During S.F. visit, Israeli politico speaks up for Arab Israelis

Knesset member Avishay Braverman is certain of three things: Arab Israeli citizens must have equality with Jewish Israeli citizens, a two-state solution is the only way to go, and Israel must restructure its economy to create jobs in the Negev and the Galilee.

Braverman talked about these points recently on a four-city tour of North America with the Inter-Agency Task Force on Israeli Arab Issues, part of the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

Avishay Braverman

“We are pushing [Arab Israelis] to be antagonists rather than partners,” Braverman said in San Francisco. “We must change our attitude toward them, not only because it is moral and just, but because it is good for the Jews.”

Braverman, a member of Israel’s left-wing Labor Party, traveled to Washington, Toronto, New York and San Francisco. He spent just 24 hours in San Francisco, where he spoke to about 50 people last week at the downtown law firm Coblentz, Patch, Duffy and Bass. The Sept. 16 breakfast talk was sponsored by the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation.

He also was interviewed on KGO radio and appeared at the New Israel Fund’s 30th anniversary dinner.

Braverman’s knowledge of Arab Israeli issues comes in part from spending 16 years as president of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, where he established Israel’s first Center for Bedouin Culture and advocated for equal rights for Arab Israeli citizens. In the Knesset, he is the minister of minority affairs.

Though Arab Israelis have a higher standard of living than Palestinians, Braverman said, they still do not have equal access to education and employment. Without changes in attitudes and policies, they will become a permanent — and angry — underclass in Israel.

For example, Braverman said, “Druze serve in the Israel Defense Forces. They are promoted within, but they go back to their civilian life and they can’t get jobs.”

Especially dangerous, he said, is Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s suggestion to mandate an oath of loyalty for all Israeli citizens.

“It is damaging the fabric of Israel,” Braverman said.

Also damaging, he said, is anything but a two-state solution. If part of the West Bank was established as a Palestinian state, he said, only 25 percent of Israeli settlers would have to be removed because 75 percent live close enough to the Green Line that they could be absorbed into Israel.

“One state will be the demise of the dream of Zionism,” Braverman said. “The only way for [Israel’s] survival — the only way to be sustainable — is to establish two states for two peoples.

“The time for leadership is when we act for the future of our grandchildren and forget the current political climate.”

The Israeli-born Braverman, who is the same age as his country, 61, earned a doctorate in economics from Stanford University in 1972. He served as a senior economist for the World Bank for 13 years, where he led research, policy work and project evaluation throughout South America, Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Europe.

As such, he also talked about Israel’s economic climate.

Because of bureaucracy that makes it hard for investors and entrepreneurs, and because of the concentration of industry in Tel Aviv, “young, talented, skilled people are not reaching their potential,” he said.

He suggested a simplified and revised economic structure that offers incentives for investors so that more Israeli startups have a chance to grow and sustain their businesses.

And because Israel’s economic development has been so focused in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, bright and educated young people from the Galilee and the Negev are overlooked.

“There is tremendous inequality in Israel,” he said. “Tel Aviv is flourishing, but there is a concentration of poverty in the Negev and the Galilee.”

And that poverty? It disproportionately affects Arab Israelis, particularly women, Braverman said. Only 20 percent of Arab women are in Israel’s workforce.

“It is a sin to have a tremendous group of people not in the workforce,” he said.

Likewise, the population of Bedouins (an Arab minority) in Israel has grown exponentially since the founding of the country, from 20,000 to nearly 200,000. And yet a majority are unemployed and a reported two-thirds live in poverty, compared to a 25 percent poverty rate in the general population.

“We should invest in them – they serve in the army, yet we push them away,” Braverman said. “They are losing hope. And that is dangerous.”

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.