In an interview with Haaretz shortly after taking on the role of Jewish Agency chairman some 18 months ago, Ze'ev Bielski declared that the organization would serve all the citizens of Israel. The war in the North provided Bielski with an opportunity to translate his words into deeds.
According to Jewish Agency data, the organization spent gave some $60 million during the duration of the war on emergency aid to residents of the North, with some $4 million going to non-Jewish communities - not exactly an egalitarian division, considering the fact that more than 50 percent of the residents North, excluding Haifa, are non-Jews; but Jewish Agency officials says that the investments during the war were just the beginning of the road.
On the Id al-Fitr holiday last month, for example, the Jewish Agency invited all Arab residents of the North to the country's nature reserves and historical sites, just as it had done for Israel's Jewish citizens over the Sukkot holiday. And Agency officials say that the non-Jewish residents of the North will continue to benefit from the organization's development plans in various areas such as supplementary education and aid to students and small businesses. The Jewish Agency also plans to invest in the construction of community centers in a number of Druze, Christian and Muslim villages. As expected, organizations that promote equality between Jews and Arabs have welcomed the Jewish Agency's new policy.
"It is important that the Jewish money not be used to deepen the already large gaps between Jews and Arabs," says Shuli Dichter, co-director of Sikkuy, the Association for the Advancement of Civil Equality in Israel.
Agency officials stress that their plans do not cover areas that are the government's responsibility, such as the development of infrastructure in the Arab sector. And, according to the Agency's director for the Jerusalem and central region, Yehuda Scharf, the organization's activities in the non-Jewish sector have nothing to do with politics. "Politics doesn't interest me. I am a citizen of the country and I believe that my role is to help every citizen who pays taxes," he says.
On both sides of the divide, however, there are a fair number of people who insist on political labeling. Amir Makhoul, the director of Ittijah, an umbrella organization of Arab nonprofit associations, does not recognize Israel's legitimacy as a Jewish state and is strongly opposed to cooperation with the Jewish Agency. "This is an issue that has to be a red line for us," he says. "The Jewish Agency was not established to take care of the Arab public. It works on behalf of the Jewish people and for a Jewish state. Arabs who take money from the Jewish Agency are thereby accepting the Jewish Agency's working assumption that Israel exists for the Jews."
And a senior official at an organization that promotes Jewish-Arab equality told Haaretz that "many Arabs have a very big problem with taking money from the Jewish Agency mainly because of its activities in the 1950s and the 1960s to Judaize the Galilee. They prefer for it to come from the government." Shawki Khatib, chairman of the Higher Arab Monitoring Committee and a key figure among the heads of the Arab local councils, elegantly avoided a direct answer when asked by Haaretz about his attitude toward the partnership with the Jewish Agency.
The Jewish Agency's activity in the non-Jewish sector is also sparking reactions on the other side of the ocean; nearly all of the funding for the Agency's activity in the North comes from the United Jewish Communities of North America.
On October 5, hundreds of donors to the UJC received an e-mail with the title "Americans shocked to learn that one-third of UJC emergency dollars designated for Arabs (who hate Israel)." The author of the e-mail was Helen Freedman, former director of Americans for Safe Israel, considered the right marker of the U.S. Jewish community. "Did you think that a huge part of your donation would be given to the very Arabs who supported Hezbollah?" Freedman asked.
Her campaign, however, failed to move beyond the right-wing margins of American Jewry. A number of mainstream figures, for example, Stephen Savitsky, the president of the Orthodox Union, the largest modern Orthodox organization in the United States, initially expressed astonishment at the behavior of the UJC, but subsequently changed their minds after getting explanations. And the major Jewish newspapers, chief among them, The Jewish Week, chose to take a stance in support of aid to non-Jews. But in one sense, Freedman managed to achieve what she had wanted to: The devastating label of "controversial" has been applied to the issue of aid to Israel's non-Jewish citizens.
