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Israel by Israelis, Part II: My Fellow Arab Citizens

Israel Reform Jews—some born in Israel, some via aliyah—share stories about their struggles to coexist in peace with Arab neighbors in a volatile land.

What kind of interactions or relationships do you have with Arab citizens of Israel?

Rich Kirschen (director of the Anita Saltz International Education Center, part of the World Union for Progressive Judaism in Jerusalem): With some notable exceptions, I interact mainly with Palestinians who work as manual laborers in Jerusalem. Our exchanges have always been friendly and positive—except for the Friday morning I stopped in my office at Beit Shmuel, the World Union for Progressive Judaism headquarters, while I was wearing my Israeli soldier uniform (I was on army reserve duty at the time). I ran into some Arab employees, and suddenly the lines were drawn very clearly.

The conflict shadows every interaction between Jew and Arab—even if unspoken—like an unwanted guest always at the table.

Hannah Yakin (author and member of Har-El Congregation, Jerusalem): For years I’ve been active in the first of four Hand-in-Hand bilingual, government-run schools. A Jewish and a Muslim headmaster operate as a team. All children have two classroom teachers, a Jew and a Muslim: one teaches geography, mathematics, etc. in Hebrew and the other in Arabic. Both demonstrate by their personal example that Jews and Arabs can respect one another.

My granddaughter Ayala, who attended the school from kindergarten through fifth grade, was eight years old when she burst into my kitchen and declared: “Grandmother, you don’t have to worry anymore! In a few years there will be peace in the Middle East.”

Surprised, I asked how this was going to happen. She answered, “When I grow up I’ll have myself elected prime minister of Israel. At the same time, Rasha will have herself elected prime minister of the Palestinians, and since Rasha and I are best friends, we’ll never ever allow our peoples to kill each other.”

Another story: Before the separation wall was built, Palestinians from the territories used to come to Jerusalem and sell their wares in the market near my house. A Palestinian woman once asked me, half in Hebrew and half in Arabic, if she could keep her bundles of vine leaves in our courtyard, so that she could come and fetch a new batch each time she had sold the previous one. “I have no permission to sell in the market,” she explained. “If I have much, the inspectors take away much. If I have little, they take away little.”

Figuring she was doing what was necessary to feed her children, I agreed.

As the weeks went by, the vendor made a habit of coming and going as if she owned our yard. She brought along several other women whom she introduced as her sisters. All these women freely used our refrigerator and our toilets. Recognizing that they probably lived as far away as Hebron and had left their homes in the small hours of the night, I could hardly refuse them these services. Soon our yard looked like the market annex.

Not one of our neighbors complained to my face, but behind my back they called me an Arab lover.

Truth is, I don’t hate Arabs, at least not because they are Arabs. Neither do I love them for that reason.

In any case, I fiercely disliked my squatters. Had they been Jews, I would have called the police. Strangely, because they were Arabs, I found it utterly impossible to throw them out.

Nancy Reich (a founder of Kibbutz Yahel and secretary of its regional agricultural research and development facility): Unfortunately, living in the remote southern Arava desert, I’ve not had the opportunity to cultivate any meaningful relationships with Arab citizens.

Miri Gold (rabbi of Kehilat Birkat Shalom at Kibbutz Gezer; board member of Rabbis for Human Rights): Living 10 minutes from the “mixed city” of Ramle, which is roughly 25% Arab, I’ve had many interactions with Arab citizens, particularly with Samir Dabit, a Christian-Arab whose roots in the region go back 800 years. We met him almost 30 years ago in Samir’s Restaurant, which serves fabulous hummus. We now see each other weekly, go on yearly vacations together, and my husband David has traveled with Samir to visit relatives and friends in the U.S., Europe, and Jordan.

For 16 years, our two families have also thrown a yearly hafla (party), where as many as 500 family members and friends—Jews and Arabs—eat, drink, dance, and have fun. One year the party happened at the same time as the deadly terrorist attack on the Dolphinarium discotheque in Tel Aviv. A few young Arabs who’d left our hafla to party in Tel Aviv came back to tell us the news. We turned on the TV and realized that we were all equally vulnerable, angry, and sad. Had we been at the club, all of us could have been the victims. There was no distinction between Jewish and Arab lives.

