OPINION: Givat Haviva and the pursuit of a shared society

OPINION: Givat Haviva and the pursuit of a shared society

Justin Cohen is the News Editor at the Jewish News

Mohammad Darawshe
Mohammad Darawshe

By Mohammad Darawshe, the Co-Executive Director of the Givat Haviva Institute, spoke to a Fathom Forum in September 2014 about how to tackle the inequality and discrimination which Israel’s Arab community faces. He outlined historic reasons for this discrimination, but suggested constructive ways in which coexistence and equality can be achieved – with positive examples that can be found in the work of Givat Haviva and other institutions.

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Mohammad Darawshe
Mohammad Darawshe

The Arab citizens of Israel make up 20 per cent of its population; they became citizens in 1948 following an invitation contained in the Declaration of Independence of the State of Israel, which promised social, economic and political equality.

It also spoke of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, which is a far cry from the opinions of some of today’s right-wing political parties in Israel who are trying to say that democracy means democracy for Jews only. In my view, those political parties are acting against Israel’s Declaration of Independence. Israel also passed five Basic Laws which substitute for a written constitution; they talk about human rights, human dignity, freedom of expression, movement and so on. Unfortunately, many actions taken by successive governments over the past 66 years negate those Basic Laws.

Over those past 66 years, 67 unfulfilled government decisions have called for the creation of structures to end the discrimination against Arab citizens. Many other decisions have been fulfilled, but these 67 unfulfilled decisions could have probably solved 90 per cent of the discrimination.

The problem is not that we are lacking proper analysis of the situation; Israel understands that there is a problem of discrimination against its Arab citizens. For example, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said: ‘We the State of Israel have institutionally, deliberately discriminated against our Arab citizens.’ So it is not ‘Israel bashing’ to suggest that Israel has been discriminating against its Arab citizens – Israel came out of its denial and assumed responsibility for the discrimination. Olmert continued by saying, ‘this has to stop because this is in Israel’s national interest.’ This was the first time in Israel’s history that the end of discrimination was seen to be in the national interest of the state. Until that moment, the term ‘national interest’ was synonymous with the Jewish national interest, not the Israeli national interest; Arabs were excluded. This maturity represented a significant transformation in the state’s view of its Arab citizens.

Israel used to have a completely different view of its Arab citizens: between 1948 and 1966, despite the Declaration of Independence and the five Basic Laws, Israel imposed a military administration on its Arab citizens, who were viewed as a security and political problem rather than a civilian one. However, when the military administration was lifted in 1966, Israel essentially ‘kosher stamped’ Arab citizenship and accepted that the homeland for the Jewish people will always include a significant non-Jewish/Arab minority. This was a Knesset decision – with no international pressure – it was a result of the maturity of Israel’s political system.


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This maturity started the process of the ‘Israelisation’ of the Arab community. This included an invitation into Israeli society and a ‘welcome package’ of the modernisation of Arab communities and villages. This lasted until the mid-1970s, when the Arab community began to demand more than just modernisation and coexistence – it began to talk about equality. We stopped comparing ourselves to where we were in the 1940s and in the 1950s and started to compare ourselves to the Jewish communities in Israel; this led to some friction because the state was not delivering at the same rate as the Arab community was expecting.

After the Six Day War in 1967, and parallel to the ‘Israelisation’ process, what I call the ‘re-Palestinisation’ process gained momentum because Arab citizens of Israel were exposed to the rest of the Arab world through the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Most Israelis would say that these are two contradicting processes; most Arab citizens of Israel would say that both identities can co-exist in the same political mindset and that we can be both Palestinians and Israelis at the same time. This debate continued until the Oslo negotiations, after which the solution suggested for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders, which would not include Arab citizens of Israel in a Palestinian state.

There was talk about population exchange, but the consensus seemed to be that Palestine will be a homeland for the Palestinian people (whatever minorities it may have) and Israel will be the homeland of the Jewish people (whatever minorities it may have). From one end, this was a reaffirming of the ‘kosher stamping’ of Arab citizenship in Israel – in a final status agreement, Israel reaffirmed that it will have a significant Arab minority. But there was also a ‘halal stamping’ from the Palestinian side, saying that it was okay for Palestinians and Arabs to claim an Israeli national identity. However, although the Oslo negotiations strengthened the integration process, it did not deliver the ‘whole package’ of equality.

Givat Haviva is working on this equality gap (the gap between what is actually happening and what needs to happen); not only on government-Arab minority relations, but also between Jewish and Arab citizens (people to people). There is still a lot of suspicion and most Israeli Jews still view the Arab community as a security threat, rather than as a civilian matter. The suspicion is not helped by the significant gap in opinion between the two communities on what needs to be done with the Palestinians. This was particularly obvious in the last war on Gaza; at the beginning 86 per cent of Israeli Jews supported the war, whilst more than 80 per cent of the Arab citizens were against it. The same can be said of the Israeli call for the recruitment of Arab citizens to the IDF. Whereas 90 per cent of Arab citizens will refuse because they are not willing to be a part of the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza – which they see as an occupation force against their own people. This divergence in opinion is used to discriminate against Arab citizens on civil rights issues (claiming they are not patriotic enough) and this creates a gap in political perspectives between mainstream Arab and Jewish communities.


