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Abraham Fund Co-Existence Week Winds Down In New York City

This has been a heady week for those committed to full equality for Israel Arab citizens, which make up 20 percent of Israel's population. First, a delegation from the Abraham Fund, a politically neutral non-government organization announced that it had been awarded a million dollar grant from the United States Agency for International Development and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg also proclaimed this to be New York City Abraham Fund Co-Existence Week.

The Abraham Fund is politically neutral and non-partisan. The group's director in Israel Amnon Be'eri-Sulitizeanu says that is both a rarity and a strength in Israel's highly polarized society, where one's group affiliation - Muslim-Jew, secular-religious, rightist-leftist - can create toxic mistrust among citizens and disastrous misunderstandings by policymakers.

"We have just put together what we call the 'Arab Society Folder' or 'Handbook' for decision makers in Israel, which refers to ten different aspects of the life of the Arab minority in Israel such as culture, press, politics, language, demographics, facts and figures, etc. So when they need to make any decision which is connected to the Arab community in Israel, it can be founded on facts and data which are valid, and eventually it will be an educated decision," he said.

Policing is one area where tensions between the Jewish majority and the Arab minority run especially high. Virtually all Israeli police officers are Jews. Be'eri-Sulitizeanu says this has resulted in a situation where Arab towns are either over-policed to prevent political violence, or under-policed in areas where community crimes such as drugs, theft and even intra-Arab murder are involved.

"And in this regard, we are encouraging the police to draft more Arabs into the force and at the same time offer true policing services to the Arab community," he said.

Studies show that school children on both sides of the Arab-Israeli divide are aware of the inter-ethnic tension in their land, which is reinforced by the fact that Israeli Arab schoolchildren must learn to speak Hebrew, while until recently, it was unusual for Israeli Jewish children to be taught Arabic, the nation's other official language.

Ami Nahshon, the Abraham Fund International President, says his group is working with the Education Ministry to change that.

"Our research shows that after a few months, kids begin to sort of melt away their stereotypes, their hopefulness about the future increases, their fear decreases, they willingness to have friends from the other group increases. So it's a remarkably straight line between learning the other language and culture and beginning to see your society as something more of a whole rather than something separate," he said.

A recent study by the Paris-based Organization of Economic Co-Operation and Development indicates that Israeli Jews enjoy a far higher per capita income than Israeli Arabs, where 50 percent of families live below the poverty line. One way out of the morass, says Nahshon, is by integrating Israeli Arab women into the national workforce, and that the Abraham Fund has put several successful programs in place on this front as well.

"It's working, and now the Israeli government and the private sector is all of sudden discovered that there is this untapped resource. We believe it's a key to reducing poverty and also, building more relations between Jews and Arabs. When you work together, you also understand each other and respect each other differently,' he said.

Those are underlying values that all sides in this longstanding conflict can agree on. Just how to translate those ideal into a practical and enduring peace will remain an abiding concern for all Israeli and the Middle East citizens for some time to come.