In the aftermath of the Gaza conflict and subsequent violence between Jews and Arabs in Israel, the question is more urgent than ever: “Israeli Arabs: Why should the Greater MetroWest community care?”
That query will be addressed by Avivit Hai, program director in Israel for the Inter-Agency Task Force on Israeli Arab Issues. She will speak on Monday evening, Dec. 8, at the Leon & Toby Cooperman JCC in West Orange, at the second meeting of the Israel Arab Committee of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.
The group, which functions under the umbrella of the federation’s Israel Center, is charged with educating the community about issues related to Israeli Arab citizens and Jewish-Arab relations in Israel.
Hai told NJ Jewish News in an e-mail interview that the escalations of violence between Jewish and Arab citizens over the summer are “widely considered to be the most severe since October of 2000, and numerous actors and leaders in the field are concerned regarding the long-term ramifications and negative implications the events of this summer could have on Jewish-Arab relations.”
“At the same time,” she added, “civil society proved very active and relatively resilient, and organizations are working tirelessly to present positive alternatives to the current deterioration and to plan their activities for the future to counter these negative trends.”
The Task Force, which was formed in 2006, works with over 20 federations, over 50 foundations, advocacy organizations, and the three major Jewish religious streams in the United States “to bring information on realities in Israel related to Arab society and Jewish-Arab relations to them in a reliable, balanced, and professional manner.”
Phyllis Bernstein of Westfield — AIC cochair with Jim Paul of Summit and Carol Simon of Millburn —said she met Hai on a trip to Israel in 2012 and heard her speak at a number of meetings and conference calls with the IATF. Hai also wrote the Task Force’s recently released paper, “Jewish-Arab Relations in Israel and the Summer of 2014: Assessments and Insights.”
“Our people always ask, who are the Arab Israelis and why should we care, and we felt Avivit has a comprehensive knowledge,” Bernstein said. “On the whole, the impact of the summer’s events on Jewish-Arab relations and how new escalations centered in Jerusalem will affect the Arab citizens is yet to be seen. Those escalations were severe and we are concerned regarding their effects on long-term efforts to promote a more equal, tolerant, and shared society.”
Hai has been involved in issues related to the peace process, reconciliation, and equality her entire professional life. In addition to being the “eyes and ears of the IATF on the ground in Israel,” according to Bernstein, Hai is also the liaison between government offices and Arab, Jewish, and joint NGOs.
She joined the Task Force in 2008 after working for 10 years with the Economic Cooperation Foundation in Tel Aviv. Her work now involves implementing a wide array of Israeli Palestinian civil society projects relating to social welfare, education, and cross-border cooperation.
Hai was born and raised in a small kibbutz in the western Galilee, where, she told NJJN, “I was taught equality and solidarity as part of my ‘socialist’ upbringing.”
When she was 14, her father was sent as a shaliah — or emissary — for the Jewish Agency to Atlantic City. She spent the next two years as a student at Atlantic City High School. It proved a very formative time. “On the one hand,” she said, “I had significant culture shock and experienced very strongly what it feels like to be ‘a fish out of water’ — having to speak a language that’s not your mother tongue and to try to mediate between the culture you came from and the culture in which you live. On the other hand, I had the experience of American multiculturalism and strong civic discourse, which is quite different than the discourse used in Israeli education system (even in the kibbutz).”