S.F. panel: Diversity needs push in Israel

Far from Israel and for one night and one night only, representatives of four of the embattled state's ethnic groups found they could actually agree on something.

At a community forum held Nov. 15 at San Francisco's Congregation Sherith Israel, speakers presenting the viewpoints of Israeli Arabs, Ashkenazim, Mizrachim and ex-Soviet emigres concurred that without greater equality between Israel's various ethnic groups, the nation's problems cannot be solved. The event, sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council and other organizations, was moderated by Michael Futterman of the JCRC.

Discussing emigre issues, Sari Revkin, an Israeli social worker, said the Jewish state is still struggling to cope with the rapid influx of more than 1 million people since the breakup of the Soviet Union.

"Many suffer from unemployment and housing problems, and are grossly absorbed in their own day-to-day survival needs," said Revkin, who is the founder of Yedid, a community empowerment organization that works largely with emigres.

"Many have not learned Hebrew. They read the [Israeli-Russian] press, and the messages they hear about Israel are from the Russian press. The Russian press puts out very right-wing perspectives on life in Israel. Since that is the only media the immigrants are reading, their opinions are largely built on that."

Revkin says that since the renewal of the intifada, the ex-Soviet emigres have "moved to the right," making her goal of bringing people closer to democracy "much harder."

Israeli Arab speaker Fathi Marshood also said he felt hamstrung by the Israeli media.

In an emotional, yet controlled, speech, Marshood recalled participating in peaceful Haifa demonstrations he claimed were broken up by armed, rock-throwing Jews, who were subsequently protected by the police. He said that armed vigilantes from upper Nazareth, along with local police, brutally put down a legal, peaceful march there.

"I talk of my own experience because I was there," Marshood said to the crowd of roughly 60. "Unfortunately the Israeli media makes everything completely different. Israeli citizens don't know because of how media presented it."

Marshood, director of the Haifa office of Shatil, an organization working to empower Israeli Arabs and enact social change, said the nation's minorities are tired of life as second-class citizens.

"We want to be recognized as minority citizens with equal rights, said Marshood. "For 52 years we don't even have basic rights. Real coexistence is equal — I can't be in the margin and coexist, it doesn't work."

Ashkenazi speaker Lee Gordon also sympathized with the plight of the Israeli Arabs.

"A full 20 percent of Israeli citizens are Palestinian Arabs," said Gordon, co-founder of several combined Arab and Jewish public schools. He said that 97 percent of the Palestinian electorate cast their votes for Ehud Barak, and many of them are feeling betrayed.

"They believed that he would not only push forward the peace process, but bring more integration and prosperity for the Israeli Arabs," said Gordon. "Many are now feeling that he snubbed the Arab population. He did not even enter negotiations for an Arab minister in government."

Mizrachi speaker Loolwa Khazzoom, however, added that Israel's peace process must also take into account the rights of Mizrachi Jews, who she said make up the majority of the nation's population.

"I predict there will not be peace until the world takes the struggles of the Mizrachim seriously," said Khazzoom. "Without knowing who we are, no one can understand the situation in the Middle East."

Khazzoom, founder and coordinator of the Jewish Multiculturalism Education Project, said that thousands of years under the yoke of Arab Muslims came to a head in the last half-century, when many Mizrachi Jews "fled their homes of the last 2,500 years" and settled in Israel.

Khazzoom claimed many Mizrachim do not understand why Arab states did not absorb Arab refugees following the initial Arab-Israeli war. In addition, many perceive ongoing Arab complaints as "a continuation of the tired old game of blame the Jews for everything."

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.