Can Israeli civil society heal the Arab-Jewish rift?
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'The crisis has reached a boiling point'

Can Israeli civil society heal the Arab-Jewish rift?

In a country of widening divides and inflammatory government moves, coexistence initiatives are gaining traction, NGO directors say

Elhanan Miller is the former Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

Illustrative: Young leaders attend the graduation ceremony of a training program conducted by the Abraham Fund Initiatives (photo credit: courtesy/Abraham Fund Initiatives)
Illustrative: Young leaders attend the graduation ceremony of a training program conducted by the Abraham Fund Initiatives (photo credit: courtesy/Abraham Fund Initiatives)

Of all the fault lines within Israeli society, the Arab-Jewish divide seems to be the most worrisome these days, and most acute.

“Israeli society is sick,” President Reuven Rivlin told attendees at a conference titled “From hating the stranger to accepting the other,” organized by the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities in October. His comments evoked the wrath of pundits on the right, but since Rivlin delivered his speech hardly a day goes by without new examples of the national malady to which the president was referring.

On Saturday night, arsonists set textbooks ablaze in the first grade classroom of the Hand in Hand bilingual school in Jerusalem, spraying racist graffiti on the building walls. Following the terror attack in the Har Nof neighborhood of Jerusalem on November 18, Ashkelon Mayor Itamar Shimoni ordered Arab workers constructing bomb shelters in the city’s kindergartens out of the sites (eventually backtracking amid an outcry). A tense soccer match between Beitar Jerusalem and Arab team Bnei Sakhnin — reluctantly permitted by police to go forward last week with 700 police officers and 250 security guards in attendance — ended with the arrests of four of Beitar’s often notoriously nationalistic fans and the vandalization of Doha Stadium’s bathrooms. A new song about an archetypal  “Ahmad,” a self-declared “ungrateful scum” who will “stab you with a sharpened ax once you turn your back,” got popular singer Amir Benayoun uninvited from a performance at Rivlin’s residence.

All this in the span of just over one week.

Israeli civil society organizations dealing with Arab-Jewish relations feel that in the absence of clear government voices fostering tolerance and coexistence, their role today is more important — albeit more difficult — than ever before.

“The crisis has reached a boiling point which never manifested itself before on the constitutional level,” said Shuli Dichter, CEO of Hand in Hand, a civil society group which operates three Arabic-Hebrew bilingual schools and two kindergartens across Israel. “The [‘Jewish state’] draft bill being advanced now is extremely dangerous. If it passes we will be living in a different era, one in which the role of civil society organizations will be different.”

Workers clean off graffiti at the Jewish-Arab bilingual school in Jerusalem stating 'death to Arabs' and 'Kahana was right,' Feb 7, 2012 (photo credit: Flash90)
Workers clean off graffiti at the Jewish-Arab bilingual school in Jerusalem stating ‘death to Arabs’ and ‘Kahana was right,’ Feb 7, 2012 (photo credit: Flash90)

The State of Israel, Dichter said, was founded on two social “tectonic plates”: a Jewish one and an Arab one. The relation between the two plates determines stability above ground. “A state concerned about its future would be mindful of these tectonic plates and foster good relations and partnership between various segments of society and in governance. The State of Israel hasn’t done this yet, which is why civil society organizations have filled the void, especially over the past 25 years.”

Israeli society is highly segregated, with some 90 percent of Arabs living in purely Arab towns and villages and just 10% in mixed cities alongside Jews. Breaking the barriers, Dichter argued, can be done in one of two ways: either by creating joint frameworks, as civil society organizations are trying to do from the bottom up, or through a bridging effort by government, top down.

Arab and Israeli children study together at the Max Rayne Hand in Hand school for bilingual education in Jerusalem, February 14, 2012 (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/Flash90)
Arab and Israeli children study together at the Max Rayne Hand in Hand school for bilingual education in Jerusalem, February 14, 2012 (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/Flash90)

“We, civil society, seek help from the world for this, even though Israel has lots of money. Israeli [government] funds aren’t being funneled toward bridging the social divide, because the fundamental values that would require that — such as the value of cultural diversity and inclusion — have yet to be effectively introduced in Israel,” Dichter said.

The large immigration waves from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia in the 1970s and 1980s prompted Israeli policymakers to try and import the notion of cultural diversity, but that was done in a “wrong and distorted way,” he said.

“It was applied to Jews only,” Dichter argued. “But the multiculti approach, by definition, cannot be limited to one nation. It transcends boundaries, which is why that attempt was deformed, and actually did more harm than good.”

