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Promoting Civil Society between Arab and Jewish Israelis: An NGO’s Perspective

Shuli Dichter and As’ad Ghanem, co-directors of Skkiuy- a Jewish-Arab advocacy organization dedicated to achieving civic equality between Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel.

Date & Time

Jun. 21, 2002
12:00am – 12:00am ET


Today’s meeting is on Promoting Civic Society Between Arab and Jewish Israelis: An NGO's Perspective Our guest today are Shuli Dichter and As’ad Ghanem, the co-directors of Sikkuy, a Jewish-Arab advocacy organization dedicated to achieving civic equality between Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel. Sikkuy (the Hebrew word for “opportunity”) is an Israeli organization that was founded in 1991 to promote: Civic society, equal right and equal opportunity in all of Israel’s citizens.

Currently, 18 percent (1.1 million of 6.3 million) of Israel's population is non-Jewish. There are 945,000 Muslims and 130,000 Christians and 100,000 Druze living in Israel. Arabs in Israel have equal voting rights; in fact, it is one of the few places in the Middle East where Arab women may vote. Arabs currently hold 9 seats in the 120-seat Knesset. Israeli Arabs have also held various government posts, including one who served as Israel's Consul-General in Atlanta. Ariel Sharon's cabinet includes the first Arab minister, Salah Tarif, a Druze who serves as a minister without portfolio. Arabic, like Hebrew, is an official language in Israel. More than 300,000 Arab children attended Israeli schools. The sole legal distinction between Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel is that the latter are not required to serve in the Israeli army.

Still, Israeli Jews and Arabs have surprisingly little contact with each other. Most young people study at different elementary and secondary schools and may not come into contact with one another until college; by then, many preconceived opinions have been formed. This lack of interaction exacerbates tensions between the two communities.

Israeli Arabs also face their own conflicts as Palestinians in a Jewish state. While identifying with the Palestinian people and disputing Israel's identification as a Jewish state, they see their future tied to Israel. They have adopted Hebrew as a second language and Israeli culture as an extra layer in their lives. At the same time, they strive to attain a higher degree of participation in national life, greater integration into the economy and more benefits for their own towns and villages.

Since Israel's birth in 1948, some Arabs, especially religious Muslims, opposed participation in Israeli politics, since they viewed the state as illegitimate. But after the 1993 Oslo accords, Islamic religious groups fielded their own political candidates for the Knesset and encouraged their public to vote. They have become more Israeli than ever before. According to Shibley Telhami, Nonresident Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy Studies, writing in the The Baltimore Sun, October 4, 2000, “Most Israeli Arabs have learned to reconcile their Israeli citizenship with their Arab and Palestinian identities, making them a significant part of today's Israel. But the tension between the two parts of the self will not be significantly reduced for Israeli Arabs until peace between Israel and the Palestinians prevails.

Tensions however have escalated again and with Israeli troops stationed around all major Palestinian cities and Jewish Israelis on edge after a murderous wave of suicide bombings by Palestinian militants, many Israeli Arabs say they are being shunned, discriminated against and even threatened, while an equal number of Jewish Israelis are wary of their neighbors and dismayed by the support and sympathy they see given to the Palestinian side.

However contentious this issue, this meeting is NOT an effort to decide who is right and who is wrong or even to offer solutions to the question of Palestinian refugees. Those Palestinian refugees to return to areas they left in 1948 and the demographic fears of Israel, whose 20 percent Arab minority is growing faster than its Jewish population.

In the years since the founding of the State of Israel, the Arab Israeli community sector has made great strides in almost every area of development. For example, the median years of schooling of Arab Israelis rose incredibly over a 35-year period (1961-1996) from 1.2 to 10.4 years. Infant death rates per thousand live births decreased significantly during that same 35-year period. In the Muslim population, the rate dropped from 46.4 per thousand births to 10.0; among Christians the decrease was from 42.1 to 6.7; among the Druze it dropped from 50.4 to 8.9 deaths.

