The Abraham Fund Initiatives: 28,000 Good Reasons to Wake Up in the Morning
- Interview by Mary Liepold, Editor in Chief
Since its founding in 1989, The Abraham Fund Initiatives, winner of the Community Peacebuilder Award, has worked to advance equality for all of Israel’s citizens. It inspires social change by working directly with both Jewish and Arab citizens and with Israeli government institutions, the business sector, and civil society. The mutual trust that The Abraham Fund has built with both Arab community leaders and government has translated into groundbreaking and sustainable social-change initiatives inspiring policy change in language, culture and democracy education; Arab women’s economic development; and fair policing. Our interview is with Mohammad Darawshe, who is Co-Executive Director of the organization in Israel, along with Amnon Be’eri-Sulitzeanu.
Tell me the history of the Abraham Fund, please, Mr. Darawshe.
It started about 25 years ago among a few people, including Alan Slifka, a US stockbroker, and Rabbi Eugene Weiner, a US Civil Rights activist, both now deceased. They wanted to know what could be transferred from the Civil Rights movement to the situation in Israel. Alan donated money, brought US friends to match his money, and funded grassroots programs: 182 organizations and over 800 projects before 2005, seeding the whole coexistence movement, or, as some of my friends would say, the coexistence industry. I was behind the scenes early on, mapping all the good people doing good things. In those days the Abraham Fund was a funding partner, not an action partner.
In 2005 I was asked to lead a strategic change in the way the organization operates, looking for institutional impact. It was a tectonic shift. The 182 organizations were all doing wonderful work, but their target audience was the participants in the programs, and they were only touching 3% of the population. Especially in light of the clashes that occurred in 2000, with 13 deaths and a widening gap between Israeli and Palestinian citizens, we were no longer willing to engage in feel-good acts. We started looking for the burning issues, and we picked six.
One was the relationship between the police and the Arab community. It was always explosive, leaving killed and injured at every encounter. We identified two problems: over-policing, the use of excessive force, and under-policing, no presence at all on domestic violence and in other places where they were needed. The police perceived the Palestinian citizens of Israel as enemies to be controlled, not citizens to be serviced. So we built the Arab capacity to demand services, built dialogue programs to create accountability. We increased the number of police stations in our areas from 3 to 105 and the percent of Palestinians on the force from 1% to 8.1%. We conducted 243 training workshops covering 8,000 officers of the total 28,000. And those were the critical officers. We focus our energy now on station commanders, the higher command, knowing then we can expect impact at the lower levels. We have the blessing of the Arab Mayors Council, after many years of hesitation, and of the chief Superintendent of Police.
What’s the common thread in all six initiatives?
To do it large enough. They’re social startups. We work to bring them to implementation as large enough laboratories and then transfer them to government responsibility. The government is the largest change agent, so as one of my colleagues says, our job is to get the government pregnant with a project. We focus on the sustainable, projects that appeal to the masses and will bring large-scale change. Our women’s employment initiative is working in seven Arab towns. We’ve been asked to run it in 120. No! We do what we do in the best possible way, bring it up to high standards, evaluate it, bring the best minds to it, get good media coverage, then let the government take it. We also highlight other programs that are not our own that are critical programs.
In everything we do we weave two main themes: coexistence and equality. We can’t get equality without good relations or get good relations without equality. Other, earlier programs did one or the other. Today both have to be in every program. If it doesn’t change the inequalities it’s not good enough for the Arabs. If it doesn’t change the relationships it’s not good enough for the Jews. We’re about structural change.
What is your greatest success to date?
Putting the relationship issue on the table as one that has to be attended to now. Many people thought the relationship was minor and could be dealt with after peace was made. We believe this has to be parallel with the peace process.
A good story can contribute to peace. If the story we export is a negative one, there is no reason for the Arab world to promote peace. Good relations are essential. We managed to show that this is not a one-faceted area. It needs holistic policy running through the educational system, the economic structure. We’ve managed to enlarge the number of shareholders who feel responsibility. We’ve managed to export responsibility from good, willing people in the NGOs to people in decision-making positions.
What is your greatest challenge? What keeps you awake at night?
The rise in fundamentalism and racism in both Jewish and Arab communities. I feel like we are moving sand all the time―like there’s no solid foundation. There are strong currents pulling us under. There’s the de-legitimization of the Arabs on the Jewish side, and the separatist sense developing in the Arab community. There are powers working against what we promote, so we feel like we’re fighting for time. If we don’t do more of what we do today, there will be no time tomorrow. There is growth, negative growth, in those groups that want to escalate violent relations because it serves their interests.
What gives you hope?
First my four children, ages 10 ½ to 17 ½. My concern is for their well-being. I want them to stay here, not go to a more comfortable place where life is easier. I want to make it possible for them to stay. Second, I’m hopeful because we see results on the ground. In our educational projects [Language as a Cultural Bridge and Education for a Shared Society] I see Jewish and Arab kids change their minds and hearts, replace racism and fear and stereotypes with thoughts that create space for the other and for concepts of a shared society. We have reached 28,000 kids with these two programs, so I have 28,000 good reasons to wake up in the morning.
What is your most audacious goal, your wildest dream?
My wildest dream is that Israel will see the Arab citizens as an asset for its being in the Arab world, a bridge to the Arab world, and that Arab citizens will fulfill that role, feel welcome enough to want to serve and protect this country. I anticipate a time when we have Arab citizens as ministers in the cabinet, leaders in major corporations.
In truth I don’t want to be the bridge for peace; you step on a bridge. I want to be a critical link, with a strong foundation on each side. We Arab citizens have the most vested interest in stability in the region. It’s about peace between our country and our people.
What’s the most important thing you want readers to know about the Palestinian-Israeli relationship?
Believe it is a solvable problem. Ours is the most over-negotiated conflict in the world. We don’t need more negotiations. We are lacking two things: courageous leadership on both sides to take a solution forward, and public pressure from the bottom on both sides to implement any of the shelved agreements. Pick one: Oslo, or the Arab League proposal of 2002, renewed this year. Fifth-grade kids, 90% of them on both sides know what a final status agreement would look like! We need implementation and more constructive forces, more work on the ground.
Believe it’s not a God-given fact that Jews and Arabs have to fight. We can overcome the radical voices that want to sustain the fighting. We are willing it piece by piece, child by child, day by day. We prove every day that if you do the right things they will work, they will change the facts on the ground.
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