8 Israeli Arabs join JCFs Amuta, help disperse funds

The S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation's Israeli advisory board, the Amuta, has opened its arms to Israel's Arab citizens.

With a nod from the JCF, eight Israeli Arabs, the first-ever to serve on the Amuta, joined the close to 50-member board last month.

Additionally, with the help of the new Amuta members, $468,020 in JCF grants has been channeled to 14 early-childhood education programs aimed at Israeli Arab communities.

Considering that there are nearly 1 million Arab citizens, constituting one-fifth of the population, "it's the right thing to do," said Shmuel Ben-Tovim, the Amuta chair, who was in San Francisco last week.

"We are supposed to represent the points of view of Israelis, but we can't do that without representing everyone on the Amuta," said Ben-Tovim, mayor of Kfar Shmaryahu. "We're giving them an equal opportunity and an equal stand."

Those selected to serve on the board include a judge, a journalist, a social worker and a professor. Like most other Israeli Arabs, Ben-Tovim said, they are among the "loyal citizens of Israel," rather than the stone-throwers and suicide bombers primarily seen fighting against Israel in the news media.

"A lot of Americans lump Palestinians [in the West Bank and Gaza] and Arab Israelis into one group, but that's not the case. Those living in Israel to a great extent are trying to find a good way of coexistence."

Despite such attempts at peaceful living, the Israeli Arab population lacks many of the privileges afforded to Israeli Jews. For instance, according to Ben-Tovim, 50 percent of Arab children in Israel live in poverty and only 44 percent attend preschool.

Amuta member Yossi Tamir, who serves as executive director of the Association for Planning and Development Services for Children and Youth at Risk and their Families, concurred. While the Israeli government does invest money in social services for Israelis, he said it is distributed in general terms and does not specifically target Israeli Arab citizens.

And while the Amuta has in the past procured funds from the JCF to go toward Jewish-Arab coexistence programming, it also did not specifically target the Israeli Arabs.

"Without help, the Arab picture in Israel will get even worse," warned Tamir, an expert on social welfare issues. "Local Arab municipalities don't have the resources to develop themselves, and without that they don't get a system that's helping itself."

As a result, said Ben-Tovim, "Frustration builds up and it creates a hostile group within our own country." As an example he pointed to the October 2000 slaying by Israeli police of 13 Israeli Arab citizens who were protesting the intifada.

"That [demonstration] put on the surface their frustration and distrust in the Jewish state," he said. "It's unfortunate that it took a catastrophe to open up our eyes."

Morally, from a Jewish point of view, he added, it is imperative to be "more sensitive to those who are suffering discrimination and ill treatment."

The Amuta felt the best way to help was to start young and focus on early childhood education, an area that Tamir said "is not well developed." Arab children, he explained, "are falling between the cracks."

The focus on Arab children will benefit not only the Arabs but also the Jews by forging a better opportunity for coexistence, he added.

"All research in that area shows that you can prevent behavior, that may be hard to get rid of in the future, if you start when they're young. This is a practical step towards prevention and also a way of investing in the future."

Some of the grants approved by the JCF include:

*$40,000 for a day-care center in the Bedouin village of Tuba Zangeria, to be established with the aid of the Israel Association of Community Centers and the municipality.

*$50,000 for the Negev Institute for Strategies of Peace and Development to train 30 women in unrecognized villages in the Negev to work as kindergarten assistants in their communities.

*$35,000 toward afterschool enrichment in the city of Akko for children who have been identified as having difficulties.

"Eventually we hope these programs will have a nationwide impact and can be replicated with the help of the Israeli government, other organizations, the volunteer sector and private donations," Tamir said.

Although the Amuta and the JCF expect they might hear some dissent on their support for Israeli Arabs from the Jewish community, both agree they will not be deterred. Ben-Tovim also believes that once people are clear on the overall benefit of supporting Israeli Arabs those who originally dissented will become more supportive.

In fact, he said, three independent Jewish foundations (two in San Francisco and one in Chicago) have already pledged funds in addition to those supplied by the JCF.

"This reflects the understanding that this is the call of the hour," said Ben-Tovim. "If we don't act now, the situation will be very bad in Israel."