Among those issues are attitudes toward Israeli Arabs as loyal or suspect citizens; the boundaries between the duties of the government of Israel and diaspora Jewish charities in taking care of the people of Israel; the deep divide between American Jews on the right and on the left when it comes to defining which “people of Israel” we mean; and who speaks for American Jewry.
First the facts: American Jews responded generously to the Israeli war with Hezbollah this summer by contributing more than $330 million to the Israel Emergency Campaign organized by Jewish federations, and distributed through their umbrella group, the United Jewish Communities.
The UJC and UJA-Federation of New York made it clear, on their Web sites and in press materials, that they were allocating the funds to Jews, Israeli Arabs and Druze who suffered from Hezbollah rocket attacks on Israel, primarily in the north. The charities noted that when bombs were falling in the north it would have been against Jewish values and teachings to discriminate among those in need, rescuing Jews and leaving Israeli Arabs and Druze to suffer.
What’s more, Druze serve in the Israeli army, and they and Israeli Arabs are citizens of the Jewish state, which according to its Declaration of Independence is committed to treating its non-Jewish minority with full rights.
The thrust of last week’s Jewish Week article was that some leaders of pro-Israel groups, primarily on the right, criticized UJC for providing funds for Israeli Arabs, suggesting that they are “a fifth column” who sympathize with Israel’s enemies, in the words of one such leader. These critics asserted that the emergency campaign was providing one-third of its funds to Israeli Arabs.
Howard Rieger, the president and CEO of UJC, has responded that “in fact, nearly 3 percent of all Israel Emergency Campaign funds raised were used to evacuate Israeli Arabs and Druze children from the north, at the same time that we were evacuating Jewish youngsters from that region.”
But the allocations are, and should be, based on need, not percentages. And it would be wise for us to not get caught up in the numbers game and focus instead on the underlying tensions and how best to deal with them.
The fact that Israeli Arabs, who represent about 20 percent of the population of the Jewish state, now prefer to call themselves Palestinians underscores that many of them have become more radicalized over the last six years of intifada and other violence. They claim to be treated as second-class citizens in Israel, not achieving the economic or educational standards of the Jews around them and the statistics support their claims.
But despite their bitterness toward the government and sympathy for the Palestinian cause, the great majority of Israeli Arabs are loyal citizens. And when polled, they say they would prefer to live in Israel rather than a Palestinian state, recognizing the democratic freedoms they enjoy.
Still, the Israeli Arab population represents one of Israel’s greatest challenges. Three years ago the Orr Commission, formed after several Israeli Arab protestors at a demonstration were killed by police, found that the government has been “primarily neglectful and discriminatory” in its handling of the Arab sector, and “did not take enough action to allocate state resources in an equal manner.” But little has been done to implement the commission’s recommendations.
Some on the far right in Israel, like the politician Avigdor Lieberman, advocate the transfer of large Israeli Arab towns on the West Bank in exchange for Jewish settlements. But mainstream politicians and American Jewish organizations insist that the best way to deal with the problem is to improve the lot of Israeli Arabs. So far, though, there has been more talk than action on that front.
Unless and until creative approaches are put in practice on a wide scale, such as affirmative action programs to assure better educational opportunities, jobs and living conditions for Israeli Arabs, the resentment among that population is sure to boil over to the detriment of all.
The Israel Emergency Campaign is correct, morally and practically, in including non-Jewish citizens among its recipients as part of the goal of helping Israeli society overall. But one segment of that society that gets the short end of the stick is the thousands of Gush Katif residents who were evacuated 14 months ago. There was no emergency campaign for them and many still have not received compensation from the government for their homes and livelihoods that were uprooted. One can understand their frustration as they watch Israelis in the north receiving aid while they continue to wait.
The evacuees do not begrudge their fellow Israelis’ compensation. They only ask “what about us?” UJC officials explain that the current emergency campaign was created to respond to the war this summer and its funds are designated exclusively for that purpose.
One UJC executive added that he sympathized with the former Gush Katif residents, but noted that a UJC proposal for funding for them at the time of the evacuation raised only $1 million in response.
UJC and its federations struggle to remain non-political in a highly charged political community and for every potential donor upset at a non-Jewish Israeli being helped there is another who would prefer not to see his funds go to a non-Zionist haredi in Bnei Brak.
The strength of a centralized charity like the federation is that while individuals may quibble with particular allocations, there is confidence in the collective wisdom of the community. So together we continue to strive to be “a light unto the nations,” starting with ourselves.
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