These advances are particularly striking when comparing Arab citizens of Israel to their brethren living in neighboring countries. However, it is also clear that much work must be done to close the gap between Arab and Jewish Israelis. Some issues include: The average family size in the Arab sector is far higher than that of Jewish families, greatly reducing the relative number of financial providers per dependent.
 Participation of women in the work force is still very low in the Arab sector, further reducing the average family income.
 Education levels in the Arab sector are relatively lower than those in the Jewish sector, often leading to lower incomes.
 The majority of Arab Israelis live in small communities with limited economic infrastructure. This plays a contributing factor in employment in unskilled or semiskilled fields, as well as the higher overall rates of unemployment.
 The lack of easy access to places of employment can also prevent employment commensurate with the skill or education level of the job seeker.
 Service in the Israeli Defense Forces gives veterans certain economic and other benefits. Although Arab Israeli youth who do not volunteer for army service gain a two-to-three year head start in their higher education or in joining the workforce, this does not always compensate for missing out on the benefits and training enjoyed by veterans.

Meeting the Challenge:
One of the most prominent examples of governmental activity designed to meet the challenge of closing the gap between the Arab and Jewish sectors is the October 2000 decision of the Government of Israel to designate resources for all areas of socio-economic development in the Arab sector communities of Israel.

The decision states that the Government "regards itself as obligated to act to grant equal and fair conditions to Israeli Arabs in the socio-economic sphere, in particular in the areas of education, housing and employment" and "to reduce the gaps between the Arab and Jewish sectors". The total cost of the multi-year plan is NIS 4 billion (approximately 1 billion US dollars) during the years 2001-2004.

The plan is coordinated by an inter-ministerial team, headed by the Prime Minister's Office, and is based on working jointly with Arab Israeli authorities.

Highlights of the plan are:
 Education projects, including construction of classrooms in pre-compulsory kindergartens, elementary and high schools; pedagogical plans to advance the educational system in the Arab sector; the opening of new courses of study in technological fields; setting up engineering-technician and vocational training courses.
 Construction of family health and dental clinics.
 Funds for the restoration, establishment and development of religious institutions in Arab sector communities.
 Development of public institutions for cultural, social and sports activities. First priority has been given to community centers of various sizes and sports halls in large communities. Funds will also be allocated to assist cultural, artistic and sports activities.
 The advancement of master schemes, outlines and detailed plans in Arab sector communities. These planning tools are vital for without them the physical development of these communities cannot implemented.
 Development of older neighborhoods, including new infrastructure and improvement of existing infrastructure. Special attention will be devoted to restoring dwellings owned by elderly persons living alone.
 Development of new neighborhoods using high-density public building, mainly on State lands, for a total of 5,000 dwelling units, as well as on private lands located with the bounds of Arab sector neighborhoods.
 Transport projects, including the development of a network of roads in the areas of Arab sector communities, internal road systems and safety projects.
 Six industrial zones in densely populated Arab areas, with the accompanying benefits to be granted to enterprises under the Encouragement of Capital Investments Law.
 Funding for various economic projects, such as development of trade and services areas, tourism infrastructure and holiday units.

As’Ad Ghanem, currently a Visiting researcher, program to study Arab politics in Israel,
Dayan Center, Tel-Aviv University, before that he held positios at University of Haifa as
the Coordinator of “Community Initiative” project, Center for Educational Research, and
Coordinator of the Section for Arabs in Israel at the Jewish-Arab Center, and was is Researcher, Institute for Peace Research, Jewish-Arab Center for Peace, Giv’at Haviva. He received his BA MA Ph.D. in Political Science, University of Haifa. Dissertation topic: The
Political Participation of Palestinians in Israel”

Shalom “Shuli” Dichter was the Co-Director of Children Teaching Children Program at Givat Haviva, was from 1994-1998 was Co-General Secretary of Kibbutz Maanit he has been an Arabic teacher, Open University, Israel, a Teacher and educator at Kibbut
Maanit, Principal of the elementary school. He has a B.A. in the History of the Middle East, Jewish History, and Social Education from Haifa University, Israel


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