Israel is investing $3.5 billion to improve the condition of its Arab population because of the recognition that the country can’t move forward while its largest minority lags.
That national effort and the ways philanthropists can support it were the subject of a session at the Jewish Funders Network conference called “Five Years and 15 Billion NIS: Closing Gaps Between Israel’s Jewish and Arab Citizens by 2022” on March 21.
The speakers were Shuruk Ismail, the Arab community program director for Yad Hanadiv, a nonprofit working with Rothschild family foundations; Amir Levi, Israel’s budget director in the Finance Ministry; and Ghaida Rinawie-Zoabi, the general director of the Injaz Center, which works to improve Arab local officials.
Ismail said most of the Arab population lives in underdeveloped towns with poor educational systems in Israel’s periphery.
“Many Arabs, including women, lack the resources to attain economic opportunities and face high social and cultural barriers for employment,” Ismail said
Israel’s government, working with nongovernmental organizations, has made Arab economic development a national priority to help achieve a sustainable economy. Toward the end of 2015, Israel launched a five-year economic development program for Arab citizens known as Government Resolution 922. The plan will spend 15 billion shekels on areas such as education, housing and transportation.
The program has game-changing potential if it better integrates Arabs into Israeli life. While it faces challenges such as bureaucratic barriers and a shortage of Arab expertise, philanthropic endeavors could play a significant role in the development of Arab civic society.
Positive Arab economic trends include rising employment among women and falling poverty rates. But the overall employment rate is much lower than among Israeli Jews overall, and a huge gap in average salary limits Arab participation in the labor market.
Levi said Israel’s Arab and ultra-Orthodox populations are growing rapidly, and their high unemployment rates create an unsustainable situation.
“Every gap leads to another gap,” he said. “The gap in education level is one of the main causes in income. Income gaps lead to weaknesses in local authorities. Weak authorities have less resources to investigate infrastructure and transportation in industrial areas, which is their source of income. This leads to a threat in jobs, which inevitably affects education.”
Resolution 922 aims to break that cycle. The major components include improving after-school programs, increasing the housing supply, such as high-rise buildings, making strategic investments in public institutions, refining transportation and upgrading urban roads, administering local authorities, and increasing domestic security.
The program has already decreased the education gap, added jobs and homes, enhanced personal security, and improved local government.
“In the last 15 years, a new generation has emerged of a true middle class possessing dignified citizenship, education and welfare and allows us to see what will happen to the future of the state,” Rinawie-Zoabi said about Israeli Arabs.
Arab women are becoming more active in the public sphere and having more influence on politics. Younger Arabs are pushing for greater civic engagement and transparency. Arab local authorities serve as the largest employers for Arabs in Israel. Newly elected Arab mayors, representing young professionals, are shifting from a sense of victimhood to one of collaboration with the Jewish population to change their own reality.
But Rinawie-Zoabi also noted setbacks within the Arab community. “We are currently undergoing a very violent geopolitical situation in the Arab world, the reality of the occupation, and the reality of building and maintaining a trust between the Arab society and Israeli government.”
Community leaders on both sides work on building trust despite internal opposition, she said. “I believe in change. I believe in good changes in the state and Arab society and that we need equal partnership between Arab and Jewish society.”
That partnership includes philanthropy.
“It is to the credit of the JFN that they devoted a great deal of space and attention to the issue of shared society and closing the gaps with the Arab sector in Israel,” said David Gappell, a senior director of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation. He said the Schusterman Foundation recently decided to develop the Arab areas of its philanthropy, understanding their importance to the future of Israel. “The packed sessions at the conference are a good indication that there is growing interest among philanthropists to learn more about this issue and to act on it.”