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Emergency Aid Pays for Arabic Lessons

American charitable dollars raised to aid war-torn areas in Israel are being used to teach Arabic to Jewish children.

The Jewish Agency for Israel is partnering with the Abraham Fund Initiatives, an organization that advocates for equality between Jews and Arabs in Israel, to teach Arabic to Jewish children in the north of Israel. Both entities are describing the program as a historic initiative on the part of the Jewish Agency, the quasi-governmental agency charged with facilitating Jewish immigration to Israel.

The Forward has learned that the program is being funded in part with money from the more than $350 million raised by North American Jews for the Israel Emergency Campaign, launched this past summer to aid Israel’s embattled northern residents in the wake of the war with Hezbollah.

Officials from the New York-based Abraham Fund Initiatives and from United Jewish Communities, the central body of American Jewish federations that spearheaded the emergency campaign, told the Forward that the roughly $2 million allocated for the educational program designed to foster better relations between Jews and Arabs would come from the coffers of the emergency fund. A spokesman for UJC confirmed that the Abraham Fund would indeed receive $414,000 a year for two years from the hefty emergency campaign chest. The remaining funds came from anonymous private donations.

The use of emergency campaign funds to teach Arabic language and culture to Israeli Jewish students follows an earlier debate over how American charity dollars meant to aid in the rebuilding of Israel’s war-torn north should be allocated. Critics on the right have assailed UJC in recent months for distributing any emergency funds to Arab communities. They say that doing so betrays the intentions of American donors, who meant for their money to fall into the hands of needy Jews.

In response to the new Arabic program, some observers on the left contend that while the initiative is an important step in improving relations between the two groups, money could be better spent providing direct economic assistance to ailing Arab communities in the north.

“I believe that it is important for every (Jewish) child in Israel to study Arabic,” wrote Rachel Liel, director of Shatil, which is the New Israel Fund’s Israeli arm, in an e-mail to the Forward. “At the same time,” she added, “there are much more pressing needs in the Israeli-Arab community that need to be addressed: in employment, education, welfare, etc.”

Israeli Arabs accounted for nearly half the injuries and casualties sustained from the deluge of 4,000 Katyusha rockets fired at Israel during last summer’s month-long conflict. Furthermore, Arabs occupy the lowest rungs of the Israeli economic ladder, with the average Arab income equaling about 70% of the average Jewish income. In the socioeconomic ranking of Israeli localities, all Arab towns and villages fall in the bottom third of the pool.

The Abraham Fund initiative, known as the Language as a Cultural Bridge program, supplies Arabic-language instruction for Israeli Jewish students in fifth through seventh grades, and is currently in 60 schools across Israel. With the infusion of funds from the Jewish Agency, the program will expand to reach 7,000 students in the north. The funding package will also allow 20 additional schools to take part in a program that pairs Jewish and Arab schools in the north for cultural exchange activities.

Ami Nahshon, president and CEO of the Abraham Fund Initiatives, described the new program as one piece of a larger vision to build a diverse and tolerant society in the Galilee, where Arabs comprise more than half the total population. He compared the rebuilding of Israel’s north following last summer’s war to the rebuilding of New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, wherein communities that were previously substandard may now get the attention they require.

“We hope that same model will apply in Israel,” he said, explaining that “in the case of much of the Arab infrastructure, we hope there will be a net improvement.” Nahshon declined to explain how promoting coexistence through teaching Arabic to Jewish children and organizing exchanges between Jews and Arabs might improve the lesser economic status of the Israeli Arab population.

Nahshon hailed the allotment of funds for the language program, contending that Jews in the Diaspora would understand the benefit of investing in Arab-Jewish relations in Israel. “The Jewish Agency’s decision is truly historic,” he said, “and I believe that the vast majority of federation donors and American Jewish communities will understand and support that.”

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