Tel Aviv — Until he graduated from high school and took a job in Tel Aviv, Farhat Igbaria had never met a Jew who wasn't a policeman or an official in the military government.
Igbaria did not grow up on the occupied West Bank, nor did he live in Gaza. He was born a citizen of the State of Israel - an Israeli Arab.
''For 35 years relations between Jews and Arabs in Israel have been bad,'' Mr. Igbaria says. ''We are neighbors but we know nothing about each other.''
Israel's Arab citizenry constitutes some 17 percent of the country's population. Yet, since Israel gained independence in 1948, there has been little interaction between its Jewish and Arab communities.
Igbaria is deputy director of Interns for Peace, a group of community workers who are seeking to improve relations between Israeli Arabs and Jews. The program was founded five years ago by an American reform rabbi, Bruce Cohen, who argues that a significant improvement in Jewish-Arab relations is essential to strengthening Israel.
The interns are primarily American Jews. They live in an Arab village for two years and organize projects that bring together Arabs from their village with Jews from a neighboring town.
''Interns for Peace is like a weaving,'' says Lani Levine, who completed her work as an intern earlier this month. ''We look at each person as a thread and we are strengthening the fiber of this country.'' Ms. Levine, who is from North Carolina and plans to emigrate to Israel, says her main challenge has been to convince Jews that the Arabs in Israel want to work with them in building the country.
The constant state of belligerency between Israel and its Arab neighbors since 1948 has hindered the development of normal relations between Israeli Jews and Arabs. (The Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty has had little positive effect.) Israeli Arabs have found themselves in the unenviable position of being viewed as traitors by other Arabs and looked upon with suspicion by their co-citizens, Israeli Jews. Until 1966, all Arab areas were under military rule.
Although the declaration of independence granted equal rights to all citizens and there existed no physical barriers between Jewish and Arab communities, the two sectors developed separately and unequally. Israeli Arabs have not been able to attain economic gains nor political power in Israel commensurate with the size of their population.
A bitter contention in the Jewish-Arab relations has been government expropriation of Arab-owned land. Mr. Cohen came to Israel following the sobering events of Land Day in March 1976, when Israeli soldiers shot and killed six Arabs during demonstrations against the latest expropriation plans. He convened a meeting of 33 Jews and Arabs involved in Jewish-Arab relations workto discuss ways to improve the relationship.
At the meeting, Munir Diab, director of the community center in the Arab village Tamra, said: ''If you really want to help Jewish-Arab relations, come to my village, meet people, and learn the problems.'' Two years later the first group of community workers moved into Tamra and began setting up projects to promote understanding between the people of Tamra and the Jewish town of Kiryat Ata, which is near Haifa.
By organizing trips to one another's homes or joint hiking tours, or working together in the fields, ''We are giving them the chance to relate to each other as human beings,'' Igbaria says. Projects involving schoolchildren have been the most successful.
While some progress has been made in bringing Jews and Arabs together in cooperative activities, the interns are constantly reminded that their work does not exist in a vacuum isolated from the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Arab world.
''A Jew whose son is killed in war will not find it easy to welcome an Arab in his home,'' notes Diab. Likewise, Arlyne Gozali, an English teacher at a high school in Kiryat Ata, explains that many people in Tamra had relatives among the Palestinians massacred by Lebanese Phalangist forces in Beirut refugee camps in September 1982 while Israeli soldiers stood within earshot.