Michael Marmur (rabbi and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion vice president for Academic Affairs): My wife is very involved in Jewish-Arab dialogue, and I have participated in a number of interreligious encounters.

Sadly, there is little day-to-day social contact. I sense the conflict has given rise to a psychological wall higher than any physical wall. Some of the problem has to do with communication. It is one of my great regrets that I never learned Arabic. But beyond vocabulary, men and women on both sides of the divide often lack the will and the hope necessary to reach out.

I’d like to be able to give you heartwarming examples of how this divide is getting smaller. Some progressives on both sides do send their kids to camps and schools where they can encounter the “other”—but for most of us, this encounter is sporadic and fraught with tension. Some Israelis give way to despair, arguing that the dialogues are too little and too late. But despair is a luxury we cannot afford.

Edgar Nof (rabbi of Congregation Or Hadash in Haifa; former director of HUC-JIR’s rabbinic program in Jerusalem): I have been working hard to improve the relationships among religious groups in Haifa. During the January 2009 war in Gaza, for example, I organized a prayer for peace with Arab-Christians and Muslims attended by 120 people which included praying; reciting peaceful verses from the Tanach, New Testament, and Koran; and singing in English, Hebrew, and Arabic. Many members of my synagogue told me how moved they were to hear, for the first time, peace songs sung in Arabic (translated into English and Hebrew and projected with subtitles on a screen). And at the end, many of the participants and leaders shook hands and hugged. It is not every day that Christians, Muslims, and Jews in Israel express such sincere affection for one another.

Unfortunately, the Israeli media usually focuses on politics and security, ignoring the good efforts of everyday people toward peaceful coexistence. This reality must be recognized as well.

Hanan Cidor (Jewish Agency for Israel shaliach /emissary to the URJ and NFTY): It is very sad and maybe even shameful for me to admit that although there are about a million Arab citizens in Israel, I don’t know a single one of them personally. Sadly, in this respect I’m not much different from the majority of Jewish Israelis. Arabs and Jews generally live apart in different cities and villages, and even those who do reside in the same city, such as Haifa, don’t often interact with one another—a reality which contributes to the alienation and animosity between the two sides.

Ironically, I spent more time interacting with Israeli Arabs as a staffer on a Birthright Israel trip sponsored by KESHER (the Union’s college campus programs) than I had in all my years growing up in Israel.

Given the large Israeli-Arab minority, do you see any contradiction between Israel’s being a “Jewish state” and a democracy?

David Forman, z'l* (rabbi; founding chair of Rabbis for Human Rights; Jerusalem Post columnist; member of Congregation Kol HaNeshema, Jerusalem): To know how Israel can be both a democratic and Jewish state, one only needs to look at the country’s Declaration of Independence: “The State of Israel will be open to the immigration of Jews from all countries of their dispersion; will promote the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; will be based on the precepts of liberty, justice, and peace taught by the Hebrew prophets; will uphold the full social and political equality of all its citizens, without distinction of race, creed, or sex; will guarantee full freedom of conscience, worship, education, and culture; will safeguard the sanctity and inviolability of the shrines and Holy Places of all religions; and will dedicate itself to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.” If these principles were applied, Israel would be a model of the democratic and Jewish values of inclusiveness, humanism, and universalism.

Hannah Yakin: To maintain the state’s Jewish and democratic identity, we will need to give up the occupied territories. Were we to keep them and grant its inhabitants the right to vote for the Knesset, then our daughters and granddaughters would soon be wearing the veil.

Stacey Blank (rabbi of Congregation Darchei Noam in Ramat HaSharon): Israel continues to struggle with being both Jewish and democratic. As equal citizens of Israel, Arabs should receive the same treatment as Israelis, but this is not the case. Recently, my husband, an attorney, represented an Arab from East Jerusalem participating in the welfare-to-work program: He was receiving 80 shekels a month for transportation while a Jew in West Jerusalem got 160. In the end, the man was compensated, but my husband is now appealing the ruling to ensure that every East Jerusalem citizen receives equal treatment. The larger case is still pending.

