Jessica Balaban couldn’t have predicted that she would devote herself to education and coalition-building efforts on behalf of Israeli Arabs.
While she always loved Israel and has spent considerable time there, including studying abroad at Tel Aviv University, she joined the corporate world after graduating college. Working for one of the top communications firms was stimulating, but her heart wasn’t fully in it. “I wanted my day to translate into more than driving sales for publicly traded companies,” she says.
Balaban joined the UJA-Federation of New York’s Planning Division in 2003, where she was handed a portfolio of projects in Israel focused on Ethiopians, Russian émigrés and Arab Israelis. It was the plight of the latter, who make up 20 percent of Israel’s population, that she “became the most passionate about and most troubled by,” she says.
Quoting Israel’s Or Commission report, she calls this “the No. 1 most pressing domestic issue Israel faces today.”
Sadly, “this had not been part of the agenda in support of a secure, peaceful and just Israel.”
Until 2006, when leaders of the Joint Distribution Committee, Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, Anti-Defamation League, Presidents Conference, the UJA-Federation of NY, New Israel Fund and other groups formed the Inter-Agency Task Force on Israeli Arab Issues. Balaban was a natural choice to serve as founding executive director, a position she currently maintains. The task force conducts educational activity in North America and Israel and provides educational materials, fact sheets and other resources to a diverse group of Jewish organizations.
In four years, Balaban has grown the task force’s member organizations from a handful or so to 92, including 36 foundations and 21 federations. Recently, a task force on Arab-Israeli issues modeled after Balaban’s, known as UK Task Force on the Arab Citizens of Israel, launched in England.
The task force is well on its way to achieving its first goal: putting the issue of Arab Israelis on the table among mainstream Jewish organizations. “It’s always one of the most well-attended sessions of the [Jewish federations’] General Assembly,” Balaban says.
Thrill-seeker: Balaban once went skydiving over the Swiss Alps. “I’d do it again in a heartbeat,” she says.
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