Speaking in Scotch Plains, an Israeli-Arab activist from Nazareth described how her organization is using the tools of municipal government to improve the living conditions of Israel’s Arab minority.
Ghaida Rinawie-Zoabi, founder and executive director of Injaz Center for Professional Arab Local Governance, spoke frankly before a group of 12 people at the Wilf Jewish Community Campus in Scotch Plains on Oct. 18. Her nonprofit provides training and forums to help local politicians, municipal leaders, and activists function more professionally and effectively.
“We need to be able to empower ourselves in our institutions, in professionalizing our own institutions, and not cry and whine that we are victims,” she said. “We are victims of history and of the current situation, but we cannot wait for Allah to come and fix things. We have to do it. We can start by thinking about how to professionalize our institutions.”
Injaz is a grantee of the Social Venture Fund for Jewish Arab Equality and Shared Society, which is supported in part by the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ through the national network of Jewish federations. The Israeli government acknowledges that Arab citizens, comprising 20 percent of Israel’s population, face persistent inequality in terms of education, municipal services, and employment opportunities.
In the seven years since founding Injaz, Rinawie-Zoabi said she has chosen to focus not on “the depressing reality” but on “what can really change.” Working mostly with Arab mayors, she tries to create professional relationships between the Israeli government and local leaders to direct funding and planning in the most effective way.
“Israel is our state. How can we make it more open to us as Arabs so that we can effect political, social, and economic change for ourselves, so we can live in a dignified way?” she asked.
Despite the “anti-Arab discourse” among heads of various Israeli ministries, “there are senior officials willing to listen if I go there and provide professional data and research, and I present my agenda in a professional way,” she said. She added, “Waiting for things to happen to you will not get you anywhere. And saying everything is black and negative will not get you anywhere.”
Polished and articulate, she responded patiently to all of the questions that came her way. Most had little to do with her work at Injaz — like a question asking whether anti-Israel incitement was being taught in Israeli Arab schools. “They are teaching hatred in the West Bank and Gaza, not in the Arab schools in the rest of Israel,” she clarified, pointing out that she has a degree in psychology and Hebrew literature from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
She also discussed how fear and safety issues plague both sides. “Since 2000 we have been in an endless loop that has caused thousands of people dead on both sides.” She agreed that the Palestinian Authority and the PLO had missed opportunities for deals that were on the table prior to 2000, but she disagreed with members of the audience on what has happened since. “The question is whether and when the Israeli government would decide to end the conflict and help establish a Palestinian state,” she said.
She offered some hope that attitudes could change over the course of generations. Her father was 10, she said, when Israel “came to his family and took the land.” His family fled to southern Lebanon and lived in a refugee camp for two years. Managing to return, he eventually became a physician, training at Hadassah Hospital.
“But he wouldn’t ever invite a Jew into his home. He would say, ‘The Jews forced me out of my house. I wouldn’t invite one into my home,’” she recalled.
But Rinawie-Zoabi said she has a different perspective because she was born in Israel. “My best friend is Jewish. And I invited many Jews to my wedding,” she said.
Discussing the movement to boycott Israel, she said there is little discussion about it in Israel, and that it is “an issue in the Western world.” She agreed that pro-Palestinian activism should be based instead on efforts to “build, develop, and share” Jewish and Arab society, as one person put it.
Rinawie-Zoabi said many Israeli Arabs are wary of fundamentalists, who see people like her, a secular Muslim, as infidels.
“The more society has varied, liberal, open tolerance in lifestyle and values, the more it will be a progress[ive] society,” she said. She added that in recent polling, most Arabs feel, as she does, that Israel is their country, and they just want to live there in dignity.
“The Palestinian people are fed up with the struggle; they just want peace,” she said.