Abu Gosh, Israel - "As an Arab-Israeli, I have seen that in order for there to be equality we have to be in the system", declares Jawdat Ibrahim, sitting in his restaurant, Mis'adat Abu Ghosh. "Arab-Israelis are 20% of this country - that's a sector, not a minority. If we want to be a part of this country we must integrate."
Over Ibrahim's shoulder are the rolling green hills and white stone houses of Abu Ghosh, an Arab-Israeli town 20 minutes out of Jerusalem.
Ibrahim, born and raised in Abu Ghosh, has become the town's most famous inhabitant. Like many from the town, he left at the age of 21 for America, settling in Chicago. While many people go to the United States to seek their fortune, few achieve that goal as completely as he did - he won the Illinois state lottery, and returned home to Abu Ghosh in 1993 $22 million richer than when he left.
Upon his return, the first thing he did was to establish a fund that handed out scholarships to both Arab and Jewish university students. "Many people asked me why I was giving scholarships to Jewish students", he told ISRAEL21c, "since there are already a lot of organizations that do exactly that. My answer was that I wanted Jewish organizations to start giving money to Arab students."
Integration and coexistence are Ibrahim's two great passions, and he does everything he can to foster them. In 2002, at the height of Jewish-Arab tensions, he bought a huge tent and a large-screen television and installed them next to his restaurant. He then took out ads in both the Palestinian and Israeli press, inviting anyone who was interested to come watch the World Cup soccer tournament. "I thought, what is something that all Israelis and Palestinians have in common - and the answer was: football!"
For the next month, his tent was full of Palestinians who had dodged roadblocks and Israelis who had driven in from the Jerusalem area. "It was great. It didn't matter who you were - if you were for England, you sat together and cheered together. If you were for Brazil, you sat and cheered together. It was wonderful to watch.
"And this is the most important thing that I do - making meetings between Israelis and Arabs so that they can listen to each other. People always come away from these meetings saying how they never knew that there was another side."
His meetings aren't just for football supporters. Ibrahim's Abu Ghosh restaurant has been host to peace talks between many high-ranking politicians. During his tenure as foreign minister in the early 90s, Shimon Peres held informal peace talks with Faisal Husseini, a top PA politician, at the restaurant. It's not uncommon to see foreign diplomats and members of the Israeli cabinet there, mingling with Jewish- and Arab- Israelis who patronize the restaurant for its amazing humous.
When talking about how he sees the future of Arab-Israelis, Ibrahim points to American Jewry as his role model. "They are an example of how it is possible to have your own separate identity and still be loyal to the country that you live in", he says. "And like American Jews, who use their double identity to improve relations between the US and Israel, Arab-Israelis can use their double identity to bring Israelis and Palestinians closer to peace. American Jews are only 3% of the population there, and we are 20%. We could do so much if we were united and focused."
But, he points out, the Arab-Israeli community faces a number of obstacles before they get there. "First of all, there is a problem of education. That's why I started the scholarship fund. The second problem is poverty. Most Israeli-Arabs live under the poverty line. When you're poor, you want to eat - you don't have time to worry about other things, like politics.
"And that's the third problem - politics. Arab Israelis in the Knesset talk about relations with Syria and Lebanon. They need to concentrate on the Arabs in Israel, on day-to-day things, like education and poverty. We need to get past the slogans and do real things."
Ibrahim's message has reached beyond the borders of Israel to many Arab leaders. He has been the guest of King Hussein of Jordan and the foreign minister of Qatar (also owner of the al-Jazeera network). Recently he was asked to join Kadima, the centrist party started by Ariel Sharon, but politely declined the offer.
He is not discouraged by Hamas's recent victory in the Palestinian Authority's elections - in fact, Ibrahim is optimistic. He believes that "only Hamas, that led the terror, has the power to really stop it. No one who I've talked to has voted for them because they agreed with their policies - they voted for them because they wanted to vote against Fatah, which hasn't been able to get anything done."
Ibrahim knows coexistence to be possible - all he has to do is look around him." Look at this town, what we have done here. Jews and Arabs live side by side. Part of my business is renting apartments, and many of my tenants are Jewish. And Jews come to the restaurants and shops here all the time - it's just like going to downtown Jerusalem."
Ibrahim smiles happily as he talks about his family: he's married to a Thai Muslim woman and has two children, a two-year-old son and a four-month-old daughter.
"People say that I am very optimistic. And I am! I'm an optimistic person, always have been. I really believe that we can all live here side-by-side."
* Joseph Flesh writes for Israel 21c.
Source: Israel 21c, March 19, 2006.
Visit Israel 21c Online: http://www.israel21c.com/
Distributed by the Common Ground News Service.
Copyright permission has been obtained for republication.
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