Israel’s population is diverse and complicated. Its Arab citizens comprise about 20% of the total population, and include Muslim, Christian, Druze and Bedouin citizens, among others. These citizens face numerous barriers to full integration and political engagement. In Arab majority towns, residents confront the presence of organized crime and lower police presence. The limited amount of public land makes infrastructure expansion difficult. In the towns themselves, there is often little economic opportunity.
When I spent time in Israel last year, I interned for the Abraham Fund Initiatives where I had the opportunity to visit the town of Kfar Qasem, about an hour outside of Tel Aviv along Israel’s border with the West Bank. While touring the town and hearing from some of its residents, I was struck by the insularity of the town. Kfar Qasem is located just two kilometers away from the neighboring Jewish town of Rosh HaAyin, yet the two populations rarely come into contact. This isolation compounds the separation and distrust.
It is easier to discriminate against a group of people who are unknown. Encounters with the “other” are crucial to creating a society that is shared and tolerant. The Abraham Fund Initiatives practice a method of “advocacy through action” to sustain these encounters and to provide needed support for Israel’s Arab population. They identify needs of the local Arab residents, create pilot programs to address them, and then present the successful pilot results to government bodies to enact official policy.
The Abraham Fund Initiatives makes an important contribution to co-existence efforts by creating combined learning opportunities for Jewish and Arab citizens from a young age. The purpose is to combat prejudices by having both Arab and Jewish role models for students and providing opportunities for the students to meet one another. The program also aims to remove the language barrier between Hebrew and Arabic speakers. They hope the government will adopt this program as a model for shared education.
The NGO is also active in other arenas. Last year, the Authority for the Economic Development for Minority Sectors at the Ministry of Social Equality was awarded a budget to implement governmental programs to reduce economic disparities between populations. The Abraham Fund Initiatives’ Safe Communities Program helps identify safety and security needs in Arab towns and help direct government funds where they are needed.
The Abraham Fund Initiatives has been successful in encouraging a commitment to diversity from universities in order to support Arab citizens who are enrolled in higher education. They conduct cultural sensitivity trainings for administration members and lead dialogue courses for students around multiculturalism. They recently published a study to analyze the impact of these programs in the hope of influencing government bodies. The study found that Arab students have a desire to integrate into their universities and see their studies as a platform to advance shared society. A majority of Arab students reported that working in joint groups with Jewish students adds to their sense of belonging on campus.
Efforts to create a shared society are needed to change societal attitudes. According to a study conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute, a majority of Arabs don’t see a contradiction between their Israeli and Palestinian identities. The study found that Israeli Jews, however, are not as open to inclusion of Arab citizens in national identity and policy making. The challenge for The Abraham Fund Initiatives and other concerned citizens is to enhance the voices of Arab citizens of Israel and involve them across Israeli society in order to make their voices heard, ultimately legitimizing and embracing their status as a valid and significant minority in Israel.