A group of American Jewish philanthropists crowd into a classroom to watch Iman Abu Zaid, a young Arab teacher, give a lesson to her class of Jewish fourth-graders. “You and I can change the world,” she sings to the students in Hebrew, sounding the lyrics of a popular Israeli song. The students serenade the lyrics back in Arabic. Abu Zaid, who could not find work in her hometown of Kafr Kassem, is the only Arab teacher at Ben-Gurion Elementary School in this industrial Israeli city not far from the country’s main airport. Abu Zaid was brought in by a program called Merchavim, which aims to integrate Arabs into public Jewish schools both as a means of employment and a way to increase the dearth of social interaction between Israeli Arabs and Jews.Merchavim is one of a series of projects working to help improve employment and educational opportunities for Arab Israelis receiving funding from a new and perhaps unlikely source: an American Jewish social venture fund.
The UJC Venture Fund for Jewish and Arab Equality and Shared Society, which was initiated by the United Jewish Communities/Jewish Federations of North America, is made up of 21 partners. A mix of private family foundations, federations, other philanthropists and professionals, it has raised more than $1 million since its launch in 2007.
The fund is a way for UJC to harness philanthropic interest in supporting Arab Israeli equality projects without making the potentially controversial move of tapping unrestricted UJC funds for such projects.
Earlier this month, a group of its funders visited Israel to see firsthand the programs they are supporting and scout for potential future projects.
“One of the most serious problems in Israeli society is the gap between Jewish and Arab sectors,” said Carol Smokler, who chairs the fund.
Smokler said its members reviewed 185 applicant proposals for funding, from which they selected 15 projects.
“It just shows the scope of the need,” she said.
Arab citizens make up some 20 percent of Israel’s total population, and while the state accords them the same rights as Israel’s Jewish citizens, in practice Israeli Arabs routinely face discrimination. This has resulted in significantly higher levels of unemployment among Israeli Arabs than Jews.
Government resources for decades have not been allocated equally to the Arab sector, leading to inferior schools and infrastructure. And many in Israel’s Jewish majority view the country’s Arab citizens as a potential fifth column, leading to social discrimination.
The government has acknowledged the Jewish-Arab divide as one of its most sensitive domestic issues, but change on the ground has been slow in coming.
Stuart Brown, one of the American Jews behind the Arab equality fund, said the question around which his group’s members coalesced was how they could contribute toward a more just and equal Israel.
“How can we help get done what the authorities have already said needs to be done?” he asked. “It’s a significant challenge for Israel and an issue that for anyone who cares about the future of Israel has to care about.”
Brown said he hopes the venture fund — as well as a foundation on whose board he serves, the Washington-based Naomi and Nehamia Cohen Foundation — will help raise awareness among American Jews of discrimination against Israeli Arabs.
“I don’t have any illusions we’ll persuade everyone that it’s right to pay attention to this and help the government and NGOs develop, but I am hoping some awareness will follow our action,” Brown said.
In Israel, the funders first visited education-related projects in the Negev Desert, including Bedouin women’s empowerment projects. Mamie Kanfer Stewart of the Lippman-Kanfer Family Foundation was among those especially moved by a visit with Bedouin high school girls receiving extra support and tutoring so they can complete high school at a level high enough to be eligible for college.
In the Galilee, they focused on economic development, visiting grant recipients including career training center Kav Mashve, which works to get Arab university graduates into the Israeli workforce, and Tsofen, an organization that focuses on finding work for Arabs in the high-tech sector. One project helps Arab women, one of the most underemployed segments of Israeli society, secure microfinancing for small businesses.
“This trip has really opened my eyes,” said Stewart.
At 27, Stewart was among the youngest funders on the trip. She believes the fund’s focus on shared equality and citizenship for all Israelis could attract the interest of young American Jews who have been feeling less enthusiastic about involvement in Israeli issues in recent years because of the complexity and confusion surrounding the political situation here.
“I think for my peers this is not an issue we can shy away from,” she said. “Social justice is a huge issue with my generation.”
Alisa Doctoroff of the Doctoroff Family Foundation said she was inspired by the progress being made by those involved with the initiatives the fund is helping support.
“You see people who have been energized, been utilized, that their value is being fulfilled,” she said. “They are participating in making Israel a better place, whether they are Arab or Jewish. Their examples show us there are things that one can do.”