Kenneth Bandler
The Jerusalem Post (Opinion)
November 29, 2011 - 1:00am

American Jews rightly marvel at Israel’s remarkable economic success, achieved despite the conflict with her neighbors, most of whom continue to deny Israel’s right to exist. But part of Israel’s labor pool, Arab Israeli citizens, do not participate as fully as they should in the nation’s workforce.

Increasing the rate of Arab employment over the next 20 years “is the top economic issue for Israel’s survival,” says Eytan Biderman, chairman of the Center for Jewish-Arab Economic Development in Israel (CJAED).

How to raise the rate of Arab participation is regularly discussed at the highest levels of government, as well as among innovative non-governmental organizations.

One Jewish-Arab group dedicated to advancing civic equality, Sikkuy, has monitored the performance of government ministries regarding their hiring of Arab citizens. Sikkuy’s annual Equality Index assesses how the government is keeping pace in fulfilling its commitment to boost the percentage of Arabs employed in government jobs. There are still significant gaps to be narrowed.

While improving the conditions for Israeli Arabs is essentially a partnership between the government and NGOs, US Jews have a role to play. First, they should learn about the issues regarding Israeli Arab economic aspirations. Second, they can provide funding to certain groups and projects. Third, American Jews can share their own experience of living in a democratic society that has struggled with overcoming inequities in the economy and workplace. While the American and Israeli situations are not exactly comparable, there are core common principles for dealing with the Other.

CJAED’s founder was an American immigrant, Sarah Kreimer, who established the group in 1988 to foster relationships between Jewish and Arab businesspeople in Israel. Today, CJAED continues that important work, having recently launched a new outreach effort and opened a New York office. The new effort will try to tap not only the pocketbooks of American Jews, but also to tap into their creative thinking.

ANOTHER INITIATIVE aimed at placing qualified Arab engineers is Tsofen.

“Hi-tech is possible in Arab society,” says Smadar Nehab, a native Israeli who returned from Silicon Valley to work on outsourcing inside Israel as a means to provide for Arab employment, instead of contracting people in countries far away.

Since being founded in Nazareth three years ago, Tsofen has placed more than 1,000 Arab engineers in Israeli hi-tech companies.

Representatives of these inspiring Israeli organizations coincidentally were recently visiting the US at the same time. Each pursued contacts, addressed groups and raised funds for their own programs, though, in essence, they share commonalties in missions and goals.

That was clear when they came together to address a New York luncheon hosted by the Inter-Agency Task Force on Israeli Arab Issues, a national American Jewish effort that is headquartered at the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and provides resources and educational programs for Israel’s 1.5 million Arab citizens. It’s a shame the visiting Israeli Arabs and Jews did not have an opportunity to address together larger audiences while in the US. Their messages need to be heard and understood more broadly in the American Jewish community.

US Jews should know more about the challenges and opportunities involved in integrating more Arabs in the Israeli workforce.

Opening the doors to greater involvement will help alleviate frustrations among unemployed Arab citizens that are a factor underlying Jewish-Arab tensions.

And, if successfully integrated, Israel’s economic growth will continue to flourish.

For American Jews already deeply engaged with Israel, concerned about the country’s future, issues regarding Israeli Arabs should be of interest. So, too, for American Jews who otherwise may be pulling away from Israel because of the seemingly intractable conflict with the Palestinians. Focusing on the internal dynamics of this young, vibrant democratic society, and finding ways to assist in its evolution could be mutually beneficial.

In its most recent survey of Israeli Arabs and Jews, Sikkuy found “ordinary citizens want to normalize relations but elected officials, Knesset members, are escalating the tensions,” says Ron Gerlitz, co-director of Sikkuy. He was referring to the more than 20 bills introduced in the Knesset that are widely seen to target Arab citizens, to diminish their sense of belonging in Israeli society.

Stepping up support for government officials and NGO leaders who are making a concerted effort to change for the better the position of Arabs in Israel is one of the best answers to those legislative measures, and will contribute to strengthening Israel.

The writer is the American Jewish Committee’s director of media relations.


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