The Abraham Initiatives: Working for a Shared and Fully Equal Israel
by Amnon Be’eri-Sulitzeanu and Dr. Thabet Abu Rass
The Abraham Initiatives was founded in 1989 by Alan B. Slifka z”l and Rabbi Eugene Weiner z”l. In those early years, when all eyes were focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the ongoing First Intifada, those two visionaries understood that relations between Jews and Arabs inside Israel proper were of critical importance to the future of Israeli society.
During the Oslo period, The Abraham Initiatives (originally known as the “Abraham Fund”) filled an important gap. Much of the work being done by the various organizations in the field involved cross-border activities between Jewish Israelis and Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. That work was important, but it too often neglected an important population: Palestinian citizens of Israel, who, under this peacemaking paradigm, were oftimes considered neither full Israelis nor full Palestinians. A different approach was needed and the Abraham Initiatives filled that void.
Israel’s Declaration of Independence ensures “complete equality of social and political rights to all [the country’s] inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.” But, like many national founding documents, the declaration’s promise has not been consistently fulfilled. For the first 18-plus years of Israel’s existence, Arab citizens lived under a “military administration”. While they could vote in elections, and send members to the Knesset, their freedom of movement and speech were highly restricted. To this day, Palestinian citizens of Israel face discrimination in employment, housing, education, and the distribution of public services.
The creation of a Shared Society and coexistence has been The Abraham Initiatives’ guiding mission since it was founded – fulfilling the promise of equality between Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel. Over time, however, our organization’s strategy to bring Jews and Palestinians together evolved, as the limitations of our original dialogue-centric projects became clear: attempts to integrate Palestinian citizens into Israeli society will fail if they are not twinned with serious efforts to address systemic inequalities.
Today, our main theory of change is Advocacy Through Action. First, we advocate, both in the public media sphere and in government settings, for shared society. Employing data and expert research, our Arab-Jewish team presents a compelling case for effective state interventions. Second, we launch and operate pilot programs that are designed to eventually be adopted and scaled up by the state. We are happy to share several examples below.
Education for A Shared Society: Breaking Down Segregation and Racism
By design, Israel’s education system is de facto segregated. Separate streams exist for non-religious Jewish, religious Jewish, and Arab schools – a system that enjoys much public support. Unfortunately, this means that many Israelis do not experience meaningful encounters with “the other side” until their late teens. In the case of Jewish teens, their first direct personal exposure to Palestinians generally comes during their mandatory military service.
The Abraham Initiatives’ May Arow teaches intensive Arabic language course to Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality social workers.
In 2020, The Abraham Initiatives launched the Shared Learning project in response to mounting evidence that ultra-nationalist and racist viewpoints were common among Jewish Israeli youth, alongside a deepening sense of alienation from Israeli society on the part of Arab children and teenagers. When these sides confronted each other, interethnic violence would often ensue.
Such was the case in May 2021, when the latest war between Israel and militant groups in Gaza spilled over into the country’s so-called “mixed cities” (locales where Jews and Arabs each make up more than 10% of the population), which witnessed riots and street fighting between Palestinian and Jewish citizens of Israel. (Adding nationalist weight to the issue, most of these cities, such as Jaffa, Haifa, Lod, Ramle, and Akko, were majority-Palestinian before 1948.)
The concept of Shared Learning is simple: classrooms from Jewish and Arab schools visit each other and hold a series of classes together (usually in English, so that Jewish and Arab children start off more or less at the same level). In this environment, the students learn to cooperate with one another to achieve shared educational objectives. A 2021 report by the Henrietta Szold Institute confirmed the effectiveness of Shared Learning as both a pedagogical tool and a means to combat prejudice.
In the 2021-2022 school year, mere months after the May 2021 violence, The Abraham Initiatives brought Shared Learning to hundreds of students in the mixed city of Akko and to the Gilboa region. It was challenging to implement these programs with tensions still high, but the enthusiasm of the children served as motivation to press ahead and we were able to successfully deliver results. In early 2022, the Ministry of Education decided to adopt the program, which means that schools across the country will soon be able to access the Shared Learning model.
With Shared Learning tested, proven, and adopted, we are now focusing on expanding our anti-racism education program in high schools and mechinot (pre-army leadership academies). Here, we directly and substantively expose Jewish and Palestinian students to the complex realities of each other’s societies. The effect on a personal level can be transformative. As one student from a right-wing family in the settlements wrote to our Palestinian director of the high school initiative: “You opened my eyes to the world of an entire population that I had not seen, against which I had covered my eyes so I could ignore them and even hate them. A population that is full of people who are citizens like me, people like me, who watch the same TV series, who have feelings, opinions and a history.”
A “mechina” (pre-army leadership academy) class in which the Abraham Initiatives
introduces young Israeli Jews to Palestinian society in Israel.
