Last week, my local synagogue in Manhattan sponsored a very meaningful program in anticipation of Yom HaAtzma’ut, Israel Independence Day (which begins this evening), entitled “Creating A Shared Society.” This is how the event was advertised by Congregation Ansche Chesed:
The rise of Israel’s new foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, raises once again the problematic status of ethnic minorities – particularly Arabs – in the Jewish state. About 1 in 5 Israelis are Arabs, nearly 1.4 million people in all. Israeli Jews – like those who voted for Lieberman, who won 15 Knesset seats on a platform widely seen as hostile to Arab citizens – tend to suspect the loyalty of the Arabs, who in turn view Jews with suspicion of racism and colonialism. The ethnic groups rarely intersect and rarely get to know each other. How will Jewish and Arab citizens learn to get along?
Join us in the week before Yom HaAtzma’ut, Israel Independence Day, to meet two activists who work to improve this situation. Farhat Agbaria, an Israeli Arab, and Shachar Yanai, an Israeli Jew, will be with us at Ansche Chesed to discuss their work with Givat Haviva, an organization seeking greater equality and understanding between the population sectors. Agbaria and Yanai direct “Face-to-Face,” a Jewish-Arab teen encounter program, winner of the 2001 UNESCO prize for Peace Education. More than 5,000 11th graders participate in Face-to-Face now, and the program hopes to reach tens of thousands more in coming years, to topple some of the barriers of prejudice and fear in Israeli society.
Mr. Yanai and Mr. Agbaria discussed in moving and respectful terms their joint efforts to bridge the national ethnic divide between Jews and Arabs in Israel. The level of separation between the two groups in most parts of Israel (but not all) is nearly total.
The starting point of the problem is, of course, that Israel is in conflict with Palestinians who are kin to Israel’s Arab population – most of whom identify themselves as Palestinian citizens of Israel. Agbaria has no problem with stating that the Jewish people deserve a country. What he wants for himself and his people is to be treated as an integral part of the same country.
As if this is not complicated enough, Mr. Agbaria observes the irony that Israeli Jews are a majority that does not behave as a majority. By this he means that the Jews continue to see themselves as a vulnerable minority. This complexity is even further exacerbated by the fact that Israel’s Arabs tend not to see themselves as a minority – because in the region as a whole, they are not. If Jews were more secure in their status as a majority, they’d be less defensive and more relaxed in how they interacted with their Arab minority.