The author recently spent six weeks in Israel interviewing some of the leaders of groundroots movements whose objective is to reconcile Israelis and Palestinians. Below is the fifth and last in a short series of articles.
Education and encounters are the two words most frequently utilized by Amnon Be’eri-Sulitzeanu and Dr. Thabet Aby Rass, the two highly motivated, highly principled leaders of the Abraham Fund. Both men came to the realization that 20% of the population, the Arab-Israelis, were experiencing discrimination, and they could no longer ignore it. The mission statement of their fund states:
…working since 1989 (the fund seeks) to promote coexistence and equality among Israel’s Jewish and Arab-Palestinian citizens.
There are several focal points of the fund’s initiatives. In Amnon’s words:
The greatest barrier to coexistence is the segregation of Arabs and Jews in the Israeli school system resulting in widespread ignorance, one of the other. Worse still is the portrayal by each side of the other as different and negative.
This is why the Abraham Fund provides Arab-Jewish encounters between children in the two systems through annually to weekly program modules ranging from four to five activities. Even a few national religious schools participate in these activities.
Although Arabic is an official language, few Jewish children speak it; likewise for the Arab youngsters with Hebrew. Ten years ago, the fund developed an Arabic curriculum for the Jewish sector. Today, 200 schools – 15% of the country’s primary schools – use this program for 5th and 6th graders. And, while Arabic is compulsory for students in grades 7-9, it has been ineffective, taught as Classical Arabic by Jews who could not even speak the language. The fund’s Ya-Salaam program, now taught in many schools, consists of Arabic language and culture taught by Arab teachers. Conversely, the Ivrit b’salaam program focuses on spoken Hebrew and secular culture (cinema, music and theatre) and is being taught to Arab children. Sports, due to their overly competitive and conflictual nature, are not promoted.
Another area of operation is higher education. There is not a single institute of Arab higher education in Israel, apart from teacher training colleges. In post-secondary education, Arabs and Jews mix only at the university level. However, the institutions are designed as Hebrew/Jewish spaces. There has been no respect for Arabic or the Muslim calendar. For instance, last year the graduation ceremony at the Western Galilee College was held during Ramadan at the time Muslims break their daily fast. This year, thanks to the Abraham Fund’s approaches to the Ministry of Education and the college administration, not only was Ramadan respected, but there was a joint Iftar (break fast) with Arabs and Jews in attendance. Furthermore, the fund organized a break fast in an Arab town with great Jewish participation. Over 50% of Jews have never visited an Arab town. One school principal has travelled all over the world but never visited a Bedouin village 10 miles away.
There is also a huge discrepancy in the statistics. At Hebrew University, with an Arab population of 10%, more than 1,000 students in total, there are only 13 Arabs in senior track positions. In Western Galilee College, with its 50% Arab population, there are only three Arabs in senior track positions. The Abraham Fund is endeavouring to counteract this situation.
Another area of the fund’s activity is in the police forces, where the worldwide phenomenon of discrimination against minorities is still common practice. The fund has piloted cultural sensitivity training courses to help mitigate conflict with the Arab sector, which the police administration has integrated into its internal training program.
To promote further understanding, in partnership with the Joint Council of Pre-Army Academies, the Abraham Fund Initiatives began the Pre-Army Academy program during the 2015-16 school year. Three were selected to host a program of tours, encounters with Arab peers, and an informal educational curriculum that included Arabic language and culture. The fund will continue to expand this program in additional academies, and eventually pass the program over to the Joint Council for future implementation.
As an NGO, financing for the fund’s work comes from private donors – mainly Diaspora Jews and some ministries of the Israeli government, especially the Ministry of Education. The main objectives of the Abraham Fund Initiatives are to overcome polarized attitudes and to develop a shared society based on equality and full citizenship for the Arab sector in order to achieve a secure and prosperous future.
Slowly but surely.