Israel should be grateful Irwin Green thinks that at 94 he's too old to retire

By Robert Sarner, Detroit Jewish News, May 21, 2004

JERUSALEM - A few weeks ago, the father of a close friend of mine in Canada spent a busy six days in Israel. Anything but a casual tourist, Irwin Green was on a personal mission. A former businessman, he is an impressive figure, with an inordinate amount of energy and drive. When asked his age, Irwin, 94, answers, "let's just say I'm too old to retire."

Originally from Detroit but now living in Boca Raton, Florida, Irwin is a frequent traveler to Israel. This was his third trip in the past year and a half. Each time, he's come for the same purpose - to help make Israel a better place by making it a more just country. To that end, he works to help improve relations between Jewish and Arab residents in the neighboring Central Galilee towns of Nazareth and Nazareth Illit.

A few years ago, Irwin became aware of the Partnership 2000 program linking the Detroit Jewish community with Nazareth Illit, a primarily Jewish town he'd never heard of until then. He knew of the existence of nearby Nazareth, the largest Arab city in Israel, but didn't know of how the Jewish and Arab standards of living compared in the two communities.

Irwin soon learned that although the Arabs are Israeli citizens with full civil and political rights, they suffer from major economic and social gaps compared to the Jewish sector. Such disparities in government funding in public health, education, welfare and infrastructure were most evident in Nazareth and Nazareth Illit.

Irwin wanted to know more. He held discussions with Israeli government officials and private individuals aware of how critical the situation had become. He also met with Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit CEO Robert Aronson, who was well informed about the subject and the needs in the area.

"I came to the conclusion that the most effective way I can help Israel is to show that its two main communities, Arab and Jewish, can work together for the benefit of both," says Irwin. "Aside from the moral issues involved, Israel is losing a great deal by not utilizing and better integrating 20 percent of the population. There must be equality for all citizens in Israel. Today, Israeli Arabs are very much second-class citizens in their own country."

Jewish Arab relations in Israel is an issue that has become increasingly important to Irwin. He's committed to improving the situation and puts his money where his mouth is. In recent years, he's contributed more than $2 million to projects aimed at nurturing Jewish Arab coexistence and greater equality for Israel's 1.5 million-strong Arab minority.

But more than just signing checks, Irwin gets actively involved in helping develop each endeavor. He also meets regularly with others promoting equality for Israeli Arabs such as Labour Party Knesset Member Rabbi Michael Melchior.

During his visit to Israel last month, Irwin helped inaugurate a $2.5 million soccer stadium renovation he funded in Nazareth Illit that will be used by local Jewish and Arab youth. Through a partnership with Elite Chocolates and additional support of Detroit Federation funding, "Green Field" provides a safe haven for an after-school sports program that currently serves hundreds of Jewish and Arab Israeli youngsters from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds. Accompanied by his son Don who lives in Toronto, Irwin took part in a special ceremony involving 1,200 teenagers and local dignitaries.

In his address to the crowd, which included nearly 200 members of a Michigan solidarity mission to Israel, Irwin said that it's a new challenge for Jews to be in the majority in a country after being in the minority for thousands of years.

Irwin also visited the Irwin Green Childhood Development Center he funded in nearby Nazareth, the largest Arab city in Israel. During the construction of the three-storey building that is now nearly complete, Irwin used fax, e-mail and phone to work closely with Mayor Ramez Jaraisy and the Arab builders to oversee the project. This summer, Irwin plans to return to Israel for the inauguration of the center that will provide services for both Jewish and Arab children in the region.

At the cornerstone laying ceremony in 2002, Irwin and his son Don, co-founder of the Roots clothing company, arranged a public reconciliation between Menachem Ariav, the Jewish mayor of Nazareth Illit and Jaraisy, his Arab counterpart in Nazareth. Until then, the two mayors had been locked in a bitter dispute and had refused to speak to each other since Arab rioting erupted in the area two years earlier.

A longtime supporter of Jewish education initiatives, Irwin began his involvement with Israel in 1956. With his wife, Bethea, he established a community center in Shlomi on Israel's northern border and financed the construction of three pre-kindergartens in Kiryat Shmona.

A prolific reader of newspapers, Irwin is better informed about current affairs in the Middle East than many Israelis. He closely follows the news coming out of the region. When in Israel, which he has visited 15 times, he likes nothing better than to engage people in intense discussions about the state of the nation. Irwin does not believe in coercion, but his actions invariably force Israelis to face an issue most have traditionally ignored, to their country's detriment.

It disturbs Irwin that although Israel's Declaration of Independence guarantees social and political equality for all its citizens, that the government continues to shortchange the country's Arab population when it comes to public spending.

Many see the decades-old disadvantaged state of Israel's Arab minority and the failure of the Jewish majority to remedy it as one of the country's greatest national failures. One no less significant than the failure to make peace with the Palestinians.

"We Jews often consider ourselves guardians of what is right," says Irwin. "Not only is it right for Israel to improve the status of its Arab citizens, Israel stands to gain on many levels."

Irwin is trying to make that happen. Long may he thrive and make many more return visits to Israel.

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