Israel’s 1.6 million Arab citizens represent an under-tapped engine for the country’s economic growth

I’ve learned a few things during my decade at the helm of The Abraham Fund, an Israeli/international nonprofit dedicated to advancing a shared society of coexistence and equality among Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens.

One of them is to anticipate the most common objections posed to me by people who oppose our work; or, to be a bit more charitable, by those who have not yet come to understand its importance.

The opening gambit predictably starts off something like this: “Why should we help them?” (“We” refers interchangeably to Jews, Israelis, Zionists…take your pick. “Them,” on the other hand, is usually Arabs, Palestinians, our enemies…you get the picture.)

I’ve lost track of the number of various Tikun Olam/social justice-driven responses to the “why should we help them” question that I’ve posited over the years. But here are my top five.

  1. The vast majority of Palestinian-Arabs who found themselves citizens of the new Israeli state in 1948 had lived there for many generations (far longer than most Jews, as some Arab activists frequently point out). This is their home too, codified by the promise in Israel’s Declaration of Independence of “complete equality of social and political rights to all inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.”
  2. Even 1930s Revisionist icon Ze’ev Jabotinsky, political godfather of conservative prime ministers like Menachem Begin and Bibi Netanyahu, envisioned a Jewish state in which Arabs would be on an equal footing with Jews “throughout all sectors of the country’s public life.” This is not an issue of left or right. It’s an issue of basic fairness.
  3. Israel’s Arab citizens have voted in word and deed to embrace Israeli democracy and renounce violence as the means of advancing their concerns. They work, attend university, pay taxes, create art and literature, vote and run for elected office, even in the face of discrimination and growing manifestations of anti-Arab racism within Israeli society.
  4. Poll after poll confirms that an overwhelming majority of Israel’s Arab citizens see their future in Israel rather than in a Palestinian state, even as minority citizens within a Jewish majoritarian society.
  5. Jewish tradition compels us to love our neighbors as ourselves; to treat the “other” with generosity and justice, for we – as the Torah reminds us time and time again – were strangers in the land of Egypt.

Make no mistake. I believe in every one of these arguments, and will continue to advance them to anyone ready to listen.

But I’m afraid that they substantially miss the most important point of all, and perhaps the most salient for a majority of both American and Israeli Jews today: that fully integrating and engaging Israel’s 20% Arab minority in the social, economic and political mainstream of Israeli society is not doing Israeli Arabs any favors, but is a matter of pure, unadulterated self-interest for the State of Israel, its Jewish majority and its friends abroad.

Why? Let’s again start with my top five arguments, this time from the self-interest perspective:

  1. Israel’s 1.6 million Arab citizens represent a massively under-tapped engine for the country’s economic growth – a fact confirmed by both the OECD and Israel’s central bank.
  2. The immense human capital – academic, technological, scientific, cultural and political – of Israel’s Arab citizens is already contributing every day to the “Start-Up Nation’s” success and vibrancy. Imagine what Israel could accomplish if the doors to participation were thrown wide open to every citizen.
  3. Few assets could boost Israel’s standing – internationally and within the Middle East – as much as a fully engaged and committed Arab citizenry, as Israel transforms itself into a model of diversity and pluralism for multicultural societies around the world.
  4. Full economic-social-political integration of Israel’s large Arab minority – particularly given Israel’s regional security challenges – is a matter of utmost national security, of no less importance than military strength.
  5. A vibrant, self-confident and productive Israeli Arab public could serve as a bridge to Israeli-Palestinian peace, and as Israel’s best possible ambassadors to the larger Arab and Muslim worlds.

So, Tikkun Olam or Jewish self-interest? Take your pick. But, either way, understand that we’re not doing Israeli Arabs any favors.

Ami Nahshon is a Wexner Heritage Alum from Oakland, California where he served for nearly 20 years as Federation CEO, and currently divides his time between New York and Israel as the International President of The Abraham Fund Initiatives. Ami speaks frequently to diverse audiences on the subjects of Jewish-Arab relations and civil rights in Israel.  He can be reached at