Israel’s Arab Party Leader Ditches Meeting with Jewish Group in NY

Arab-Israeli Knesset Member Ayman Odeh, Chairman of the United Arab List, cancelled a scheduled meeting with Jewish community leaders in New York after he realized that the Jewish Agency and other ‘Zionist’ entities share the same premises, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations said in a statement Thursday.

The Arab MK already was in the building lobby when he decided to leave. Labor Party Knesset Member, Merav Michaeli, who was by chance visiting the group, tried to persuade him to go ahead with the meeting, but to no luck.

“We are deeply disturbed and shocked at the refusal of the Chairman of the Joint List of Arab parties, Knesset member Ayman Odeh, to fulfill his commitment to speak before a meeting of the Conference, because our premises are shared with the Jewish Agency, and other Zionist groups,” the Conference of Presidents’ Chairman Stephen Greenberg and Malcolm Hoenlein, Executive Vice Chairman, said in a joint statement.

Odeh, 40, is in the United States on a diplomatic tour, meeting with lawmakers and administration officials. He’s also expected to speak at the Ha’aretz conference in New York Sunday.

“We received several suggestions that MK Ayman Odeh be invited and, in keeping with the Conference’s decades long tradition of providing a forum for a wide variety of points of view on issues affecting the American Jewish community’s agenda, we extended the invitation. We have had leaders of virtually every faction and party in the United States, Israel, from friendly and unfriendly countries, and none ever refused to appear,” Greenberg and Hoenlein said. “For a member of the Knesset to assert that he will not enter a premises because it has an association with Zionist entities, like the Jewish Agency, is disturbing and dismaying. Representatives of a broad spectrum of organizations came to hear him and were rightly upset by his decision not to appear.”

“We now understand the recent demand of the Mayor of the Nazareth, Ali Salem, that Odeh leave his city because his presence promotes divisiveness,” they added. “The Conference will continue to provide an open forum but will not compromise our principles and yield to such an outrageous demand. We hope MK Odeh will reconsider his stance if he, indeed, wants to advance coexistence in Israel and promote understanding abroad. As a leader, he cannot succumb to the pressures of extremists in his constituency, but should take advantage of such opportunities to provide his perspective, and that of those he represents, to an important and interested audience.”

In response, Odeh sent out a statement explaining his move. “I came here to represent the Arab public in Israel to American audiences. As their representative, I cannot in good conscience participate in meetings in the offices of organizations whose work displaces Arab citizens, just as in the Knesset, we do not participate in the Ministry of Defense, the Foreign Ministry, and the Ministry of Aliyah and Immigrant Absorption,” said Odeh.

But Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky repudiated the claim, accusing the Arab MK of being more interested in scoring political points with his electorate. “It is unfortunate that members of Knesset from the Joint List remain more interested in scoring cheap political points than they are in advancing the wellbeing of their communities,” Sharansky said in a statement. “Along with our core mission of ingathering the exiles of the Jewish people via Aliyah, The Jewish Agency is proud to serve all the citizens of Israel, regardless of religion or ethnicity, which we view as an integral part of our Zionist vision.”

“Thousands of Arab Israeli families enjoy a range of Jewish Agency programs, including our Youth Futures mentorship program, which has placed a particular emphasis on schoolchildren in Israel’s Arab community; Masa Israel Journey and Project TEN, which run programs focused on Arab-Jewish coexistence and on serving underprivileged Arab citizens of Israel; and an innovative Jewish Agency high school opened just this year for Bedouin youth in the Negev. Thousands of Arab Israelis have already found their way to The Jewish Agency’s programs and to the dedicated professionals and volunteers who run them. It is high time MK Odeh and his colleagues did the same,” he added.

This post was updated to include Sharansky’s statement.

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