Michael Livni (author of books on Reform Zionism; chairperson of Kibbutz Lotan’s ecological society): There is no contradiction in a democracy that permits cultural autonomy. Israeli Arabs have cultural autonomy; however, they need to understand that, culturally, Israel is the national home of the Jewish people. This is not an unusual situation. A Hungarian minority exists in Romania, for example, and Russian minorities in the Baltic countries. While cultural autonomy may not be ideal for a minority culture, it’s preferable to authoritarian nationalist regimes such as China, which does not recognize the Tibetans’ cultural autonomy, and the Arab states, which are Judenrein (practically no Jews remaining).

Miri Gold: Israel can be Jewish only if it is a democracy. It disturbs me deeply that our government discriminates against Arab communities, too often denying them proper schools, roads, utilities, and other services. When the village of Joarish did not have garbage dumpsters, our doctor friend Muhammed sent many letters to the mayor of Ramle, but got no response. After many months we succeeded in inviting both the mayor and the doctor to our sukkah so that Muhammed could talk to him face to face. To his credit, the mayor, put on the spot, made some phone calls, and eventually the dumpsters were provided, but it shouldn’t have taken so long.

Hanan Cidor: Israel can be both Jewish and democratic, yet still be a very problematic place for Arabs to live in. While I personally see no contradiction between the Law of Return and democracy, or between our national Jewish symbols and equal rights, I can easily imagine how an Arab citizen of Israel would be troubled by Jewish aspects of Israel—including the name of the country.

Once we achieve the much-needed peaceful solution with the Palestinians, Israel’s Arab citizens—most of whom consider themselves to be Palestinians living in Israel—will face a choice of either accepting the reality of living in a democratic but Jewish state that has a predominately public Jewish narrative or living in a hopefully democratic Palestinian state that has a predominately public Palestinian-Arab narrative.

How do you feel about the Israeli government’s responses to issues concerning her Arab citizens?

Michael Livni: A major historic error of Israeli strategy has been the failure of all successive governments to provide the Arab sector with the equivalent infrastructure—roads, schools, electricity, building permits, water—provided to the Jewish sector. This policy is shortsighted and morally wrong.

Having said that, the Arab minority in Israel has more democratic rights than the citizens of any Arab country. This is by default, because there are no democratic Arab countries. Nevertheless, Israeli Arabs are well aware of all their relative advantages in Israel. Witness the storm raised a number of years ago when Avigdor Liberman (now our controversial foreign minister) proposed transferring a piece of Israeli territory densely inhabited by Arabs, contiguous to the West Bank, to the Palestinian-state-to-be. In return, the Palestinians would agree to transfer territory inhabited by Jewish settlers in the West Bank to Israel. The Israeli Arabs would have none of it.

Paula Edelstein (chairperson of the Israel Religious Action Committee’s Steering Committee; member of Har El Congregation, Jerusalem): Arab citizens have benefited from Israel’s economic growth over the last 60 years, but they still suffer discrimination in almost all areas of public life, with the exception of the Knesset, to which they elect their own representatives. There is no excuse for the crowded, insufficient classrooms and poor sanitary conditions of Arab schools.

Hanan Cidor: We’ve made substantial progress in the way we treat our Arab citizens, especially when considering that from 1949 to 1966 the Arab population in Israel lived under martial law. That said, I’m saddened to admit that in the last few years we have moved backwards, as exemplified by the shameful bill the Knesset election committee passed about a year ago (which, thank God, was later struck down by the Supreme Court) that essentially sought to ban all Arab parties from running in the national election on the grounds that their platforms are illegal because they deny Israel’s identity as a Jewish state. Nothing symbolizes discrimination in a democracy more than preventing the right of equal representation. The fact that many Jewish Israelis, I among them, disagree with the ideologies of most Arab parties should not exclude them from participating in the democratic process.

Similarly, a few government officials have sought to deem illegal Israeli Arabs’ annual demonstrations marking Israel’s Independence Day as al-nakba, the day of disaster. Though I personally find such demonstrations shameful and provocative, citizens in a democratic country should have the right of free speech.

That said, I can see why a growing number of Jewish Israelis are suspicious of Israeli Arabs. Many Arabs have openly supported the Palestinian campaign against Israel and some have helped to carry out terrorist actions.

