January 25, 2007
By SHELDON KIRSHNER
For the first time in its history, the Jewish Agency is supporting a set of programs designed to promote Jewish-Arab coexistence in Israel.
The Jewish Agency, founded in 1923 to serve the Jewish community in pre-state Palestine, is working in league with the Abraham Fund, a non-profit organization dedicated to advancing co-operation between Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens.
Starting in February, the Jewish Agency will throw its support behind a path-breaking Abraham Fund program known as Language as a Cultural Bridge.
Originally devised to teach conversational Arabic and the values of tolerance to some 4,500 fifth and sixth grade Jewish students, the program will be expanded to accommodate a total of 8,500 students.
In addition, the Abraham Fund and the Jewish Agency are jointly developing encounter groups so that Jewish and Arab students can meet at sports and cultural events taking place at Jewish and Arab elementary schools in Israel’s mixed cities and regions.
Ami Nahshon, the New York-based president and chief executive officer of the Abraham Fund, described these collaborative efforts as “a historic new partnership.”
The Jewish Agency’s involvement represents a “sea change” in its agenda. As he put it, “It was created to build up the Jewish homeland, but a strong Israel requires investments not only in the Jewish sector, but in the Arab sector as well.”
Nahshon said its decision to expand the scope of its mandate was made during Israel’s 34-day war with Hezbollah last summer.
As Hezbollah bombarded towns and cities in the Galilee, the Jewish Agency offered emergency relief to Jewish residents affected by the fighting.
No such help was extended to Israeli Arabs, who form a majority of the population in the Galilee and generally regard themselves as second-class citizens.
“The Jewish Agency understood that it was not right to ignore the needs of those Israelis,” said Nahshon.
But as the war raged, the Jewish Agency joined forces with the Abraham Fund – which was founded in 1989 and named after the common ancestor of both Jews and Arabs – to send thousands of Jewish and Arab children to common summer camps.
Their shared experiences prompted the Jewish Agency to conclude that “there was value in bringing Arab and Jewish kids together,” said Nahshon.
As a result, the Jewish Agency asked the Abraham Fund to draw up plans for Jewish-Arab encounter groups and decided to be part of the Arabic-language program.
“I absolutely welcome the involvement of the Jewish Agency,” said Nahshon. “There is a major mindset shift underway here.”
Jewish Agency chair Ze’ev Bielski is committed to these programs, he added.
When Bielski announced the expansion of the language program, he did so in the presence of Jewish and Arab mayors, teachers and officials from the ministry of education.
In a press release, Amnon Be’eri-Sulitzeanu, executive director of the Israeli chapter of the Abraham Fund, said that Jewish Agency participation marks “a milestone in the advancement of the vision of a shared society in Israel.”
Nahshon expressed the hope that Arab-language instruction lessons will eventually be mandatory for all Jewish students in Israel, from kindergarten on to Grade 12.
“But this is a tremendous beginning,” he noted. “We believe we’re at the start of long and robust partnership with the Jewish Agency.”
Nahshon said that the United Jewish Communities – an umbrella organization representing local federations in the United States and Canada – backs the fresh initiatives, despite “a flurry of opposition from some individuals and organizations.”
He was not surprised by the dissenting views. “A big change like this naturally stimulates debate.”
Coexistence programs are direly needed in Israel, where the Arab minority constitutes about 20 per cent of the overall population, he observed.
“Israeli Arabs experience significant gaps in all dimensions of employment, education and public services. The vast majority of Israeli Arabs see themselves treated as second-class citizens, though Israeli law does not differentiate between Jews and Arabs. There has not been adequate attention paid to the needs of Israeli Arabs.”
In closing, he issued a warning.
“Societies that don’t manage majority-minority relations end up in conflict. The Israeli government must do a better job in addressing these issues. Various [Israeli] governments in the past have paid too little attention to this.”
© 2006 The Canadian Jewish News