Raising up our Arab citizens
British Jews who care about Israel should care about its 1.5 million Arab citizens. Fully integrating the Arab minority is vital to Israel's prosperity and cohesion. It is not just an issue that affects Israel's security - we have seen before how tensions between Israel's Jewish and Arab communities can bubble over into violence - but also one that is central to the state's economic prospects, as well as its global standing as the one true democracy in the Middle East.
Moreover, what better ambassadors for Israel could there be than fully integrated Arab citizens who are proud to call themselves Israeli?
Ensuring Arab citizens are fully fledged, fully participating members of society has been part of Israel's political ideology since the state's inception. Israel's Declaration of Independence promises the state "will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants, irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture."
Yet according to a 2008 equality index published by Sikkuy, the Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality in Israel, socio-economic gaps between Jewish and Arab citizens in Israel are continuing to
widen year-on-year. The reasons are multiple and complex but, given that 50% of Israel's Arabs live in poverty compared to 20% of all Israelis, it is clear that more needs to be done.
It is in Israel's best interests that this happens. According to the Israel Democracy Institute, the lost potential to Israel's economy as a result of the failure to utilise the potential of the Arab male and female workforce amounts to NIS 31 billion a year. Currently, Arab citizens contribute only 8% to Israel's GDP, despite constituting 20% of Israel's population.
What better ambassadors than Arabs proud to be Israeli?
All polling on Israel's Arab citizens shows that the vast majority want to be Israeli citizens and contribute to society. University of Haifa sociology professor Sami Smooha suggests Israel's Arab population is going through a process of what he calls "Israelization". According to his most recent survey, most Arabs consider themselves to be Israelis and expect the state to treat them in the same way as any other citizen.
As Jews, our attachment to Israel translates into many different activities, including educational initiatives, visits to the region and financial assistance to advance the country's development. In all these areas, we will benefit from a deeper understanding of the issues faced by Israel's Arab population.
This understanding is what the recently established UK Task Force on issues facing Arab citizens of Israel aims to provide.
We hope the task force will draw attention to the excellent work being done on the ground by Israeli NGOs. In Israel, the grassroots commitment to attaining equality between Jewish and Arab communities is impressive and it is at this level that British Jews can make a significant contribution.
There are a lot of innovative, effective projects to which we can offer our support. Some of these already benefit from generous support from Jewish communities both inside and outside of Israel. But in general, UK Jewish philanthropy has tended not to direct funds towards Israel's Arab citizens and has therefore missed an opportunity to help ameliorate structural inequalities.
In recent years, British Jews have shown an increasing desire to contribute to Israel's development of its Arab population and to work with all Israelis on shared society initiatives. Through its activities in the Galil, UJIA is investing in projects for the benefit of the Arab population. The Pears Foundation convened a UK symposium in March 2007 on Arab citizens of Israel. With the establishment of the UK Task Force, we hope to provide a forum for discussion and collaboration on what is arguably the biggest domestic challenge facing Israel today.
The writers are the Co-Chairs of the UK Task Force. Members include: Ben-Gurion University Foundation, The Board of Deputies, Labour Friends of Israel, New Israel Fund UK, The Rayne Foundation, and The Zionist Federation. www.uktaskforce.org