Michael Marmur: As Amos Oz has argued, much of Israel’s conduct is dictated by fear and uncertainty. But we need to overcome these understandable feelings and strive for real engagement with Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line. The current dynamic of economic domination and social separation is bad for everyone.

What are the most pressing issues concerning Israel’s Arab citizens?

Rich Kirschen: Identity! Israel’s Arab citizens need to decide whether they are Israeli or Palestinian. Truth is, they have the most confusing identity in the Mideast. As the Israeli writer Sayid Kashua asks: How can Israeli Arabs sing Hatikvah (Israel’s national anthem) when it talks about the “Jewish soul”?

David Forman: Last year, haredim (ultra-Orthodox Jews) in Jerusalem staged riots protesting the opening of a private parking lot on Shabbat that were far more violent than the Israeli Arab demonstrations of 2000 protesting former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount. In 2000, 13 Israeli Arab protesters were killed and untold numbers arrested and jailed. Yet last year, not a single haredi demonstrator was killed, and those arrested were promptly released. Without equal application of the law, it would appear that we deem Jewish blood of greater worth. If we do not address such discriminatory policies, we could very well witness a third Intifada—this one an internal revolution.

Dalya Levy (executive director of ARZENU, the umbrella organization for Reform and Progressive Zionists): No minority can be expected to be loyal to its country when its people are treated as second-class citizens. I find it remarkable that so many Israeli Arabs put up with the status quo. My fear is that their patience will run out; my hope is that we will recognize what great citizens they are and give them more opportunities to be and feel equal.

What are the biggest impediments to peace in the Middle East?

Rich Kirschen: Large groups of influential people on both sides are not at all interested in peace. The Jewish settler movement is more intent on acquiring land than pursuing shalom. And many Palestinians hold the view that it is just a matter of time until the Arabs vanquish the Israelis, just as they did the Crusaders.

David Forman: The major impediment to peace is Palestinian rejection of the existence of Israel as a state. While moderate Palestinians seem to be willing to negotiate two states for two peoples, some of their demands are non-starters, such as Israel returning to the armistice lines of 1949 or absorbing 1.5 million Palestinian refugees. Compli­cating the situation is the division within the Palestinian people, with Hamas ruling Gaza and Fatah running the West Bank. Until there is reconciliation among the Palestinians, there will be no progress toward a peace accord with Israel.

At the same time, Israel must do more to demonstrate its willingness to make necessary concessions for peace—first, by freezing settlement building. The settlement enterprise is so extensive and widespread, if not halted immediately, all hopes for a viable, contiguous Palestinian state will be lost.

Levi Weiman-Kelman (rabbi of Kehillat Kol HaNeshama in Jerusalem; a founder of Rabbis for Human Rights): Both Israelis and Palestinians are unable to stop thinking of themselves as victims. This creates a lack of mutual empathy and the inability to recognize the humanity of the other side.

Hannah Yakin: Hatred of the other is cultivated on both sides. In Israel, at least, hatred of Palestinians is not taught in schools, although it is often expressed in homes. In contrast, the official Palestinian media is full of anti-Jewish, anti-Israeli propaganda, and the textbooks replete with slander and lies.

Matthew Sperber (founding member of Kibbutz Yahel; chair of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism’s National Board): The first impediment is the large number of Palestinians who want Israel destroyed. Palestinian television broadcast a sermon by Ibrahim Madi, imam of a Gaza mosque, who stated: “God willing, this unjust state Israel will be erased.” The second is our government’s inability to believe that the Palestinian leadership is capable of concluding and upholding a peace agreement in the name of the Palestinian nation. Both impediments are surmountable, but I doubt peace will come in my lifetime.

Michael Livni: The biggest obstacle is the refusal of the Arab leadership—not only politicians but the theological and intellectual-cultural elites—to accept a Jewish state as part of the Middle East. For example, although there is official “peace” between Israel and Egypt as well as between Israel and Jordan, any Jordanian or Egyptian scientist, artist, journalist, or academic suspected of maintaining professional ties with Israeli colleagues is expelled from his/her national professional organization.