Givat Haviva was the first organisation to start trying to address the negative effects of these gaps. It founded the Jewish-Arab Center for Peace in 1963. Givat Haviva’s Center for Shared Society and the Shared Society Initiative are focused on both youth and adult audiences and the purpose of the initiative is to humanise the other side; to communicate that Jews have no horns and Arabs have no tails – these are basic principles we need to work on because the security and political context contributes to the dehumanisation of the other.

Givat Haviva applies three theories in its work.

Firstly, we operate with what we call the ‘soft contact theory’, working mainly between elementary school kids up to sixth grade. The goal is to humanise the other through positive engagements between Arab and Jewish youths and to have multiple encounters during the elementary school period. In 99 per cent of cases this is the first time a Jewish child has met an Arab child and vice versa. We focus on sports, arts, environmental issues and music; things that children can enjoy together and can say ‘I met an Arab and he wasn’t so bad,’ ‘I met a Jew and he wasn’t so bad,’ ‘we ate from the same hummus plate.’ Sometimes I call it the hummus coexistence!

Professor Ephraim Ya’ar of Tel Aviv University conducts a poll every year called the Racism Index. He asks Jewish and Arab children if they are willing to live in the same apartment building as an Arab or Jewish family. In his most recent poll, 68 per cent of Jewish kids and 52 per cent of Arab kids said no. Much can be blamed on the school system in Israel: the wrong decision was made in 1948, to have separate schooling for Arabs and Jews. We are paying the price for that decision.

However, if you take the same questions and put them to kids who have come through some of our programmes, the racism rate drops to below 10 per cent. Why? When they think of an Arab or Jewish family, they think of their Arab or Jewish teacher; 90 per cent are able to relate to an Arab family through Arabs that they have personally met. This tells us that the problem of racism is mostly the result of either fear or ignorance. It also proves that the ‘soft contact theory’ works – that giving people the experience of human interaction with the other actually works to reduce stereotypes and reduce racism.

The second theory we work on is ‘skills acquisition’. No one is born a good citizen – you need to acquire the skills to live in a shared society. Those skills cover four areas. First, bilingualism/biculturalism: to understand the culture and the language of your fellow citizen. In my previous position at the Abraham Fund I was involved in setting up a programme called Ya Salam, which taught Arabic to Jewish children. We asked one of the fifth graders on the programme why it was important that he studies Arabic. He explained that when he got on the bus and would hear Arabic he would dial 100, (the number for the police) and have his hand on the call button. He was afraid. But, now he understands Arabic, he can understand what they are saying. Knowing the language of your fellow citizens reduces fear and creates engagement.

We also explore historical narratives. We see history differently – for example 1948. We see what happened in Gaza differently. We are not looking to create a joint narrative; we are looking to understand the different narratives –what does the other side think? The same thing goes for identity, the third part of skills acquisition. What is Arab identity and what is Jewish identity? For example, it is important for Arabs to know that Jews see their Judaism as part of a national identity; not just as a religious one, and for Jews to recognise that the Palestinian national identity is not the same as the Arab national identity. The fourth skill that we focus on is civics. Civics is the rules of the game: What is the State of Israel we live in? What are its laws? What’s the shared space that we have together? It’s learning the five Basic Laws together, learning the Declaration of Independence together, trying to examine the different interpretations of those laws and the rights given to individuals and learning how to live in a shared society according to the law.

The third theory we look at is ‘confrontation theory.’ We have  a programme called ‘Face to Face’, which we usually only bring to high school kids. It allows them to get into serious debate about narrative or topics like identity; to have an honest discussion in a contained environment. Usually it is a three-day workshop that ends with: ‘okay now that we have fought it out, we blamed you enough, we pointed our finger at you enough, you heard how angry and upset I am; now let’s talk about what we do next. How do we continue to live in a shared society despite our differences?’ We do not seek to convince each side of the other’s perspective, just to allow the space to bring about a new maturity in their perception of the other side – to allow them to engage in friendship despite their perceived differences.


We also bring these three theories (soft contact theory, skill acquisition and confrontation theory) to the adult population. One of our flagship projects in this field is called Shared Community, where we bring communities together, not to talk about the Jewish-Arab issue, but to engage in joint action which allows people to normalise relations with each other.