Over the last decade, violent crime, particularly murders and serious assaults, have increased dramatically in Arab communities in Israel. While the causes of the violence are complex, two stand out. The first is the growth of organized crime syndicates in large Arab cities, such as Nazareth, which terrorize local businesses through the protection racket. Second, these groups are able to exploit a large portion of the nearly one-third of Arab youth who are neither employed nor in school.
Making matters worse, the Israel Police are often unwilling to take crime in Arab communities seriously. Since October 2000, when police shot and killed 13 Palestinian citizens of Israel during protests, there has been a noticeable withdrawal of the police from Arab-majority locales. While this may have reduced political tensions temporarily, it allowed violence to spread wildly and left Palestinian citizens abandoned.
In the halls of national government, The Abraham Initiatives has successfully driven this issue to the top of the agenda. In 2019, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu established an inter-ministerial taskforce to study the problem and formulate policy solutions. This resulted in the passage of Government Resolution 549, which committed the Israeli government to spending billions of shekels to boost safety in Arab cities and villages, and to improving relations between the community and the police.
Abraham Initiatives course in Ramla and Lod to train Jewish and Palestinian women how to run municipal elections campaigns.
The Bennett-Lapid “government of change” established in June 2021, which for the first time in Israel’s history included an independent party representing Palestinian citizens of Israel, was especially eager to work on this issue. A deputy minister was appointed in the Ministry of Internal Security specifically to work with and in Arab communities. Although the government was in office for only a little over a year, it managed to effect the first decline in murders in the Arab community since 2015.
Unfortunately, 2023 is shaping up to be the bloodiest year in Arab society in several years, with the murder rate already more than double that of 2022. The current minister in charge of the reconfigured and renamed Ministry of National Security, Itamar Ben-Gvir, has made his political career demonizing Palestinians. Much of the cooperation that took place between the ministry and Arab municipalities has now stalled. And while it is impossible to cite one single cause for this year’s extreme uptick in murders, it is clear that it will not slow down so long as the government fails to take the concerns of residents seriously. In response, The Abraham Initiatives has vigorously campaigned in public and in the media to draw attention to this issue. We will not let up until a substantive plan of action – and a minister with the credibility and experience to implement it – materializes.
From “Mixed Cities” to Shared Cities
The devastating May 2021 violence strengthened the perception through much of Jewish society in Israel that mixed cities are powder kegs due to their demographics – the implication being that homogeneous communities are safer and therefore preferable.
The Abraham Initiatives seeks to upend the discourse in which mixed cities are considered a problem. We believe these cities are microcosms of the country, and where shared living is not only possible but is already happening in many respects. So we launched the Shared Cities Initiative to create more opportunities for cooperation between Jewish and Arab citizens and transform these cities into positive examples for the country.
A panel about women in politics in mixed cities organized by Abraham Initiatives staff member, Nouha Abu Shehadeh-Eljamal.
Our efforts in these cities include working with the municipal governments and relevant national ministries to ensure that all residents are treated fairly and have equal access to public services. In this context, we advocate on behalf of mixed cities and their residents in the Knesset, which ultimately sets funding levels in the national budget. We also established the Shared Cities Leadership Forum, which brings together Jewish and Arab elected officials in the mixed cities to work together, share best practices, and respond collectively to crises.
The challenge is immense, but we have started to see results. Members of the Leadership Forum have effectively defused tensions, including during the events of May 2021. Issues of concern to mixed cities are regularly being discussed in the media and in the Knesset, with The Abraham Initiatives serving as a repository of expertise with deep connections to the affected communities.
Ultimately, the people of the mixed cities will need to find a way to coexist, and we are committed to cultivating and bringing together leaders dedicated to doing exactly that.
Shared Society Work Under the Current Government
At present, all our work is being done in exceptionally difficult political circumstances. Key ministers in the current government and prominent coalition MKs are deeply hostile to the vision of shared society. There is no simple way to overcome this challenge. Our work is a constantly shifting balance between public advocacy and direct interaction with the government on areas where cooperation remains possible. So while we speak out against the racism, division, and creeping authoritarianism emanating from the government, we continue to lobby within those ministries where we believe shared society can be advanced. Despite the political environment, we still manage to work effectively there, mainly with the echelon of career civil servants.
Meanwhile, the funding promises made to Arab communities by the Bennett-Lapid government remain binding on the current one. The Abraham Initiatives is dedicated to holding the government accountable for keeping these commitments.
We hope the efficacy of our work continues, but we remain cognizant of the capricious nature of a government such as this one – and we are ready and prepared for all eventualities in defending the principle of shared society.
Amnon Be’eri-Sulitzeanu and Dr. Thabet Abu Rass are
the Co-Executive Directors of The Abraham Initiatives.