Evan Cohen (cantor and director of overseas relations and fundraising for Kehilat Har-El; instructor for HUC-JIR’s Israeli rabbinic program): The biggest impediment is each side’s refusal to recognize the narrative of the other. The Palestinians refuse to acknowledge the Jewish people’s ancient historical, religious, and emotional connection to the land—such as to the West Bank city of Hebron, where, according to Genesis (23), Abraham purchases property for Sarah’s burial. And many Jewish Israelis refuse to accept that the Palestinians belong to an indigenous people whose roots in the land date back centuries, if not longer—and that they, too, have equal right to self-determination.

Hanan Cidor: For Israelis the biggest impediment is apathy. The majority of Israelis who would give up land for peace have become defeatist because every previous peace effort resulted in disappointment and frustration. Sadly, that leaves us in the hands of a highly organized and increasingly influential minority—extremists who will never agree to give up the West Bank.

For Palestinians, the biggest impediment is defining their national identity in terms of opposition to Israel as a Jewish state. It is very hard to make peace with people who call you “Satan,” refuse to acknowledge your country’s right to exist, and blame you for everything bad that has ever happened to them. Only when Palestinian identity turns toward building up their own society and nation will they recognize that compromise is in their best interest.

Miri Gold: Deep down, neither side really wants peace. Of course, everyone will say, “I want peace,” just like everyone wants to be thin and in good shape, but that doesn’t mean that people will take the positive steps to achieve their goals. Both sides know that a compromise must be reached, but any such deal would unleash a revolt by fundamentalists and radicals on both sides. Both Israelis and Palestinians would rather keep the conflict going than risk a bloody civil war.

What are the best hopes for peace? Is outside intervention needed?

Levi Weiman-Kelman: I cannot believe that God brought the Jewish people back to the land of Israel after 2,000 years of exile so that we would live in a state of perpetual warfare with our neighbors. I believe God has called on the Jewish and Palestinian peoples to model how to overcome strife and somehow share a common homeland.

Miri Gold: While the politicians seem uninterested, some Israeli grassroots organizations such as Rabbis for Human Rights are working to change attitudes, for example, by organizing groups of Israeli Jews to help Palestinians harvest their olives. While picking olives in a West Bank village, I’ve witnessed the amazement of Arab families when they see Jews volunteering to help them with no expectation of payment. Encountering “the other” without fear brings us closer to peace.

Michael Marmur: I am too discouraged to have a particular peace recipe in mind. But for starters: 1) Jewish and Arab kids need to encounter each other in high school through twinning programs rather than out-and-out integration; 2) We must refuse to give in to the settler movement’s messianic lunacy; and 3) We need to work on local models of economic cooperation which make coexistence a win-win for all.

Having said all that, I believe that our best hope is Barack Obama, because a mixture of pressure and support may help unlock the energies necessary to do the hard work of peacemaking.

Nancy Reich: We need continuous, step-by-step negotiations backed by moderate Arab rulers willing to take the heat from the rest of the Arab world for negotiating with Israel.

Evan Cohen: The key to peace is through encounters with the “other,” when we can see the image of God in each other. My congregation, Kehilat Har-El, participates in a joint folklore program for the Nisue (Jewish) and the Ein Rafa-Nequba (Arab) elementary schools in which the children learn about their home cultures in separate classes and also experience joint activities, such as engaging with parents and grandparents who come to class as folk artists/tradition bearers and visiting a local mosque and synagogue. At the mosque, an imam teaches the Jewish children about Islam and the Muslim children present their family heirlooms. At our synagogue, Rabbi Ada Zavidov teaches the Arab children about Judaism, the Jewish children present their family ritual heirlooms, and all of the children go up to the bimah to see the section in the Torah scroll where Isaac and Ishmael meet to bury their father and make peace. During their last visit to Har-El, it turned out this was the weekly Torah portion, so perhaps someone was smiling from above!

Tamara Schagas (a first-year student at HUC-JIR’s Israeli rabbinical program; national coordinator of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism’s Young Adult Forum): Israel and the Palestinians will make peace only when both sides decide that the time for war has passed and they are ready to compromise.

