Economic development center boosting Israeli Arab businesses

The Center for Jewish-Arab Economic Development has been honored for being an innovator in supporting Israeli Arab small businesses.Fourteen years ago, Sarah Kreimer founded The Center for Jewish Arab Economic Development that has sponsored joint projects between Israeli Jews and …

The Center for Jewish-Arab Economic Development has been honored for being an innovator in supporting Israeli Arab small businesses.Fourteen years ago, Sarah Kreimer founded The Center for Jewish Arab Economic Development that has sponsored joint projects between Israeli Jews and Arabs that would help bring Arabs – who make up 20 percent of Israel’s population – into the country’s economic mainstream.

This month the center’s work was recognized by the Israeli Knesset, which presented Kreimer and her co-director, Helmi Kittani, with its Quality of Life award for their efforts. The award has also been bestowed on Givat Haviva, a learning, training and research institute dedicated to Arab-Jewish rapprochement and Oggen, The Association for Ethics and for the Eradication of Corruption in Israel.

Kreimer, who was raised in the United States, first came to Israel as a volunteer in a Project Renewal program in 1980 after completing a bachelor’s degree at Yale University. She then joined Interns for Peace and lived for almost two years in Tamra, an Arab town of 20,000 in Western Galilee, building a network of joint activities between Tamra’s Arab residents and the nearby Jewish residents of Kiryat Ata, before starting the center.

“Our view is a pluralistic one, that Israel’s most valuable resource is its people, whether they are Jewish or Arab, and if you don’t invest in them and in their development you are cutting them off,” Kreimer said.

The range of the center’s work to benefit Israeli Arabs has moved from business finance, to education and training, to business incubators.

The center has helped sponsor the first Israeli-Arab high-tech incubator that will open in the mixed Arab-Jewish city of Nazareth at the end of this month. Investors include Arabs and Jews, including entrepreneur Davidi Gilo, a California-based Israeli who sold his company, DSP Communications, to Intel for $1.6 billion in 1999.

The CJAED founded a training program for Arab women entrepreneurs and several hundred of its 1,000 graduates have started businesses. Mayors of Arab towns now count the women as a critical resource when they look at how to develop their local business communities.

The center was also crucial in convincing Israel’s Small Business Authority to adapt an entrepreneurship program for Israeli Arabs that was initially intended to help immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Today, the Small Business Authority runs four centers in Israeli Arab towns.

The CJAED-sponsored Arab Business Club has signed cooperative agreements with the Israeli Manufacturers Association, the Israeli Chamber of Commerce and the Israeli workers’ union, the Histadrut. The business club has 100 members and offers scholarships to Israeli Arab students studying for degrees that will lead to high-tech jobs.

In addition, the center’s placement programs have helped Israeli Arabs find executive positions in companies that normally would have overlooked them. A training program that brings together young Arab and Jewish entrepreneurs is now being upgraded to a master of business administration program.

The center hasn’t overlooked Israel’s business relationships with Palestinians either. It sponsors a Palestinian-Israeli business forum to foster partnerships and has led to joint projects in the textile industry that have survived despite the current upsurge of violence.

But the road hasn’t always been smooth.

The conflict has trapped Israeli Arabs between conflicting loyalties to Israel and to their friends and relatives in the Palestinian Authority.

The security situation has also scared away Israeli Jews whose tourism and Saturday shopping had become an important source of income – up to 40 percent monthly – for the Israeli Arab towns and their businesses.

Meetings between Israeli Arabs and Palestinians have been downgraded to phone calls amidst stringent travel restrictions, and many joint projects have been frozen – such as a plan by Motorola Israel to set up a plant in the Palestinian city of Tulkarm.

But despite the situation and lack of trust, Jewish and Arab businesspeople have not lost hope for progress.

“The business community is thinking long-term, strategically, and during this difficult period is focusing on dialogue and attempting to develop joint projects despite the underlying erosion of trust among the general public,” Kittani said.

As much as the center has accomplished, Kreimer said the goal of Jewish-Arab economic integration awaits a full-fledged peace agreement. Such an accord, she said, would not only improve Jewish-Arab relationships, but strengthen the entire economy and society.