April 11, 2007
By Shmuel Rosner
This isn't the first time the question of American Jews giving money to the Arab sector has been raised. During the Second Lebanon War, they did just that, and some on the Jewish right weren't happy.
WASHINGTON - Larry Garber does not try to conceal his hesitancy. It would have been more comfortable for me, he says, without "this matter." But life does not bring only easy decisions all the time. You need to explain to donors, lead discussions and listen to complaints.
Garber is the executive director of the American branch of the New Israel Fund (NIF), and "the matter" is the contributions the fund allocates to Arab-Israeli organizations. Thirty percent of the money the NIF distributes is channeled to activities aimed at promoting the Arabs of Israel, to raise them to an equal status. This is a central part of the important objective of "a Jewish and democratic state." This is also a significant matter for the American Jewish community, which is a minority itself.
The Jewish donors to the NIF also thought so, but recently some cracks have been revealed in their enthusiasm. "The Future Vision of the Palestinian Arabs in Israel" document, which demands a right of veto over national decisions and cultural autonomy, aroused second thoughts. Several weeks ago, Garber and his colleagues sat in the Washington office for a long, penetrating conversation with Shawki Khatib, the chairman of the Higher Arab Monitoring Committee and one of the key figures behind the document. He did not apologize or squirm, just explained.
The fund made two decisions: One - not to cut off support. Two - a process will be initiated to clarify the objectives of support for Arab Israeli organizations. Two weeks ago, in Atlanta, Garber met with several of the people who will finance this process.
This is not the first time the question of contributions by American Jews to the Arab sector has been raised for discussion. During the war in Lebanon, the Jewish federations raised hundreds of millions of dollars to help the residents of the bombarded North. They assisted Jews and Arabs, and some of the organizations of the Jewish right in America did not like this decision.
No, the critics said, they do not think the Arabs in the North should be abandoned. The government of Israel should certainly care for them. But, they explained, it is not our job. U.S. Jews contribute money to Israel to help Jews. "We contributed money to Jews in Russia, but not to all the Russians," noted one of them several months ago. "And we donate to care for the Jews of Ethiopia, but not for all Ethiopians. For those seeking to support general noble causes, there are plenty of ways for them to do this."
The federations and the Jewish Agency passionately defended their decision. They had a relatively easy case: evacuation and assistance for citizens attacked during a time of war. Nonetheless, it was possible to detect an apologetic tone in the arguments they mobilized. There are Arabs who serve in the Israel Defense Forces, noted John Ruskay, CEO of the UJA-Federation of New York. And Howard Rieger, the president of the United Jewish Communities, clarified that this only entailed 3 percent of the money.
And in any case, this all happened before the autonomy manifest struck the leaders of organized American Jewry like a guided missile. The NIF gives a lot of money to organizations like Adalah, which played a central role in the provocative document, and this fact compelled Garber to engage in verbal acrobatics. They played a role, he says, but this is not the main issue for which they exist. If they become an organization whose principal objective is to implement the manifest, the NIF will have to reconsider.
One of the NIF's contributors who was considering how to respond called Haaretz to voice his complaint. "There is a big question here," he said. "We support a democratic and Jewish Israel, and it is clear that equality for Arabs is a worthy goal. My problem is that the manifest suddenly created a conflict. If the assistance to Arab organizations that promote democracy means the erosion of the Jewish interest, perhaps other ways should be explored."
A month later, after reconsidering this, the donor calmed down a bit. This is what happened to most donors like him. Cutting off support, he said, would only exacerbate the situation and deepen the divide. And he, like Garber, and like the federation officials who met in Atlanta on the same issue, did not reach the conclusion that it was necessary to make a dramatic change of course. After all, the crisis had ostensibly passed. But some of them quietly acknowledged that this was only a time-out. The next document, when it inevitably comes, will again raise to the surface the question of Jewish money and the Arab citizen.