A need to re-evaluate Jewish-Arab action and dialogue groups in Israel

by Amal Abu Zeidan
26 November 2009

JERUSALEM - Activities promoting coexistence, dialogue and education for a shared life between Arabs and Jews in Israel emerged in the late seventies. Today, after three decades, it is the ethical responsibility of those working in this area, whether on the ground or in academic research, to critically reassess the approaches and methods that have been used throughout the years.

In the last three decades there have been significant changes in the theoretical and practical approaches of Jewish-Arab dialogue groups. At first, the main activities of these organisations centred on pre-planned dialogues aimed at “co-existence”, particularly between school children. Thousands of co-existence encounters took place throughout the years. Later it became clear to those working in the field—academics and practitioners alike—that there was a discrepancy between the way Jews and Arabs understood the term “co-existence” and the purpose of these encounters. The main difference was that the Arabs hoped that “co-existence” would change the reality and their standing in society whereas the Jews hoped the encounters would shift perspectives.

The work of organisations in the field of co-existence demanded tremendous material and human resources, and the models and methods used became more sophisticated with time. Thus, joint Jewish-Arab actions and dialogue split into many new fields or subfields, including inter-faith dialogue, peace education, education for democratic values, environment, arts, the status of women, economy, community and more. With time, the goals of these activities became more clearly defined.

Yet, despite the fact that no stone has remained unturned, the end result—if we measure it according to the index of peace, equality and racism—is critical failure. They did not bring long-term palpable change, not in Jewish-Arab relations nor in the position of Arabs within the state of Israel. The criteria of peace, equality and racism, which are measured annually by professional establishments such as the Mossawa Center, the Sikkuy Association and others, show that the status of Arabs in Israel and Jewish-Arab relations have seen a downward turn in recent years—excluding the period when Yitzhak Rabin was prime minister. This fact should raise alarm bells.

The deterioration of the Arab minority’s status is manifested both in the allocation of resources and on a social-political level. We are also witnessing greater discrimination in legislation, such as the recent Loyalty bill (proposed by Avigdor Lieberman’s party), and the Citizenship law passed in 2003 which stipulates that Palestinians married to Arab Israelis will not be granted permanent residency. This coupled with other measures such as the elimination of Nakba studies from the curriculum and the changing of names of cities and villages on road signs into Hebrew, points to the fact that the Jewish-Arab fissure is deepening.

In the field of Jewish-Arab action and dialogue groups, we are witnessing disturbing developments which necessitate action that is appropriate to a time of emergency.

To begin with, the number of organisations dealing in Jewish-Arab relations has decreased in the last five years from about 180 to about 80, and those remaining dedicate only a portion of their work to Jewish-Arab relations. Moreover, the effectiveness and relevance of this work are questionable. There are many activities that require extensive resources—economic and human—but have no palpable effects according to recent assessment papers and the impression of those working in the field.

In light of their lack of influence on the conflictual reality of Jewish-Arab relations, today at least, we should look for new models and methods beyond the ones already in place. For example, were Jewish and Arab organisations to combine forces for a clearly defined task they could become an effective instrument for the improvement of Jewish-Arab relations and for the amelioration of the Arab minority position—a necessary precondition for the improvement of Jewish-Arab relations, because as long as the minority is feeling mistreated it will reflect on its relationship with the majority.

Examples of quests which could prove to be suitable areas for joint action include: the push to integrate a greater number of Arab academics in institutions of higher learning; the demand from the Ministry of Education to include peace education, classes which promote shared living and the inclusion of the Palestinian-Arab minority’s narrative in the school curricula; the integration of Arabs in decision making circles and government companies without conditioning their employment on national or military service; improving the treatment of Arab travellers at the airport, and more.

One main objective that we must strive to achieve through these joint activities is to entrench the value of peace, especially within Jewish society, which has yet to internalise this value and still fears it. The irony is that war is more familiar than peace and as is known to everyone, the fear of the unknown is greater than the fear of the known, even when the longed for objective is peace.

One of the most important steps toward helping organisations in the field of co-existence have a greater impact is the development of models and methods for joint activities with political entities.

I don’t claim to have all the answers for how to improve the efficacy of organisations working in Jewish-Arab relations, but this is rather a humble invitation for those working in the area, whether on a practical or theoretical level—to undertake a necessary re-evaluation in cooperation with other influential groups in civil society.

I hope that we will be able to implement methods that will bring us closer to an equal, tolerant and more enlightened society that lives in peace with the world and primarily with itself.

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Comment by Eyal Raviv on December 4, 2009 at 5:27pm
This post is promoted today in the recommendations on
Comment by Ray Hanania on December 4, 2009 at 1:59pm
I've always believed that the Dialogue Groups were a great idea but they never seem to move past meeting and smiles to actually doing something significant and spreading out ... they tend to cluster and stay stagnant and I think they only lack real goals beyond becoming friends. We are already friends but we certainly need to be reminded of that. But without having a goal and going out and actually doing something, they tend to stagnate ... but there is a culture of dialogue grouping among Palestinians and Israelis. It's become a way of life for them, and maybe a session on the psychiatrist's couch : )
Ray Hanania
Comment by Oliver Haack on December 1, 2009 at 12:31pm
I enjoyed reading this. You raise important points here, and the topic should become increasingly relevant.

Thanks for that, Amal.


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