are here to raise awareness of this fact and educate those who are engaged and committed to strengthening Israel. Today, the real help Israel needs is to integrate the Arab minority into society and promote social cohesion.”

“Our mission is very clear,” said Rass. “We are a social-change organization that touches one of the most important issues that affect Israel. We care about Israeli citizens.”

Rass and Sulitzeanu explain that one of their goals is to “build capacity.”

“We should allow Arab-Israeli citizens to participate in a more meaningful [way] within Israeli society. Arab society is very weak, has low education and low-paying jobs,” said Sulitzeanu.

Consequently, Arab-Israelis are “underrepresented in all sectors,” he added.

For their part, Rass and Sulitzeanu — in their work with the Abraham Fund — have created several programs to counter such realities.

One such project partners Arab and Jewish children in study.

“We operate an encounters program in which kids meet on a regular basis,” said Rass. “The Jewish kids are taught the Arabic language, and the Arab kids are taught Hebrew.”

The students are then brought together to “practice what they know,” and the effects are far-reaching, added Rass. “Just imagine an Arab teacher covering her head and coming to a Jewish school. They’re moving psychological boundaries.”

While the program expands the students’ familiarity by teaching language and culture, it is not without contention.

“There is mistrust and fear in both communities,” said Rass. “The challenge is how to convince both communities to live together and build a common shared future in a toxic environment while a larger conflict is there.”

The Israeli government has responded to Rass and Sulitzeanu’s efforts by adopting their program.

“The Ministry of Education has scaled it; [it’s] now in 20 percent of Jewish primary schools in Israel,” said Rass.

Both men are pleased but claimed more work is necessary.

“The Israeli government is investing to improve the economic status of Arab citizens, but racism is increasing in Israeli society. We believe there is a need for more inclusive messages both from the government and Arab leadership,” said Rass. “The challenge is how people will live in Israel and how we can find a common future and share the future for both communities.”

Adam Reinherz can be reached at adamr@thejewishchronicle.net.

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