Our responsibility

Transforming fate into destiny: Israelis, Arabs and American Jews

In Short

[The American Jewish community's] relationship with Israel, the Jewish identity of our children, even our connection to Jewish peoplehood depend in part on our perception of Israel, the strength of its civil society and at least a hope for peace and reconciliation.

There are times when extraordinary events provide an opportunity — perhaps a fleeting opportunity — for people, and the institutions they created, to change the course of history. This is one of those rare times, and there is an opportunity for American Jews to play a significant role in achieving peace and advancing human rights by supporting the NGOs with the scale and commitment to improve the lives of Israeli Arabs, and to assure their full and equal participation in Israeli society.

I was born in 1947. There has never been a time in my life when there wasn’t conflict between Arabs and Jews. During my first visit to Israel in 1971, my bus was stopped by police looking for the perpetrators of a terrorist attack at Lod Airport. My second visit was in 1974, when I learned that my friend’s brother, a promising young pilot, had been shot down over Syria. He was the last victim of the Yom Kippur War. I’ve been to Israel over a hundred times as president of CJP (Greater Boston’s Jewish Federation) since then and except for a brief period of hope, just before the millennium and the second intifada, war and danger were never far off. May 2021 marked the latest crescendo, as thousands of rockets were fired at Israel from Gaza, and only the Iron Dome prevented catastrophe. 

The Emergence of Hope: Arab Aspirations for a Better Life 

But hope emerges at first slowly, and over time with greater power. I’m now part of the faculty at Brandeis University’s Hornstein Program and two years ago, our Kraft Seminar in Israel featured meetings with Israel’s Arab population — including an extended visit at Sakhnin, an Arab town near Tzipori in Israel’s north, and a briefing with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) on its job-development programs and its expanding work in dozens of Arab villages and towns throughout Israel. The Israeli Arab families who hosted our students were warm, friendly and welcoming, and they told unexpected stories. The older generation of town residents told painful stories of homes lost in 1948 and a long process of rebuilding leading to lives within, but not completely part of, Israeli society as shopkeepers and tradespeople. A younger woman, an emerging leader in her community, told a different story about the hopes of her generation — a generation slowly making its way into the medical field and other professions that open the door to greater inclusion and upward mobility in society. 

The JDC representatives described a growing understanding on the part of Israeli leaders that Israel’s security, prosperity and national cohesion depended on healing the potentially violent rift in Israeli society between its Arab and Jewish citizens. Understanding the danger, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government significantly increased funding for municipal services in Arab villages and towns by 10 billion shekels ($3.1 billion). The JDC, already involved with Arab municipalities, played a key role by overcoming bureaucratic barriers and facilitating the transfer of funds to Arab villages and towns. Now, the JDC has the capacity to play a significant role in facilitating the much larger opportunity and challenge presented by the new government’s 30 billion ($9.3 billion) shekel investment in Arab municipalities.

The Abraham Accords: Toward the End of the ‘Israeli-Arab’ Conflict?

More hope followed the signing of the Abraham Accords, normalizing relations between Israel and four Sunni Arab countries, in addition to the prior peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan. While complete peace remains a dream and the Palestinian conflict still clouds the future, it’s no longer accurate to talk about an ongoing war between Israel and her regional Arab neighbors.  

That’s why the internal rioting and violence last spring and summer between Arab Israelis and Jewish Israelis in the midst of the Gaza war was especially discouraging and frightening. Tens of thousands of rockets were aimed at Israeli cities and towns, but most observers and political leaders in Israel were far more concerned by the potential for civil war between Arab Israelis and Jewish Israelis than the external attack.

A New Israeli Government and New Hope

Despite all the challenges, a new government was forming that included Ra’am, an Islamic party led by Mansour Abbas. This development, in and of itself, was an important step ensuring Arab participation in the Israeli government at the highest level. Many felt that it was another step in the desire of Israeli Arabs to get their fair share of resources in the Israeli political process.  

But there may be more to it. The New York Times told an encouraging story of Ra’am leadership participation in inter-religious dialogue along with former Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Rabbi Michael Melchior. These efforts led to the Alexandria Declaration in 2002. This long-term engagement helps explain why Ra’am stayed with the coalition plan in spite of the Gaza conflict and unrest in mixed Israeli cities and towns. 

The wellbeing of Israeli Arabs, their upward mobility, their educational progress and their social integration has even larger implications in light of the Abraham Accords. The commitment to peace and prosperity throughout Israel and the Sunni Arab world is being tested in Israel’s own Israeli cities and towns. The Abraham Accords will be damaged by Israeli youths attacking Arabs and Arab youths attacking Israelis, just as the Accords are positively influencing inter-group attitudes within Israel. 

University of Haifa’s Work with Arab Society 

Moreover, the Abraham Accords present new opportunities for Israeli Arabs, whose language and cultural proficiency in the Arab world can provide a possible bridge for Israeli institutions, entrepreneurs and innovators seeking to do business with new partners. 

This touches the American Jewish community deeply. Our relationship with Israel, the Jewish identity of our children, even our connection to Jewish peoplehood depend in part on our perception of Israel, the strength of its civil society and at least a hope for peace and reconciliation. Even more importantly, our research at Brandeis University’s Center for Modern Jewish Studies indicates that young people who protest Israeli policy still indicate a strong attachment to Israel and a desire to make things better.

One prospective connector that can provide a meaningful role for the American Jewish community in the peace process is the University of Haifa, a northern Israeli institution ideally positioned as a center for the economic development of Israel’s Arab population.

More than 32% of University of Haifa’s students are Arab, far exceeding the Arab population share of Israel as a whole. Beyond the numbers, various university initiatives proactively foster coexistence — such as the Jewish-Arab Community Leadership Program, which facilitates dialogue and multicultural social interaction between Jewish and Arab students, including through joint community projects in the city of Haifa. Jewish and Arab students also participate together in the university’s Haifa Innovation Labs, a start-up incubator whose programs focus on social innovation and impact entrepreneurship.

This work to rebuild civil society and improve the lives of Israeli Arabs will do far more than protest to help create a peaceful future for Israel and the region. It’s the work of peace and human dignity. It’s arguably the most important mission that Israeli society can undertake to ensure prosperity, social justice and security. Equally important, it’s work that behooves the American Jewish community to participate.

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik explained that “man’s task in the world, according to Judaism, is to transform fate into destiny; a passive existence into an active existence; an existence of compulsion, perplexity and muteness into an existence replete with a powerful will, with resourcefulness, daring and imagination. We ask neither about the cause of evil nor about its purpose but rather about how it might be mended and elevated.”

University of Haifa — with willpower, resourcefulness, courage and imagination — has built an institution grounded in principles of equality and social justice, and committed to nurturing an infrastructure of collaboration, understanding and peaceful discourse that promotes social mobility. By getting involved with institutions that are performing the work on the ground, American Jews can do their part to help transform fate into destiny, pessimism into hope, and conflict into respect and perhaps even love. We must not abdicate our responsibility.

Barry Shrage is a community engagement consultant for the American Society of the University of Haifa (ASUH). He served as president of CJP, Greater Boston’s Jewish Federation, from 1987 to 2017. He is now professor of the practice in the Hornstein Program and the Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University.