Investing in the future

Participants in the Young Coexistence Leadership Development Program – a two year course to develop leadership skills in order to create future leaders in coexistence.Ask a Jewish and an Arab citizen of Israel what their definition of coexistence between their …

Participants in the Young Coexistence Leadership Development Program – a two year course to develop leadership skills in order to create future leaders in coexistence.Ask a Jewish and an Arab citizen of Israel what their definition of coexistence between their communities and you could hear two different views. Within the current climate, Israeli Jews might answer ‘the absence of violence’, while their Arab counterparts would likely say “equality.”

One of the goals of the Citizens Accord Forum between Jews & Arabs in Israel is to narrow that gap in understanding. Established in 2000 by Rabbi Michael Melchior, currently member of Knesset and at that time the Minister of Israeli Society and the World Jewish Community, the Forum aims to reduce the schism which exists between Jews and Arabs in Israel and to develop the country’s civil society.

“We started the Forum because of the deterioration of the situation between Jews and Arabs in Israel,” Melchior told ISRAEL21c on the eve of a speaking tour in the U.S. “We have to understand that whether we have peace, and no matter where the borders are going to be, that we have a large Arab population within our society. We have to find a way to live together, which means with respect and coexistence. We haven’t been very good it at until now, and we can’t afford to postpone working on this until all the political problems are solved.”

According to Associate Director Paul Leventhal, the two main aims of the Forum are
to encourage Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel to become involved in cooperative efforts which will lead to better understanding and to develop the Arab sector towards empowerment.

“Our organization is built on Jewish values – which mean honoring those who live among you. You can’t grant rights to others – they have to do it themselves. We aim to provide tools for the Arabs in Israel to attain self-empowerment,” says Leventhal in between running to meetings with Melchior at the Forum’s offices.

Despite his busy schedule in the Knesset, the Danish born Melchior is consulted on all Forum decisions, he supervises its programs and sits in the organization’s offices in southern Jerusalem. According to Leventhal, Melchior is a social activist who uses politics as a means to an end.

Melchior has been chief rabbi of Norway for the last 20 years, and he was founder of a moderate religious party Meimad. He was also deputy foreign minister in the last Israeli government.

“Coexistence work has become more and more difficult. Despite this, we are witnessing more resilience and determination among coexistence organizations, which want to expand their efforts and activities and reaffirm their commitment to furthering this cause,” Melchior says. “Under impossible conditions over the last 3 years, we’ve managed to be successful. Although we had hoped that we’d be working in a post-peace era, the results we’ve seen have given us some hope for the future.”

The Forum focuses on three central programs, Leventhal explains. Israel’s first Hebrew-Arabic National newspaper supplement came into being as the result of the Forum forming a Jewish-Arab press club. Including some of the country’s veteran and most respected journalists, the club is putting out its first supplement next month which will appear in all major Hebrew and Arab papers and will center on social and cultural issues impacting coexistence.

According to Leventhal, there’s almost a total disconnection and lack of familiarity among Jewish journalists with regard to Arab affairs, which has significant implications for the fabric of relations between the two populations.

“This (project) will enable Arab journalists to appear in the Hebrew press and vice versa,” says Leventhal. “It will bring the communities together, lowering the level of mutual demonization, and will enable the two sides to talk.”

Another area in which the Forum is making a priority is the Coexistence Organizations Network. In conjunction with the Abraham Fund, the Forum has established a network of 120 organizations dealing with coexistence – together with the Abraham Fund – a not-for-profit organization dedicated to promoting coexistence between the Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel – to act as a unified lever through which the organizations can work together and share ideas.

“There are only 12 full-time coexistence organizations,” said Leventhal, “and the rest are grouped in a way that has an element of coexistence within their missions. But there’s no coordination. What we’re trying to do is to get these groups to share resources, help develop them and make them work more professionally. It’s a first in the area of coexistence – we’re creating a trade union. None of these groups is working on the macro level, which is where we come in.”

The final major project the Forum has established is the Young Coexistence Leadership Development Program, in which 40 Jewish and Arab teens are undergoing a two year course to develop leadership skills in order to create future activists for NGOs in Israel and train leaders in coexistence.

According to Leventhal and the Forum’s Program Director Felix Nevo, surveys conducted among those who work in the field found that the average age of those who work for coexistence was 40 years and above, and young leadership in the field was almost completely lacking.

“There’s no academic discipline for coexistence – you can’t go get a degree in it at a university. What we did was take selected youth – equal numbers of Jews and Arabs – out of a pool of over 2000 candidates, and we’re developing their capabilities to be tomorrow’s coexistence leaders,” says Leventhal.

The two year program, developed in conjunction with UNESCO, addresses all the core issues of the dispute. Nevo explained that the first year consists of learning materials on history, culture, international law and background on Israel.

“We teach them about each other’s culture, how to solve problems using paradigms,” said Nevo. “The second year is more practical work, as they begin to market their ideas. They’ll appear before the Knesset, the Israeli Arab Monitoring Committee, and the media will have full access to them. They’ll need to implement what they’ve learned, and we’ll see how they do.”

Nevo is practical about the long term benefits of the program, whose participants meet for one day every three weeks, but says that even if it’s a failure, it will be a success.

“Their influence will be felt, if only at first from their immediate circle of family and friends. But you have 40 kids – left wing, right wing, Arab, Jew, religious, secular – reaching out to their communities. They joined because they believe in coexistence, and we want to infect the whole country with their virus.”

(The Citizens Accord Forum can be reached at
Tel: 972 2 673 1118
Fax: 972 2 673 1119)