American Jewry at a moment of Israeli political and social crisis: Choosing action over despair

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By Barry Shrage  Published: JUN 26, 2023, 10:45 AM

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik said, “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.”

Nearly a year ago, at a time of optimism for the new Bennett coalition I wrote about the opportunity for American Jewry to take advantage of the new reality created by the Abraham Accords, the participation of Ra’am in the then-newly formed Bennett government, and the rapid growth of the Arab middle class. I suggested significantly increasing the American Jewish community’s philanthropic engagement and partnership with NGOs in Israel in support of “shared society” initiatives.

My hope then was that strengthening shared society within Israel would reinforce the work of the Abraham Accords and help usher in an era of peace between Jews and Arabs in the Middle East. I thought this partnership would also strengthen the relationship between American Jews and Israel. Yet since then, the opportunities and hopes I described have proven more fragile and more fleeting than I could have imagined.

Programs to strengthen Arab society developed by the previous Netanyahu government and expanded by the Bennett-Lapid government may be facing reduced government support.  Two extreme right-wing parties within the new coalition have begun to weaponize their political power in ways that could divide Israeli society for generations and alienate 20 percent of Israel’s citizens with disastrous implications for civil peace and Israeli security. Even more terrifying is the rhetoric of hatred, violence, and racism that has gone mainstream and is feeding on itself creating greater polarization and mistrust among ever-widening circles of Arabs and Jews.

At the same time, the American Jewish community, its leadership, and its institutions are facing their own crisis. How can American Jews respond as Israel’s democracy seems threatened by the proposed judicial reform legislation? Are we powerless in the face of a government that seems immune to diaspora criticism? Without the opportunity to influence events in Israel I fear that some might turn to rage and tragically to anti-Zionism. In the absence of real agency many may simply distance and disconnect from Israel and in the process weaken the bonds of peoplehood that are at the heart of the Jewish identity of American Jews.

The most pressing task for Jewish leadership must therefore be to restore a sense of agency to American Jews. In the face of this crisis, American Jews can either turn away or double down, vastly increasing our efforts and our funding to continue to strengthen the democratic character of Israel and support shared society for all its citizens.

Israel is clearly facing a political and social crisis. But the Israeli government, important as it is, is built on a broad base of civil society, consisting of a rich mixture of NGOs, Israeli institutions of every kind, and local governments that remain vibrant and strong. In addition, the government itself needs to work through the existing civil service, which is already deeply engaged in positive policies and programs passed, at least in part by former governments, including the Bennett government (around $8.43 billion) and the former Netanyahu government (about $2.81 billion) to strengthen Arab society.

The voluntary sector of the American Jewish community, including Federations and foundations, are already engaged and intertwined with Israeli government departments and scores of Israeli NGOs in support of shared society initiatives. This is particularly true at this moment of opportunity when Israeli Arabs are increasingly emerging as part of the middle class and as an essential part of the Israeli workforce. Twenty-five percent of Israeli doctors are Israeli Arabs and the number of Israeli Arabs pursuing bachelor’s degrees at Israeli universities and colleges jumped 60% over the last seven years to 47,000 in 2017. Arab students accounted for 16.1% of all students in bachelor’s degree programs last year, up from 10.2% in 2010. Still, even at the bachelor’s level, that meant that Israeli Arabs, who constitute about 21% of the total population, are still underrepresented in higher education.

Clearly, Israeli universities have an important role to play in increasing and upgrading Arab participation in the workforce and leading in the work of creating a truly shared society. The University of Haifa, for example, is well-positioned to play an outsized role in the Arab communities of northern Israel. Forty-five percent of its undergraduate students are Israeli Arabs.

Recognizing that higher education is critical to integrating Arabs into Israeli life, the University of Haifa has embarked on an ambitious series of programs to increase access for Arabs to university education and learn “soft” skills needed for employment in well-paying jobs. Integrated in these programs are opportunities to foster meaningful interactions between Jews and Arabs, thereby promoting a more inclusive, shared society — on campus and in communities throughout Israel’s northern periphery.

Three hundred Israeli Arab and Jewish students gain leadership skills and cross-cultural teamwork experiences, then collectively identify social challenges and develop solutions in 30 partnering municipalities in the north, including seven Druze villages, 10 Israeli Arab communities, and five mixed cities. With increased resources the University can significantly increase its impact and reach and its ability to serve as a powerful model for other colleges and Universities.

The University of Haifa is committed to using its resources and involvement in the Arab sector to promote understanding and strengthen relationships through Jewish and Arab partnerships; improve accessibility of education and high income jobs for Israeli Arabs; build an inclusive shared society and support peace-building and stabilization; foster policy change and tolerance; and empower entrepreneurs and grow the middle class. All of this represents a significant opportunity for American Jews to use increased philanthropic resources to invest in change agents like the University of Haifa as a powerful engine for the creation of shared society, thereby empowering positive change on a large scale even in the face of the policies and rhetoric of the current coalition.

Liron Shoham — executive director of the Inter-Agency Task Force on Israeli Arab Issues (IATF) — recently described this opportunity, stating that “progress on Jewish-Arab relations in Israel models a realistic and professional approach to complex social change, while backtracking fuels hyperbolic discourse and polarization in Israel, and about Israel. Today, the field working on Arab citizen equality and shared society in Israel is highly professional, cross-sectoral, politically and ethnically diverse, and multidisciplinary. It is filled with skilled experts and methodologies. American Jewish leaders can open their doors to these experts, learn from their knowledge, and come to Israel with clear intention and understanding of these issues…American Jews have years of experience, insight, and partnership to offer. Now is the time to lean in.” The current crisis provides an opportunity for American Jewish philanthropy— federations and foundations—to vastly increase investment in organizations, with the scope, leadership and will to promote large scale social change toward a more shared and peaceful future.

The IATF is in a prime position to to shed light on organizations and programs protecting and promoting a more equal and cohesive Israeli society. By coming together, American Jewish philanthropy, including Federations, Foundations and donors can send both a powerful message and a vital lifeline at this pivotal moment in Jewish history.

Some day, hopefully soon, the current crisis will end and a time of healing and rebuilding must begin for Israel and for all her citizens, all those who have been alienated. This is a task that American Jews can and must share with our Israeli brothers and sisters for the sake of all of Israel’s citizens. Even more it can restore agency to American Jews and forge a true partnership toward a common agenda for the sake of the eternal bond between the American Jewish community and Israel.

Perhaps this is the moment for the American Jewish community to turn away from helplessness and despair and to act act in a unified way with a “powerful will, with resourcefulness, daring, and imagination” to “transform fate into destiny,” and “despair into creative and effective action.”