The Long-Term Cost of Ignoring Israeli Arabs

Article excerpt

Whom do We Support when we support Israel? Who are the people behind the placards reading "We stand by Israel" posted on the walls of synagogues and community centers?

For most American Jews, the image that comes to mind when writing a check for an annual campaign, attending a rally or embarking on a mission to the Holy Land is of an Israeli Jew. It can be a sabra or a newcomer, a blond immigrant from the former Soviet Union or a dark-eyed Jew from Ethiopia. Young, old, orthodox or secular, one thing is certain--it is almost never the image of an Israeli Arab.

The 1.2 million Arab citizens of Israel, a fifth of the Jewish state's population, are a great unknown for most American Jews, who focus their interest and concern on the Jews of the Jewish state. Ignoring Israel's Arab population has been the prevailing approach for the better part of the past 60 years. Yet Arab Israelis attend Israeli universities and are cared for in Israeli hospitals. There is one Arab Cabinet minister (the first in history), and 12 Arabs currently serve in the Knesset. Some Jews have seen Arab Israelis as an enemy from within or a potential risk. But most Jews have preferred to simply ignore them.

Recent events, however, make it increasingly difficult to keep turning a blind eye to the Arabs of the Jewish state. The October 2000 riots in the Galilee made it clear that discontent is brewing within the Arab minority, fed by years of neglect by Israeli governments and a growing sensitivity to the plight of their Palestinian brothers living on the other side of the Green Line.

Last summer's war in Lebanon brought home another truth: Israeli Arabs are just as vulnerable as Israeli Jews to attacks by the country's enemies. And sometimes, as the large proportion of Arab casualties suggests, even more vulnerable than their Jewish neighbors.

The New Israel Fund, with its vast U.S. operation, was among the first to understand the need to draw American Jewish attention to the issue of Israeli Arabs and to work out ways to harness the goodwill and resources of the community to help Israel's Arab minority.

But it was the formation of the Inter-Agency Task Force on Israeli Arabs two years ago that brought some 70 mainstream Jewish organizations in the United States together to discuss how Jewish Americans can get actively involved in building bridges to Arab citizens of Israel. The task force has a small budget, less than half a million dollars a year, focusing on advocacy and raising awareness by working with groups that support civic equality and stronger Jewish-Arab relations.

The creation of the task force and the conferences it held not only brought more attention to the issue of Israeli Arabs, it also reflected the beginning of a changed perception within the Jewish community--from showing concern for the Jewish state to seeking to benefit the entire state of Israel.

The first challenge facing this new perception was fairly simple: The severe hit taken by the Arab population during the Lebanon war led the communal philanthropy system to funnel funds from its Israel Emergency Campaign to the aid of Arab towns affected by the Hezbollah attacks. …