A small group of American Jewish leaders that came to Israel recently is determined to put the issue of Israel's Arab minority higher on the American Jewish agenda.
In an interview at a Haifa hotel, Rabbi Brian Lurie of San Francisco, the force behind the initiative, spoke calmly but could hardly hide his emotions.
Time is running out, he warned: Unless drastic action is taken to equalize the standard of living of Israeli Arabs and Jews, Arab frustration could endanger the country's security.
The Jewish-Arab Task Force met Sept. 20 for a day of discussions with politicians and experts to discuss ways to make Arab citizens feel more equal. The meeting, organized by the New Israel Fund, will be followed by a meeting in New York in November to take action in the American Jewish community on behalf of Israel's Arabs.
"We are trying to create an umbrella organization that looks at the Israeli Arab issue as a priority issue," Lurie said.
The specifics of the plans are still unclear, but, according to Larry Garber, the New Israel Fund's executive director, they should include more funds to minorities in Israel, a broad educational program about why the effort is necessary and "a dialogue with Israeli leaders on these issues."
Lurie initiated the idea several years ago, but now is giving it an additional push.
Helping Israeli Arabs was a cause celebre among many American Jewish groups in the late 1990s, but it receded as a priority after the Palestinian intifada began in September 2000.
Israeli Jews were shaken when Arab citizens rioted in solidarity with the Palestinians shortly after the intifada began. A number of Israeli Arabs also were involved in terrorist attacks, raising Jewish fears that the community could serve as a fifth column for irredentist Palestinians who do not accept the Jewish state.
But Lurie, a former head of the United Jewish Appeal, says his conviction that more needs to be done on Jewish-Arab relations has intensified since the intifada began.
"The October 2000 riots were a wake-up call," he said.
Also attending the meetings in Israel were Steve Schwager, the executive vice president of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee; Harriet Weiss of the UJA-Federation of New York; Jeffrey Solomon, the president of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies; Ami Nahshon, the president of the Abraham Fund, and Garber.
The task force spent the day listening to briefings from Israeli legislators jurists, leaders of the Islamic Movement and civil rights groups such as Sikkuy.
Some of the guests already are involved in projects to improve Israel's Arabs' standard of living. But no one has any illusions: Task force participants are aware of the fact that it will take considerable time and effort to recruit American Jewish organizations -- and public opinion -- for work with the Arab community.
Since its establishment 26 years ago, the New Israel Fund has devoted 25 percent of its funds to Israel's minorities. The challenge has been to reach a broader spectrum of American leadership and convince them of the importance of the issue.
"Among our supporters there is an appreciation that this is a crucial issue, but we still need to reach a broader spectrum," Garber said.
The need to face Israeli Arab issues has become more urgent in recent months due to growing public debate about the "demographic danger" inherent in Arabs' growing proportion of the Israeli population.
The task force was briefed by Rabbi Michael Melchior, deputy minister in the Prime Minister's Office, who warned that talk of the "demographic threat" is used to disenfranchise Israeli Arabs.
"The moment you refer to Israel's Arabs and the Arab womb as a demographic threat, you can no longer treat them fairly and equally," Melchior said.
He added: "If we grant them rights as individuals and as a community this could, in fact, strengthen the Jews in this country. My approach to the issue is moral rather than demographic."
Some insist that fully equal rights for Israeli Arabs must be accompanied by equal responsibilities on the Arabs' part, such as national service.
Arnon Sofer of Haifa University has said that the number of Israeli Arabs will reach 2 million in 2020 and the Jewish majority will shrink to 65 percent, compared to its present 80 percent.
Knesset member Avigdor Lieberman, head of the far-right Israel, Our Home Party, has made demography a key issue of his platform. Lieberman says Israel should exchange territory with the Palestinian Authority so that blocs of Arab villages along Israel's border with the West Bank will be turned over to P.A. control in exchange for Israeli control of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
If boundaries are redrawn to exclude Israeli Arabs, "it's the beginning of the Arab-rein concept," Lurie said, a play on the Nazis' wish to have an area that was Judenrein, or clear of Jews.
"Then what -- are we a democracy? This is a frightening reality," he said.
However, advocates of plans like Lieberman's note that it conforms with the historic principle of separating Jewish and Arab populations into two states for two peoples, one rationale behind the recent eviction of Israeli settlers from the Gaza Strip. All involved understand that a future Palestinian state will contain no Jews, even if it means uprooting tens of thousands of Jews from their homes.
Participants in the discussions heard data from Shuli Dichter, co-director of the Sikkuy Association for the Advancement of Civil Equality, illustrating alleged Israeli discrimination against Arab citizens. For example:\n
• An Arab family is three times more likely to be poor than a Jewish family;\n
• Only 63 percent of Arab men aged 45-54 are in the workforce, compared to 87 percent among Jewish men of the same age;\n
• In Arab towns, specialty medical clinics serve an average of 29,500 residents, compared with 15,500 residents per clinic in Jewish towns; and\n
• Only 1.5 percent of government allocations to nonprofits go to Arab groups that help the poor.
Arab participants in the meetings expressed interest in the involvement of American Jewry on their behalf. That represented a change from the past, when Arabs were hostile to American involvement in the region, Lurie said.
Is the American Jewish public receptive to supporting the Arab population in Israel?
"That's a difficult question," Garber said. "Parts of the American Jewish community are disconnected from Israel; others focus on security issues. I think we should focus on the leaders."
But not only them.
"The ignorance of American Jewish public opinion is enormous," Lurie said. "The average American Jew does not even know that 20 percent of Israel's citizens are non-Jews."