Arab Israeli challenges
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Arab Israeli challenges

Khawla Rihani, director of Economic Empowerment for Women, makes a point as one of the featured panelists discussing the challenges of being an Arab Israeli. Also pictured are Aiman Saif (center) and Fathi Marshood. (Photo provided by the Pittsburgh Area Jewish Committee)
Khawla Rihani, director of Economic Empowerment for Women, makes a point as one of the featured panelists discussing the challenges of being an Arab Israeli. Also pictured are Aiman Saif (center) and Fathi Marshood. (Photo provided by the Pittsburgh Area Jewish Committee)

While there is no question that there remains a disparity between the status of Jewish Israelis and Arab Israelis, the government of Israel, together with the help of some North American partners, is working to level the playing field, according to a panel of speakers from Israel who were in Pittsburgh earlier this month at a roundtable discussion at the University of Pittsburgh.

Moderated by Martin Raffel, former vice president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the Nov. 2 discussion, called “Citizens of Israel, Jews and Arabs, Challenges and Opportunities,” featured several leaders from the Jewish state who spoke about the challenges facing Arab Israelis and the solutions the government is proposing.

The program, sponsored by the Pittsburgh Area Jewish Committee, Panthers for Israel, the Inter Agency Task Force and the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s Community Relations Council, featured Aiman Saif, the Arab director general of the Authority for Economic Development in the Prime Minister’s Office. Other speakers included Ron Gerlitz, co-executive director of SIKKUY, an organization of Jewish and Arab citizens that works with the government, local authorities and the public to achieve change in government policy toward Arab citizens; Fathi Marshood, director of the New Israel Fund Haifa office; and Khawla Rihani, director of Economic Empowerment for Women in Haifa.

“The purpose was to bring the issues of the problems facing the Arab minority in Israel to the general public, particularly the Jewish public,” said Barbara Burstin, a past chair of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh and an organizer of the program.

“Arabs in Israel represent a full one-fifth of the Israeli population, more than 1.5 million strong,” Burstin said in her opening remarks. “Their lives as a minority in Israel have to concern us, because our tradition has always demanded truth and righteousness.

“The Hebrew prophets in the Bible issued a clarion call to combat injustice,” she added. “And as Jews we understand all too well what it means to be victims of discrimination, intolerance and scapegoating. And beyond the immorality of bigotry and discrimination, there is the very real concern that a disaffected Arab minority can threaten the stability and security of the whole society.”

The status of Israeli Arabs is not equal to that of Israeli Jews, Burstin said, noting that they are not afforded many of the same opportunities as Jews.

“I feel it’s a moral issue when you have a minority that faces discrimination,” Burstin said. “And it’s a security issue.”

While the Federation for several years has been funding projects that seek to improve Arab-Jewish relations and to improve the lot of the Arab minority, “this is the first time this issue has been addressed in a public manner in the city,” Burstin added.

The Pittsburgh Federation has “a long-standing relationship with the Inter Agency Task Force on Arab-Israeli issues,” said Sue Linzer, senior manager of Overseas Operations at the Federation, noting that the Federation has been a member of the IATF, a coalition of North American Jewish organizations raising awareness about Arab citizens of Israel, since its founding in 2006.

Given such commitment, it was vital to invite partners to “come to Pittsburgh to tell us about the important work they’re doing to create an atmosphere of cooperation between Jews and Arabs in our partnership region of Karmiel/Misgav,” said Gregg Roman, director of the Federation’s Community Relations Council. “Because our community has been invested for decades in trying to help build a grassroots movement in Jewish and Arab civil society and socially responsible organizations, it was important to highlight the work we’ve been financing.”

The program sought to “broaden the conversation, and to educate the public about the status of Arab Israelis,” said Karen Hochberg, executive director of the PAJC, “and to highlight the work the Israeli government is doing to reduce those disparities.”

There is a broad swath of problems facing the Arab minority in Israel, Burstin explained. “And Pittsburgh really was very instrumental in providing early funding that seeks to address the disparities between the two communities.”

More than half of the population of Arab-Israelis live in poverty, and many are unemployed, said Saif. Although Arabs make up 20 percent of the population, their contribution to the GDP in Israel is only 8 percent.

“So the Israeli market is losing 30 billion shekels a year because the Israeli Arabs are not integrated into the Israeli economy,” said Saif.

The Israeli government is devoting significant funding to turn that situation around, added Burstin. “The government is devoting millions of shekels to upgrading education for Arabs, and to improve employment opportunities. … We wanted to hold this program now because we wanted to have something good to say about what the Israeli government is doing.”

About 120 people attended the event, according to Burstin, most of them from the Jewish community, although the program had also been promoted to Christian and Muslim organizations in the city.

“This was not an Israel-bashing session,” Burstin emphasized. “But it showed the need to focus on this issue.”

Toby Tabachnick can be reached at tobyt@thejewishchronicle.net.

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