‘The multiculti approach, by definition, cannot be limited to one nation. It transcends boundaries, which is why the Israeli attempt was deformed, and actually did more harm than good’

For Amnon Be’eri-Sulitzeanu, co-executive director of the Abraham Fund Initiatives, an NGO committed to fostering coexistence between Jews and Arabs in Israel through educational programs and advocacy, one important role of civil society organizations is to help the government plan and implement policy that will allow for peaceful Jewish-Arab coexistence in Israel.

“Our role is to be the compass, to show how it can be done,” he told The Times of Israel. “We come up with the mechanisms and then implement them to demonstrate their feasibility. We call this ‘advocacy through action.'”

Be’eri-Sulitzeanu cited a number of programs launched by the Abraham Fund and later taken over by government once they were proven successful. The “language as a cultural bridge” scheme introduced colloquial Arabic classes for fifth and sixth grade in 15 schools in northern Israel. The pilot, launched in 2005, has now expanded to 200 schools across the country, including all public elementary schools in Haifa and the northern district of Israel. Some 80 Arab teachers teach the language in Jewish schools, and 20% of the Jewish students also participate in cross-cultural encounter programs with their Arab counterparts.

Abraham Fund co-director Amnon Beeri-Sulitzeanu speaks to an Israeli police officer )photo credit: courtesy/Abraham Fund Initiatives)
Abraham Fund co-director Amnon Be’eri-Sulitzeanu speaks to an Israeli police officer (photo credit: courtesy/Abraham Fund Initiatives)

Another initiative, “policing in a divided society,” began 10 years ago and educates Israeli police officers on multicultural policing, fostering dialogue between the (predominantly Jewish) police force and the Arab communities in which it serves. Be’eri-Sulitzeanu said the Abraham Fund helps police transition from a mindset of “protecting society from the Arabs” to one of “protecting Arab society and serving it.”

A third program aimed to integrate the workplace. “For years, the government argued that Arab women will never join the workforce and therefore Arab society is doomed to poverty. Through a program called Partners for Life, we demonstrated that Arab women can be incorporated into the Israeli labor market. A few years after we launched, the government bought the idea and now it runs the program in many Arab regional councils. It was a great success story for us,” he said.

Dichter of Hand in Hand said he’s noticed a remarkably positive change over the past two months in the government’s willingness to tackle racism in society by supporting civil society initiatives such as his. He attributed this to a new-found awareness of the alarming levels of racism in Jewish society.

“Municipal leaders, on the highest levels, are now telling us they’re horrified by the levels of racism in their cities and are determined to decrease those levels through all possible means,” he said.

But Be’eri-Sulitzeanu said that despite the positive change in government attitudes toward coexistence programs, Israel is witnessing a “very severe deterioration” on the level of political discourse.

“We’re often shocked to see senior government ministers and members of Knesset taking action that verges on incitement against Arab citizens,” he said. “These actions are meant to intimidate Arabs, marginalize them, and make them feel as though they must always fear for their status here.

“There’s a complete contrast between two trends: a positive trend on the professional governmental level and a very negative trend on the political and declarative level.”

‘We’ve invested a lot of effort in people who will never be convinced in the need for coexistence. I think we should now preach to the choir and strengthen our own’

Riad Kabha, director of the Jewish-Arab Center for Peace at Givat Haviva, aimed at “building an inclusive, socially cohesive society in Israel by engaging divided communities in collective action,” said it was time for civil society movements in Israel to “get more political” in order to tackle the sharp deterioration in Jewish-Arab relations.

“We’ve always shied away from talking politics because we wanted to include the entire [Israeli] political spectrum,” Kabha told The Times of Israel. “But apparently the two edges of the spectrum are too far from us. We’ve invested a lot of effort in people who will never be convinced of the need for coexistence. I think we should now ‘preach to the choir’ and strengthen peace organizations such as Peace Now and Tag Meir, and then later go out and deal with the others.”

Jewish and Arab women meet for a joint cooking session organized by Givat Haviva )photo credit: courtesy/Givat Haviva)
Jewish and Arab women meet for a joint cooking session organized by Givat Haviva (photo credit: courtesy/Givat Haviva)

Givat Haviva manages “shared communities” projects, bringing together citizens of neighboring Jewish and Arab communities who share common interests or professions, as well as high school students from both national groups. The NGO also initiates “common interest” spaces that benefit Jewish and Arab towns, from industrial zones to soccer courts.

“Today, because of the damage caused by government, my friends and I need to work seven times harder to strengthen civil society,” Kabha said. “The only way to succeed is for all coexistence organizations to join forces and work together.”

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