The difference between creating a “Shared Society” in Israel and aspiring to “Coexistence” between Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel is substantial, and most people have no idea why creating a “shared society” is critically important for Israel’s democracy, stability, and sustainability.

A shared society does not mean that Zionism and the Jewish character of the state are sacrificed. Nor does it mean that Arab citizens will lose their identity or their narrative. It does mean that Arab Israeli citizens will share a stake in Israel as first-class citizens and thereby assure their loyalty to the state they share with Jews.

Since the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1948, following an invitation that promised social, economic and political equality to all citizens, including Arabs, the promise has not as yet been fulfilled. Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert confessed in 2007 that Israel’s Arab citizens are decidedly 2nd class citizens.

The intent of the founders of Israel that it be Jewish and democratic (though not explicitly calling it a democracy) is not the agenda of many right-wing political parties in Israel today because they intend Israel to provide equal rights only to Jews and not to the 20% of the population that is Arab.

It is my view that Israel today faces three primary existential threats; the Orthodox-Secular divide, the second class citizen status of her Arab population, and the lack of a two-states for two people’s resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

This past week, my congregation welcomed Mohammad Darawshe, the Director of Planning, Equality and Shared Society at Givat Haviva, Israel. Givat Haviva was founded in 1949 by Jewish and Arab Israelis in order to create a “shared society” of Jews and Arabs in the new State of Israel. Mohammad is a 27th generation Muslim Arab Israeli. He holds masters degrees in Peace & Conflict Management and Public Administration, as well as Bachelor’s Degrees in English and Political Science, and in Multi-Disciplinary Political science. He has an unparalleled understanding of Jewish-Arab relations and has served in the Knesset out of the Prime Minister’s office in a number of capacities.

I am quoting from Mohammad’s writings based on what he shared with us not only because he was so clear, but also because my congregants and I felt optimistic about Israel’s future based on Givat Haviva’s vision.

An apology – This blog is longer than what I normally post, but the message is so important for the future of Israel that I decided to forgo my normal word  limit and share Mohammad’s message more fully. I have retained the British spelling of Mohammad’s original texts.

“The development of a joint vision for a shared society for Jews and Arabs in the State of Israel is not an easy task. The term “shared society” indicates the maturing of approaches that have become obsolete. The common term used to be “coexistence,” which involved an inherent inequality. MK Ahmad Tibi used the analogy of the horse and the rider. Sadly, this does not reflect a beautiful synergy and coexistence between the two. The problem is that at the end of the ride, the horse is led to the stable to eat hay, and the horseman goes into his castle and dines on steak… That is what coexistence encounters looked like for many years, during which the Jewish master was kind enough to “dismount,” touch the discriminated Arab [citizen], caress him and even say some conciliatory words, and then return to the separate and unequal reality.

Over time, the Jewish-Arab relationship has matured, and we moved on to a discourse of partnership and common interests, and a dialogue on socio-economic equality in the unequal political reality.

… It should be emphasized that in a shared society, all citizens must be considered legitimate, not only regarding their right to live in this land, but also regarding their rights for power sharing and decision making.

What is important is to begin the conversation on a joint vision. It may take us several years before we reach the formula that would win the voices of the majority of Jewish citizens and the majority of Arab citizens in this country. We have to get started.

Mutual trust between the parties has to be constructed at the beginning of the process.  It will be followed by providing tools for supporting the effort of building a shared society: Civics education, bi-lingual education, teaching narratives, negotiation and conflict-resolution skills so that we do not stumble and fall along the path.

We then must arrive at a civil consensus that will turn Israel into a normal state, which recognizes all of its civil elements. Then we would need the kind of leadership that has enough courage to start implementing a joint vision, and yield success stories.

We have already started implementing some of these ideas. … We must build trust among citizens, as all Jewish and Arab citizens and children are entitled to positive experiences, which will shape their positive opinions of the other. The future leadership will grow among these children.  However, we cannot place all the responsibility on their young shoulders. The responsibility is on our generation. The leadership that will shape the future must start with us.

Together with my colleagues who are active in the field of shared society, we have initiated dozens of projects that prove that this can work. But all the organizations combined barely reach five percent of the population. We only touch five percent of our target audience – and that is not enough.

Hummus Coexistence

Givat Haviva was the first organisation to start trying to address the negative effects of the [equality] gaps [between Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs]. 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 [Jews and Arabs] 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.

A Shared Community

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 a 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, …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.

Fulfilling the Values of the State

[Former] 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.[As has the President of the State, Reuven Rivlin]

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.

‘If you apply solutions you will get results’

…Ten years ago the Arab population of [The Technion] 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.’

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 [greater than the Arab proportion of the entire population 20%]. This tells you that if you want to solve a problem, you have to apply the 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.

As long as the cycle of violence of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues, as long as the terrible occupation continues to destroy Israel, the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel will continue to be torn between their country and their people.

We [address this problem] …by creating a perennial, multi-aged educational process that can overcome the almost total separation between Arab and Jewish children in Israel. We do this through programs that build the basis for equality and integration, and we do this through teaching the Hebrew language to Arabs and the Arabic language to Jews.”