Paula Edelstein: A peace settlement requires U.S. pressure handled with patience, wisdom, and understanding. If pressure is applied without regard for the Middle East mentality, which looks upon concessions as signs of weakness, it could cause a right-wing backlash in Israel that would stop the government from taking the necessary steps toward peace.

Hanan Cidor: The only outside mediator Israelis would trust not to threaten their security is the U.S., which is also the nation with enough leverage to “push” Israel to make the concessions the deal would require. As the Palestinians have to be convinced that America is acting as an honest broker, I agree with President Obama’s attempts to reach out to the Palestinians and the Arab world.

Michael Marmur: Some Israeli Jews dream of a Middle East in which the Crescent is dwarfed by the Star of David, and some Palestinians dream of the Jews going back to wherever they came from. Both are illusions. Only with consistent pressure from the U.S. and other powers will we be able to get on with the complicated, painful, and real business of building a better future.


Israel Religious Action Center: Defender of Freedoms

The Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), the Reform Movement’s public and legal advocacy arm in Israel, uses litigation, legislation, public policy, and advocacy to advance pluralism in Israeli society and defend the freedoms of conscience, faith, and religion. Here are some examples in the arena of Israeli-Arab relations:

  • Following a March 2008 terrorist attack at Merkaz HaRav Yeshiva in Jerusalem, many prominent, state-funded rabbis issued public statements and distributed written material calling on the Israeli public not to employ, rent property to, or otherwise serve Israeli-Arabs, whom they deemed “enemies of the Jewish people”; they also urged  Jews to fight Israeli-Arabs “at all costs.” In early 2009, IRAC filed three petitions to open criminal investigations of these rabbis and to determine the source of racist posters and pamphlets distributed around Jerusalem. As a result, the Attorney General indicted twenty-nine rabbis in official governmental posts who encouraged racist incitement against the Israeli-Arab community.
  • In January 2009 IRAC filed a petition requesting the paving of roads leading from main highways to schools in Bedouin villages unrecognized by the Israeli government. Unsafe conditions had already resulted in the deaths of four children. That October, the state accepted responsibility for building safe roads in the area, allocating NIS 80 million for construction and creating a plan (now being implemented) to pave them.
  • In January 2008 the Israel Ministry of Agriculture proposed a grazing bill which would provide Jewish shepherds with more favored land and water use treatment than local Arab and Bedouin shepherds in Israel’s southern Negev region. In response, IRAC wrote the first-ever comprehensive report on grazing land rights in Israel and argued before the Minister’s Committee that the proposed bill, violating principles of equality, needed major modifications. The Committee agreed and has asked Israel’s Ministry of Agriculture to submit a new bill that will provide more equitable grazing land rights for the shepherds.
  • The Ministry of Agriculture also considered Bedouin shepherding “seasonal agriculture,” and therefore charged Bedouin water use at a much higher rate. IRAC filed a 2008 petition and won a precedent-setting case, securing for Bedouin shepherds lower water bills at the year-round agricultural rate.
  • In 2006 IRAC filed a petition on behalf of the Druze and Circassian communities living in Northern Israel who were receiving significantly less welfare funding than the corresponding Jewish communities. In response, the State of Israel instituted a four-year plan to narrow the gap, not only in welfare funding, but also in housing and day care support.
  • On June 12, 2007, IRAC, in partnership with Physicians for Human Rights, petitioned the Supreme Court on behalf of Israeli-Arab and Bedouin women who were denied Social Security payments for hospital maternity expenses because their husbands lacked Israeli ID cards. Unlike other citizens covered by Israel’s healthcare plan, these women—many of them poor—had to pay their hospital fees outright. On September 22, 2009, Israeli Supreme Court Judge Hanan Meltzer ruled that this Social Security practice was discriminatory and ordered the agency to submit its arguments to the Supreme Court within 90 days. The state responded by saying it found no discrimination against Bedouin and Israeli-Arab women; IRAC will return to court in June 2010 for another hearing.

To learn more about IRAC contact,

* Rabbi David Forman passed away on May 3, 2010, shortly after these interviews were completed. David was an inspiration to tens of thousands of young people who went on NFTY Israel programs. His commitment to the State of Israel knew no bounds: He pursued justice regardless of controversy, and the impact of his work will be felt for many years to come. May his memory be a blessing.


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