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Activists still see a pathway to garnering more support among American Jews. Polls conducted in Israel showed a significant change in views on the Begin-Prawer plan once respondents became aware of some key facts in the debate. While initially many supported the legislation because they viewed it as a tool necessary to stop a Bedouin land grab in the Negev, a majority of participants in the poll changed their views once informed that Bedouins claim only 5% of the Negev lands for their settlements.
“I don’t think the Jewish community here gets it, but I don’t think they are to blame, because even people a half an hour from there don’t necessarily understand the situation,” said Naomi Paiss, spokeswoman for the New Israel Fund, which funds several of the groups active on Bedouin rights issues in Israel.
“The first step, for Israelis and for Americans, is to break the wall of disinformation,” said Rabbi Arik Ascherman, director of external relations and special projects for Rabbis for Human Rights. In a telephone interview taking place while Ascherman attended a weekly protest at the Al Araqib Bedouin village, where houses were torn down to allow a new forest, he noted that signs of American Jewish protests have already began to reach decision makers in Jerusalem. “One of the key architects of the plan told me that our activity is ‘causing damage abroad,’” Ascherman said.
He acknowledged that the campaign has not penetrated the mainstream Jewish organizational world and that, in contrast to the struggle of women seeking equal prayer at the Western Wall, the Bedouin issue does not resonate directly with American Jews. Still, he added, “it may be different than Women of the Wall, but it definitely touches a chord in the Jewish community.”
Efforts of Bedouin-rights advocates to enroll American Jewish support for the battle against the legislation were met with a cautious response. Major organizations, which in the past had spoken out about civil rights issues in Israel, chose to steer clear of the debate, noting the complexity of the issue and the strong arguments on both sides.
Reluctance to take a stand on the specific legislation does not indicate, however, a lack of interest within the Jewish community to issues relating to Arab Israeli citizens. An inter-agency task force set up in 2006 as a joint project of Jewish federations, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and national organizations and philanthropic foundations has raised awareness to concerns of Arab Israelis and to the need for American Jews to extend their support for Israel to its non-Jewish citizens, as well.
“There’s been a very constructive evolution in the level of knowledge of American Jews on this issue,” said Stuart Brown, a senior official at Jewish organizations dealing with Arab-Israeli issues who spoke to the Forward in a personal capacity. “But, I would like to see more.”
The Interagency Task Force, which is an educational body that does not engage in advocacy, did not take a stand on the Begin-Prawer plan. “We are a very, very mainstream Jewish American organization,” executive director Michal Steinman said. “This is a very controversial issue, so we provided people with views of both sides and with the background for the plan.”
In order to provide American Jews with both sides of the picture, the task force has organized conference calls with backers and critics of the plan. In a July 8 call, Begin tried to make the case for the law, speaking out against “a very ugly” attempt to politicize the issue. “We are really harassed and under a propaganda siege,” Begin told his American Jewish audience. “We need people of good will in order to spread the gospel.”
Contact Nathan Jeffay at Jeffay@forward.com