By SHOSHANNA KEATS-JASKOLL / April 25, 2017
Sometimes we are privileged to meet rare and inspiring people, people whose life experiences are so different from our own that hearing about them provides us with a new understanding of the human spirit, a new way to see things, and a new way to think.
Yahya Mahamed is one such person. Tall, dark and slim, the first thing one notices about him is his smile.
It’s sincere and disarming and immediately evokes the feeling that a friend has been found. As his story unfolds, it becomes clear that behind those dimples is a young man of courage, humor, intelligence and a tremendous heart.
Metro sat with Mahamed at the Jerusalem office of StandWithUs, an NGO dedicated to educating people around the world about Israel. This is his story.
“I grew up in Umm el-Fahm, the third-largest Arab city in Israel. It’s a very problematic place. The Islamic Movement runs the municipality. This means they have power over everything: schools, services, who gets hired… and they are very anti-Israel. ISIS logos and swastikas are common,” he says.
“When they came in 30 years ago, they took over the city. They outlawed alcohol and made it policy to prevent people from prospering. They don’t take care of the city; they don’t pave the streets, fix the playgrounds or make youth centers. We went without a public library for six years…
“When people ask for the things that cities are meant to have, the municipality blames Israel. They say that Israel charges them so much that they cannot get things done.
“And yet, somehow within days of collecting taxes, city officials have new cars. It’s a closed circle that feeds on itself; a steady diet of corruption, lack of municipal services, and anti-Israel indoctrination. They are sabotaging the city and blaming Israel for it in order to keep the locals isolated and dependent.
“Violence is the norm in Umm el-Fahm,” he continues.
“Bullets are shot into the air, and several people have been hit by them. The police aren’t where they need to be. If they were, it would greatly improve quality of life and safety for the city.” It would also help dispel the accepted view that the job of the police is to oppress the residents, he adds.
Mahamed was raised to perceive Israel as an oppressive, evil regime. “I remember being a child and watching television with my mother. The only thing on was Palestine, Israel oppressing Palestine, Israelis killing Arabs, Arabs killing Israelis. Nothing else. My whole world was the conflict; in school, on TV, in the community. I was an Arab and therefore a Palestinian.”
“I recall at one point traveling to the West Bank to see family. I noticed that we had different ID cards than they did. That was the first time I actually realized that I was Israeli,” he says.
“You see, as a child, I was given this illusion: either Israel or Palestine, but not both. Israel only existed because it took land from the Palestinians. We were given no Jewish history. I wasn’t given an education, I was given propaganda. I was taught in school that Hitler did a good thing and left a small group of Jews alive so that the world would know why he killed the rest.
“The problem in Umm el-Fahm is that there is no one to give an alternative viewpoint. For the past 30 years, this narrative has reigned. And it is sacred… Until 2011, I was very anti-Israel.”
He pauses. “Nobody is really anti-Israel, it’s just that they aren’t able to think. They haven’t been allowed to think.” The mosques, he says, are used to disseminate a political agenda. In the mosques on Fridays, one hears about ISIS.
When asked how he became a Muslim Zionist, he says, “I got out. I was in a pre-army program learning to be an automobile mechanic.
As Arabs, we don’t have to go to the army, but the state provides these programs in high school for us. One day, I passed by a map of the world on the wall and tried to find my country. But it wasn’t there. Palestine was written across the entire area – in my Israeli school. I thought, wait a minute, that’s not correct. Even though I identified with the idea… it just wasn’t true. I told my friend whose father is a state inspector and two days later it was down.”
His dimples flash as he smiles. “I guess that was the unintentional beginning of my Israeli activism.”
In 12th grade, Mahamed began searching for a job.
Because he hadn’t been given much English or Hebrew language instruction, his options were limited.
“They [Islamic Movement] do this on purpose to make you unable to communicate and it works like magic,” he says.
He found work as a busboy in a Tel Aviv hotel, but admits he was afraid to go, frightened by the things he had been told about how Jews would treat him. His fears were soon assuaged when the manager took him under his wing, teaching him what he needed to know and befriending him.
“During my first week, just before Succot, I was waiting for the bus… A Chabadnik comes up to me and starts passionately telling me how important it is to shake the lulav [palm branch], and I’m smiling and letting him go on and when he’s done, I tell him, you know, I’m not Jewish. He looked a bit sad, but then he said, ‘It doesn’t matter if you’re Jewish or not; what matters is that you are a good person.’ And that made me think the whole way to Umm el-Fahm.
“I had made a friend in the hotel manager; the Jews at the hotel were very welcoming and accepting; and now this Chabadnik tells me it doesn’t matter if I’m a Jew, so long as I am a good person. My experiences directly contradicted everything I had learned my whole life. I’d been told that Jews think they are God’s chosen people and better than everyone else. But bit by bit, I realized that what I had been taught simply wasn’t true.”
One summer morning in 2014 brought news that would change Mahamed’s life: three Israeli Jewish teenagers had been kidnapped by Hamas. “I freaked out,” he recalls.
“I started thinking about my friends and how it could have been them. In truth, it could have been me, because it doesn’t matter Arab or Jew, we are all Israelis. I went online and searched for information.
I found a campaign called Bring Back Our Boys and I participated, posting a picture of myself with an Israeli flag. That’s when all hell broke loose.”
Mahamed got a call from a shop owner in Umm el- Fahm who told him to go to the police because people were talking about him and it sounded very dangerous.