The UJC steers clear of controversial issues as though from fire, in fear of adversely affecting the extent of the annual fund drive. The director of the UJC in Israel and vice president of the Organization, Nachman Shai, confirmed to Haaretz last week that this was an issue that aroused reservations among donors.
"I have participated in discussions at which donors have asked themselves whether it is right to make plans that do not concern the emergency situation," Shai says. "The question that comes up is whether the money is collected for needs that derive from the war or from Israel's challenge to strengthen ties between the Jewish and the non-Jewish populations. In other words, they are asking if they are replacing state funds and doing the work instead of the government of Israel."
World Betar chairman Danny Danon, is one of the supporters of Freedman's initiative. He says that he is not opposed to giving one-time aid to non-Jews but, he says, "a problem arises the moment this becomes a trend. The same Jew in Miami who is now donating to the UJC Israel Fund would prefer to give his $1,000 to a university or a hospital if he knew that 30 percent of the money was going to Arabs," Dannon says.
The executive vice-president and CEO of the UJA Federation of New York, John Ruskay, believes that arguments of this sort exploit the lack of knowledge among donors, who are not aware that all the public bodies in Israel that raise funds from American Jewry serve both Jews and non-Jews.
"Some segments of American Jews who care deeply about Israel clearly had not realized that when they write a check to a hospital in Israel they are supporting everyone," he says.
Ruskay believes that the talk about the issue of donations to the non-Jewish sector was an "educational moment" for many Jews in the United States who support Israel, as it caused them to confront the question of the meaning of their support for a Jewish and democratic state.
In recent years, American Jews who donate to Israel have been undergoing a fascinating process of exposure to the 24 percent of Israel's citizens who are not Jewish. Since the 1980s, Joint-Israel, whose main activity is funded by UJC monies, has been providing humanitarian aid to the elderly and the disabled regardless of religion and nationality. But apart from this activity, aid to the non-Jewish sector is considered the eccentricity of but a few.
One of them was millionaire Alan Slifka, who set up the Abraham Fund some 17 years ago. Amnon Be'eri-Sulitzeanu, the fund's current executive director, says that until not very long ago, no organizer of a delegation of donors from the United States would have considered introducing his guests to non-Jewish Israelis. "The Bedouin, the Druze and the Muslim Arabs were transparent as far as the donors were concerned, simply non-existent," he says.
The turning point came with the riots in the Arab sector in October 2001, when 13 Arab Israeli demonstrators were killed by police gunfire. The violent events and, even more so, the conclusions of the Or Commission that was appointed to investigate the situation of the Arabs of Israel exposed the heads of the large Jewish federations in the United States to the problem of discrimination against Arab Israelis for the first time. One organization that has considerably increased its involvement has been the Jewish Federation of New York, considered the largest Jewish foundation in the United States. According to Ruskay, growing segments of American Jewry have become aware of the problem, of its scope and the risks it poses to Israel. "The people who are most aware are the people who are the most committed to Israel and understand the complexities of the challenges facing Israel," he says.
Ruskay stresses, nevertheless, that American Jewry is not prepared to share responsibility for the issues with the Israeli government. "Ultimately, there is broad recognition that the issue is one that is the responsibility of the people and the State of Israel," he notes.
He believes, however, that what is considered an existential interest for Israel is also an interest of American Jewry. "Have we not learned in the last five years that our future is interdependent? We share both history and destiny," Ruskay says. Sikkuy co-director Shuli Dichter believes that in the wake of the recent war, the donations to the Arab sector have become part of the American mainstream. Arnon Mantver, director general of Joint Distribution Committee-Israel, sounds far more skeptical.
"There has definitely been quite a dramatic change, but it is still early to say that the issue has become part of the consensus," Mantver says. "I don't know if everyone [in the United States] is going to buy this."
Jewish Agency director general Moshe Vigdor believes that in most U.S. Jewish communities today, people "realize that taking care of minorities ensures Israel's strength as a democratic state. If there are any reservations, they focus mainly on the proportions, and the incorrect reports on the issue have created some discomfort."
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