Report Funded by U.S. Group Triggers Debate Over Arab Autonomy

By Nathan Guttman

Published February 09, 2007, issue of February 09, 2007.
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Washington - The fierce debate over a report calling for greater autonomy for Israel’s Arab population and questioning the Jewish character of the state is spilling over to the American Jewish community.

The report, titled “Future Vision,” was issued by Israel’s National Committee of the Heads of Arab Local Authorities. Funding came from the New Israel Fund, a Washington-based foundation and advocacy group that supports a slew of liberal causes and organizations in Israel relating to poverty, the environment, gender and ethnic equality, and religious pluralism. The document is being discussed by several American Jewish organizations that aid Arab causes in Israel.

Most of the report echoes the decades-long call by Israeli Arab leaders for equality in government investment in education, health and housing, and for ending the discrimination against Arabs living in Israel. But a major debate in Israel has erupted over the chapters dealing with symbols and laws that define Israel as a Jewish state.

“The State has to acknowledge that Israel is the homeland for both Palestinians and Jews,” the document declared, referring to Arab citizens of Israel. “The relation between the Palestinians and Jews in Israel should be based on attainment of equal human and citizen rights based on international conventions and the international relative treaties and declarations.”

The report suggests that Israel recognize its Arab citizens as “an indigenous national group” that would be given the chance to build its own national institutions. It also calls for a political system in which each side — the Jews and the Arabs — has the right to veto the other party’s decisions.

Jewish politicians and pundits who interpreted them as a rejection of Israel as a Jewish state condemned these suggestions, specifically the assertion that “Israel is the homeland for both Palestinians and Jews.”

Shimon Shamir, a member of the Or Commission, which investigated the Israeli Arab riots of October 2000, argued in an open letter published in a Nazareth-based Arabic newspaper that even among the strongest Jewish supporters of the Arab community, the report created feelings of fear. Ha’aretz columnist Ze’ev Schiff argued that in the report, Israeli Arabs are expressing their wish to divorce themselves from the State of Israel; the well-respected commentator warned that Arabs would lose “big time” if they continued down that path.

In an attempt to present the “Future Vision” plan to America’s Jewish community, one of the plan’s authors, Yosef Jabareen, held talks in New York and Washington last month, at the invitation of the Israel Democracy Institute.

Jabareen, who wrote the legal chapter of the document, told theForward that he stressed in his conversations in the United States that the paper is meant to create a dialogue with the Israeli Jews.

“The initial reaction of Jewish activists was a combination of concern and curiosity,” Jabareen said, “and I want to hope that following my presentation, they were less troubled by it.”

The main issue, according to Jabareen, was the need to understand the Arab paper as an attempt to strengthen Israeli democracy in a way that will benefit all parts of the Israeli society.

“I want to hope that the ongoing discussion on the ‘Future Vision’ will ultimately increase the willingness of American Jews to take on the issues of equality for Arabs in Israel, rather than deterring them,” he said.

Jabareen also said that, with funding from the New Israel Fund, he is establishing an independent center in Nazareth, the Arab Center for Law and Policy, to further address the areas of inequality outlined in the report.

Officials at the New Israel Fund say that they were surprised by the report’s findings.

“We did not assume that this would be the outcome,” said Larry Garber, the NIF’s executive director. Garber stressed that his organization’s grant-making process is guided by a commitment to Israel being a Jewish and Democratic state.

“We did not know where the conclusions [of the report] will lead to,” Garber told the Forward. “Our starting positions are different than the conclusions they arrived at.”

According to Garber, the NIF would rather have seen the report focus on daily issues that can be dealt with in a way that promotes equality than on “historical and philosophical questions.”

Despite any criticisms that it may have, the organization did not try to disassociate itself from the report.

In a lengthy discussion held during the group’s semiannual board meeting last week in Washington, NIF leaders decided to try to embrace the “Future Vision” report as an opening point for a dialogue between Jews and Arabs in Israel about the Arab minority.

While highlighting the fact that most Israeli Jews view maintaining the Jewish character of the state as essential for any discussion, the NIF is willing to accept the report as an opening position of the Arab side.

The NIF decided to wait for the other documents on the issue to be published and see if a “constructive dialogue” can emerge from this project, Garber said. “If not,” he added, “then we will step away.”

The report and the debate that it triggered come as the American Jewish community has been taking serious steps concerning Israel’s Arab population. After decades in which mainstream Jewish groups focused only on Jewish Israelis, the past year has seen a flurry of activity on issues relating to the Arab minority. An interagency task force on Israeli Arabs was formed, representing 70 Jewish groups, including the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish organizations. The task force is dedicated to educating the American Jewish public about the 20% of Israelis who are Arabs and to advancing civic equality in Israel.

A sign of the American Jewish interest in Israel’s Arab population was also seen last summer, as a portion of the funds raised by Jewish charitable federations for the Israel Emergency Campaign was directed toward Arab towns and villages hit by Hezbollah rockets during the war.

So far, members of the task force, which is committed to the idea of Israel being a Jewish and democratic state, have discussed the report but have not taken a stand on it. At least for now, they prefer to follow the debate as it unfolds in Israel rather than stake out a position on the report.

“I don’t agree with parts of it,” said Rabbi Brian Lurie of San Francisco, co-chair of the task force, who said he was speaking only on his own behalf. “But the fact that the Israeli Arab community is coming of age, and seeking an open discussion, is a healthy development.”

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