In shift since Hezbollah war, Jewish Agency aids Israeli Arabs


MAJDAL KRUM, Israel — Light streams through the two-story community center in this northern Arab and Druse village that until recently stood freshly painted and newly built, but empty.

Funds from the Jewish Agency for Israel helped fill the rooms with chairs and tables and outfitted a computer lab. The donation is part of a shift in agency policy to begin assisting not only Israel’s Jewish population but, to some degree, its Arab citizens as well.

“We will continue to be with you,” JAFI chairman Zeev Bielski said on a recent visit to the neighboring village of Deir el-Asad. “We will bring more Jewish donations … There have been years of neglect of Israeli citizens who are no different from any other citizens.”

Bielski was referring to the discrepancy in government funds and infrastructure provided for Israel’s Arab minority as compared with the Jewish majority.

The shift in JAFI policy began on the first day of Israel’s war this summer with Hezbollah. If Hezbollah’s Katyusha rockets weren’t discriminating between Arab and Jewish victims, Bielski announced, neither would the Jewish Agency make distinctions in dispersing assistance.

During the war, most of the agency’s focus in the community was on bringing Arab, Druse and other non-Jewish children to the safety of camps in the center of Israel. The agency also helped fund a week of activities and field trips for children during the last week of summer vacation, part of an effort to give kids a feeling of normalcy after weeks living in bomb shelters or being shuttered inside their homes.

Since the war ended the agency has been investing in equipping community centers, several of which had lacked basic furniture and supplies. Officials say they also plan to help in longer-term projects such as coexistence gatherings for youth in mixed cities such as Haifa and Acre.

Historically, the Jewish Agency has focused its efforts only on Israel’s Jewish population. It was founded in the 1920s, during the British Mandate, to represent the Jewish population in Palestine and its interests. At the time it focused on Jewish immigration, the purchase of land from local Arabs and setting the policies of the Zionist movement.

Since 1948, the agency has been charged with overseeing immigration to Israel, promoting Jewish and Zionist education worldwide and building ties with Diaspora communities.

The subject of the Jewish Agency and its Zionist ethos is a sensitive topic for Israel’s Arab citizens. Historically the agency was involved in determining where new Jewish towns and villages would be built, and many Arabs claim that such decisions came at their expense.

Most recently, with Israel having uprooted thousands of settlers from the Gaza Strip last year and aiming for a far larger withdrawal from the West Bank, JAFI has been involved in efforts to develop the Galilee and the Negev, both major Arab population centers. Some Arabs fear the planned additional Jewish development in their regions might infringe on their land rights.

Not everyone welcomes the agency’s overtures. At the community center in Majdal Krum, a JAFI plaque was hung inside because of fears that it might be stolen or defaced if left outside.

At a gathering in the center’s auditorium, Mayor Ahmed Dabah thanked JAFI for its support.

“This is what should be happening. All of Israel’s citizens need to feel that we are treated the same way, and then the tensions will disappear,” he said.

Not every one in the Jewish Agency is pleased with the idea that money raised by Diaspora Jews will go to Israel’s non-Jewish communities.

“I think the Jewish Agency — in contrast to the Israeli government, which is obligated to all of its citizens — has a job to focus on the Jewish citizens of Israel,” said Danny Dannon, chairman of World Likud and a member of the agency’s board of governors. “If I were a Jew in Boca Raton, Fla., and gave $100 to my local federation, I would want to know it was helping the Jewish enterprise in Israel.”

In an interview with JTA, Bielski said the agency is determined to reduce the social gaps in Israeli society. Israel’s Arab population, which makes up nearly 20 percent of the country, is among the worst-off socioeconomic groups.

Faris Sarhan, an unemployed 31-year-old cook who has been volunteering for months at the Majdal Krum center, said he welcomed JAFI’s involvement.

“It was really difficult getting by without any equipment,” he said.

Sarhan hopes that one day soon he’ll be paid for the meals he provides to the center and the work he does with youth — but so far there are no salaries for center staff.

“Without donations, we have no funds coming in,” said Kadah Malwa, 21, who also works at the center without a salary.

Sammy Bahar, JAFI’s director for northern Israel, said he sees the agency’s work in minority communities as something that’s just beginning to take form.

“We need to deal with things with a lot of sensitivity. It’s a different type of work here,” he said while standing at the entrance to Deir el-Asad. “We’re entering a long and interesting process that I hope will change things.”