A second layer of our Shared Community project focuses on shared interests. At the moment we have six towns: three Arab and three Jewish, and we aim to create forms of cooperation between them. One form of cooperation is a tourism board: we have 42 businesses from the six communities; meeting once a week to develop joint strategies for marketing and for making money. We are trying to create a regional identity, not just a narrow Jewish or Arab town identity. We have also created an Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) forum. We organise an education programme: NGO management, public relations, media relations, fundraising and managing volunteers. Our aim is to increase the value each NGO has for their respective towns and to facilitate the NGOs to coordinate among themselves. For example, two weeks ago a Jewish NGO that works with Ethiopian newcomers decided to take them to the Israel Museum. Their bus was only half full, so they turned to an Arab NGO for elderly people from Kfar Kanna and asked if they would like to send 20 people on the same bus. In the end, Ethiopian Jews and elderly Arabs ended up going to the Israel Museum for a day out and both sides saved half of the costs of a bus; this gives them an incentive to cooperate. We created a space for them to coordinate and to work with each other: by saving money on a bus we have also created a joint Arab and Jewish activity. It’s as simple as that. It’s looking for the shared interests and mutual interests that sometimes could be just a saving of £200 from the cost of a day out. There really doesn’t have to be too much ideology.

The third layer of our programme is oriented to policy. It brings the key figures in the communities: the mayors, heads of the education department, town planners, and key business leaders to engage in monthly meetings. The idea is to solve disputes or to create plans which are sustainable for both sides. We discuss issues such as transportation, zoning of industrial areas and use of land in-between the communities. In these discussions, we try to identify how we can make the region more beneficial for both communities. Our aim is to expand the programme from the six towns we already have to the 73 Arab towns inside Israel.

The broader regional context also has to be resolved because it continues to impact negatively on Jewish-Arab relations. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict negates any effort to build a shared and cohesive society in Israel and that’s why we often engage in efforts to relieve Israeli-Palestinian tension. For example, we created a joint radio station called All for Peace. It was founded 10 years ago and it now broadcasts radio shows in Arabic and in Hebrew on the internet.


Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said that institutional and intentional discrimination has to end because it is in the national interest. I see ‘national interest’ as the fulfilment of the moral and democratic values of the state. Many other Israelis would argue that security is in the national interest. However, almost all former Shin Bet and Mossad directors have made statements in support of a shared and equal society in Israel.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has suggested in its three most recent reports that Israel can never be a stable economy as long as it continues to disenfranchise its Arab citizens. It is in the Israeli national economic interest to engage Arab citizens as equal contributors. Unemployment rates for Arab citizens are three times the national average and 56 per cent of Arab citizens live below the poverty line. These results of government policies and of a failure to attend to the problems the state has created.

Luckily there have been some recent initiatives to counter this problem. In 2007, Israel created the Authority for Economic Development of the Minority Sector, headed by Ayman Saif, who sits in the Prime Minister’s Office. I happen to be on their strategic planning team; while I support this effort, I am still full of criticism. Their programme focuses on infrastructure development, educational development and improving the housing needs in the Arab community. However, it is limited to 13 out of the 73 Arab towns. They argue that if they invest in the stronger 13 Arab towns and that this will lift up the remaining towns, but the remaining the 60 towns cannot wait until those towns 13 become stronger. The government investment needs to be at least three times what it is today in order for it to be significant.


My approach is not anti-government; I try to engage with the government to help them implement the good ideas they come up with whilst also pushing them to implement full equality. For example, Galil Software was founded as a result of government funding. It was a company created by six Arab software engineers who were unable to pin down a job due to discrimination. All of them were graduates of the Technion and top professionals in their field. They were offered assistance by two Jewish business leaders and were able to acquire a loan from the government to set up their own company. Six years later it is a company of 160-170 engineers, 30 of whom are Jewish. They stopped being an Arab company and started to become a software engineering company.

Another project I would mention is the success of the Technion in changing the demographics of its student intake. Ten years ago the Arab population of the university was three per cent. Many argued that there was ‘not enough intellect in the Arab community’ or that ‘the school system is lousy’, and even that ‘the Arab community could not compete in a challenging educational institution such as the Technion.’ (My daughter just got accepted there, she will be studying bio-medical engineering and I can tell you she’s had to work very hard over the past few years to get accepted.)

Two specific programmes were put in place. An Arab child receives only 65 per cent of what a Jewish child receives in the government educational system in Israel, so the Technion implemented a foundation year to close these gaps in knowledge. The second programme involved Jewish students mentoring new Arab students, helping them with Hebrew and getting to know the place. Now, 10 years later, Arabs make up 22 per cent of the student population of the Technion. This tells you that if you want to solve a problem, you have to applythe solutions, then you will get results.

No one can possibly argue any longer that there is not enough intellect in the Arab community or that there is a mentality problem when it comes to the sciences. It’s about creating opportunities and implementing the right policies to close the gaps. Arab students are examined with the same tests as Jewish kids and last month 50 per cent of the graduates from the Technion Medical School were Arab students.

I would summarise my talk in this way: Jewish-Arab relations are a success story, but we need to work harder to close the equality gap. That’s the job of Givat Haviva

This first appeared in Fathom Journal: http://fathomjournal.org/givat-haviva-and-the-pursuit-of-a-shared-society/