His post had gone viral and among his 400 Facebook notifications were numerous death threats.
“I had to quit my job; I stayed in the house for two months; I missed my high school graduation.”
It took a while for the police to get involved, but eventually eight people were arrested for making death threats against Yahya. To this day, he relies on a car to get around because it isn’t safe for him to walk or take public transportation in Umm el-Fahm.
MAHAMED MAKES a point of saying that there are many Arabs who have gone through a similar process of encountering Jews, realizing that what they had been told about them and Israel is not true, and then choosing to leave their communities as a result.
“You have to get out of the Arab mentality and understand that you are Israeli. If you can get out of the mentality of ‘I’m an Arab which means I am a Palestinian,’ that conflict mentality of either/or, then you’ve made it to the safe zone.
“People aren’t haters,” he explains, “they are just crippled in their way of thinking.”
People often try to “help me do teshuva,” he says. For example, on a day commemorating the 1956 Kafr Kasim massacre, when residents of Kafr Kasim, who were working in their fields and unaware of a curfew, were shot dead by IDF soldiers, his friend Bassam asked him how he could support Israel. Yahya acknowledged that what had happened in Kafr Kasim was wrong and asked Bassam if he also commemorates the Hebron massacre.
“‘What massacre?’” asked Bassam. “I sent him a link to a Wikipedia article and didn’t see him for three weeks. When I saw him next, he had changed. He had read the article I sent, and then another, and another. He read about Jewish history back to the Roman conquest. He was livid that he had never learned this stuff. Since then, he’s left Umm el-Fahm and is now pro-Israel.”
When asked if he also wants to leave Umm el-Fahm, Mahamed says that although it’s not easy to stay, he doesn’t want to go. “Things are messed up, but we can fix them. If every thinking individual left and went to Tel Aviv, who would bring Tel Aviv to Umm el-Fahm? “I clean the hate – literally. I remove the ISIS graffiti, the swastikas, because they normalize terror and hate. We need to take away the hate,” he says.
“I’m paving new roads there. People ask me about dead babies in Gaza. They don’t expect me to say, ‘Yes, that happened, but did you know that five minutes earlier Hamas sent a rocket from there?’ They are surprised.
They never accept what I say the first time, but it plants a seed, and that seed will grow.”
When StandWithUs first contacted Mahamed via Facebook, he was hesitant to join the organization until he learned that its website has an Arabic page and that it also reaches out to Arabs. Then he decided to join their efforts and has been an educator there since 2016.
When asked why he chooses to advocate for Israel, Mahamed says, “I’m Israeli. I like it here. Here we enjoy full rights. I believe that Israel doesn’t only hold hope for the Jewish people, it holds hope for the entire Middle East.”
Yahya has had speaking engagements in Finland for Limmud (Jewish learning festival), in Texas with the B’nai Brith youth organization, and, most recently, in South Africa for Israel Apartheid Week.
“In the US, you know what to expect from BDS [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement].
They come at you with images of dead children, they yell. South Africa is a whole other story. We went with the South African Union of Jewish Students, who had made an agreement with the campus that this year half of the piazza would be for BDS and half for us. But when we showed up, BDS had taken the entire piazza. They were stealing our materials and ripping our posters. We wound up in a physical fight with them. We expected them to be difficult, but this was another level.
“South Africa is the BDS movement’s stronghold. They use the terms ‘apartheid’ and ‘racism’ to play on people’s emotions and get an immediate response. Then they flood them with lies.
“It’s nuts,” he says. “People came to me after being on the BDS side saying, ‘Why does the IDF rape Palestinian women?’ I say, ‘Wait, wait. I’ve heard of house demolitions, arrests, checkpoints, but rape? Rape isn’t common between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian women, I am familiar with COGAT’s [Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories] numbers and I follow Palestinian news sources, and I’ve never of an incident like that. Where do you get this stuff?’ I had a checklist, baby killing, yup, rape, oh wait, that’s a new one, and I’d write it down.
“Then they speak about Gaza as the most densely populated place in the world,” he continues, “and I’m like, don’t take my word for it, go to Google maps and see the empty fields for yourself. SAUJS’s [South African Union of Jewish Students] campaign was called See Israel for Yourself and it was incredible. We say, ‘Don’t listen to us, maybe we are biased. Don’t listen to them, they are dangerous. Go read for yourself,’” he says.
“People were fascinated that I was there as an Israeli Arab – my being there had a huge impact. The BDS people gave short bursts of heavy propaganda. We would spend 45 minutes with people answering their questions.”
Mahamed pulls out a video of South African students thanking his team for being a safe place on campus where they could ask questions and get answers, and where they were encouraged to think for themselves.
They expressed anger at being lied to and say they now support Israel.
When asked what he feels the solution is, Mahamed just smiles. “We don’t offer solutions, we educate. We don’t want to indoctrinate – that’s what the other side does. We just want people to think.”
Right before press time, Mahamed updated Metro on recent difficult developments. A video he had done for StandWithUs was picked up by local Arabic news sources. They spread it around, adding false claims that Mahamed had been taught English by SWU, that he is paid by the government and other lies, including incitement against him. Within a few hours, the police contacted him and advised him to file a report with the Umm el-Fahm police and to leave the city for a while.
The police are investigating, and Mahamed has moved to Jerusalem. It has been a stressful few days, he says, but as always he is staying positive.