By Thabut Abu Rass – Co-director of The Abraham Fund
As the crisis between Israel and Gaza saturates the media, it is important to take stock of the developing deterioration of Arab-Jewish relations within Israel and the gatekeepers who are courageously limiting the damage.
In the events that followed the tragic discovery of the murdered Israeli teenagers last month, there was a swell of incitement and violence against Arabs that spread across the country. The most awful manifestation of this was the murder of a Palestinian teenager.
Anxiety has grown among Jews and Arabs alike. Many Arab citizens are fearful of speaking Arabic on public transport and some are afraid to show up to work.
On the other side of the divide, the roadblock established by masked men at the entrance to Qalansawe and attacks on Jewish passers-by sow fear in the hearts of neighbouring Jews.
The scale of recent demonstrations around Arab towns has not been seen since the events of October 2000, at the outbreak of the second intifada.
Following this disintegration of relations, the government set up the Orr Commission, whose recommendations are aimed at healing rifts and preventing future flashpoints.
For the past decade, the Abraham Fund Initiative has been at the forefront of implementing the Orr Commission recommendations. In particular, we have worked to build better relations between Israel’s Arab citizens and the police and, over the years, we have witnessed a paradigm shift.
The most recent demonstrations in the Arab community have been a litmus test of police attitude and readiness of Arab officials to co-operate.
It is to both groups’ credit this situation did not descend into more serious violence, with Arab mayors taking responsibility for curbing the disorder and the police demonstrating restraint and an ability to manage demonstrations of Arab citizens at a time of crisis.
At the government level, we have seen a more mixed reaction. Ministers are divided between those making an effort to impart responsible messages and others who will not miss an opportunity to fuel unrest and cynically amass political capital at the expense of our future.
A ray of light has been the characteristically wise response from the outgoing and incoming presidents, Shimon Peres and Reuven Rivlin.
Rivlin, despite holding political opinions that might seem in opposition to the mainstream Arab-Israeli community, is a tower of democratic strength and has always been a firm supporter of the work of the Abraham Fund.
The joint statement the presidents released is an inspirational vision of a shared society. On a more local and intimate level, the Abraham Fund has been promoting shared society for many years.
Our school encounters programme brings Jewish and Arab schools together for a full year of activities and cultural events. This project does not impact solely on the 8,000 students who take part, but on the teaching staff, the families and the broader community.
In a letter to the school families from the twinned schools of Al-Majr in Tayibe and the Democratic School in Kfar Saba, the Arab-Jewish shared society teachers wrote:
“It is during times such as these we must bring to light the importance of our experiment… there is an obligation to present a different voice – a voice of sanity, of partnership, of hope. We believe these past two years of partnership have developed between us a secure anchor for us to hang on to, until the storm passes.”
The Abraham Fund echoes the courageous words of these educators. The atmosphere may be dismal, and we might easily be overwhelmed by a sense of hopelessness and be led to believe that Jews and Arabs have no future together in this country – but we have neither the social nor the political privilege of succumbing to despair.
The issue of co-existence for Jews and Arabs in Israel is not a question of “whether or not” but of “how”. Jews and Arabs will continue to live together in Israel – to work, study and live together or alongside each other.
We call on our supporters in the UK to show the courage to demand recognition of this fact and to help us to tackle the question of how Jews and Arabs will continue to live together in an ever-changing Israel.
• This article was co-written by Amnon Be’eri Sulitzeanu of The Abraham Fund