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Reform Campaign Focuses On Social Justice In Israel And Inequities Faced By Arab Citizens

Allan Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
January-February 2001

The Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC) has launched a three-year campaign called "Seeking Peace, Pursuing Justice." Washington Jewish Week (Dec. 28, 2000) reports that, "It is aimed at bringing attention in the U.S. to `peace and social justice issues in Israel,' including the `inequality and discrimination' faced by Arabs who live in Israel, according to project director Esther Lederman."  

Lederman said that the UAHC project will also deal with inequalities within the Israeli Jewish community, such as the place of Russian and Ethiopian Jews in Israeli society. She mentioned "coexistence projects," matching up Israeli and Arab communities, as one possibility.  

In Lederman's view, some of the problems faced by Arab residents of Israel "strike a chord with American Jews." For instance, she said Arab access to education is limited because most scholarship money is only available to Jews. Also, since Arabs do not serve in the Israeli army, they miss out on the contacts and training that help Israeli Jews find and keep jobs. And Arabs find it difficult to buy land because many Jews refuse to sell it to them.  

"Basic economic issues are not addressed," Lederman said. "The longer the Arab-Israeli community feels like it is discriminated against, the worse society becomes."  

Lederman will work closely on the project with Leonard Fein, who recently stepped down as director of the Reform movement's Commission on Social Action and is now a senior consultant with the UAHC. In addition, leading figures in the Reform movement, such as Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism director Rabbi David Saperstein and UAHC president Rabbi Eric Yoffie will be intimately involved.  

Some criticism of the project has been heard. Morris Amitay, a longtime pro-Israel activist and former executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), thinks the Reform plan is "not a good idea."  

"I feel it's basically a misguided effort that can only be hurtful" to Israel, and is just a manifestation of "traditional Jewish guilt," said Amitay, who declared that any good will toward the Arab community will "not be repaid."  

Esther Lederman disagrees. She notes that this project is coming at the same time that local Jewish federations are considering giving money to Israeli Arabs and is following in the path of the New Israel Fund, which has worked on the issue of Arabs' place in Israeli society for a number of years. "Jews from all over the world give to the New Israel Fund," says Lederman, which proves that the issue "resonates with people."

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