Interview with Amal Najami-Abu-Sif

A rare voice

Published in The Jerusalem Post Magazine 04/25/2013 14:45   By SETH J. FRANTZMAN

Ben-Gurion University doctoral candidate and Jerusalem-based educator Amal Najami-Abu-Sif challenges Arab women to stand up for their rights, and for the State of Israel to focus on coexistence.

AMAL ABU-SIF.
Photo by: Seth J. Frantzman

‘We can’t wait for the government.

We can’t sit and wait for them. It won’t change without us, without our voice being heard. No one recognizes the problems.

As Israelis, we Jews and Arabs are not active enough. We don’t see how much we can change [the situation] as activists.”

Amal Najami-Abu-Sif is passionate as she describes the need for a major change in Israeli society in terms of coexistence and the way in which people approach the “other.” With an intellectual and questioning agility she paints a picture of a life spent trying to bring Jews and Arabs together. Now in her forties, she talks with the youthful energy and dedication of a young college student, still seeking to move forward on various projects. In March, she spoke to the UN about the need to fight for women’s rights in the Middle East.

She is working toward a PhD at Ben- Gurion University of the Negev, and is associate director of academic affairs at Kivunim in Jerusalem.

Abu-Sif was born in 1971 in Haifa.

She explains that her upbringing shaped her present worldview.

“My family is the Muslim Najami family, and we were Communists. The whole family were in the party in those years, al-Hizb al-Shuri, we were raised in equality, [taught that] a woman should go and fight for her rights, she should talk and say what she thinks.

That is how I was raised. A lot of our family was from Ibillin.”

During Israel’s War of Independence the majority of Haifa’s Arab community fled in the direction of Lebanon.

This was particularly true of the elite families. However the Palestine Communist Party’s Arab leaders encouraged its members to stay. Amal’s grandfather on her mother’s side was the head of the Arab community in Haifa during the British Mandate. Nevertheless, the Arab community that remained was a shell of its former self. Amal recalls growing up on Puah Road near the Baha’i Gardens.

“All my neighbors were Jewish, I grew up playing with Jewish kids,” she said.

This multicultural context was slightly stilted at school when Abu-Sif went to study at the Nazareth Sisters, a Catholic institution in Haifa, a short walk from her house. Then as now the Catholic schools in Haifa provided a high level of private education to the Arab community. Nevertheless her experience playing with Jewish children after school and on weekends had a long-term impact on Abu-Sif’s view of the way things should be in Israel.

“Because I grew up with coexistence, I believe we have to bring kids together and have ‘Orly and Etti’ [i.e. Jewish kids] meet Arab students. Since I was raised this way, I see it as the future. As a teacher, who has taught at a lot of schools, in Arab and Jewish schools, for instance in Kababir, Khalisa, Reali [and has taught] Hebrew at Arab schools and Arabic at Jewish schools, in Kiryat Tivon for instance, when I see kids [today] I see that some kids never played with kids from the other side. I feel that it cannot continue like that.”

Israel’s education system helps to insulate children of different backgrounds from one another since it is tailored to each community. For instance kibbutz, children study at schools catering to kibbutzim and other rural communities, ultra-Orthodox Jewish children study together, and Arab children study together.

There are very few schools in Israel that are mixed, which means children might never study with a person from another community until reaching college, by which time, with their army service and other formative experiences behind them, worldviews have already been formed.

Amal didn’t initially envision herself getting involved in so many programs.

“Initially, I studied art in college, and then I met my husband. He is from Ramle. When I moved to Ramle, in 1991, I saw that not all the women have their rights, that she can’t share what she thinks or wear what she wants. I was also afraid. I moved to a Jewish building when I moved there.

My husband was very supportive. I told him I wanted to go to school. I told him I am an independent woman. He had grown up in Ashdod. He has his family business in transport.”

Ramle’s Arab community has, over the years, gained a reputation as the honor-killing capital of Israel. For instance in the last decade eight women from the Abu-Ganem Beduin family have been murdered by their family members. The town is poverty stricken and composed of Jewish, Muslim and Christian communities.

Abu-Sif, who has two daughters, began studying at the School of Education at the Achva Academic College.

She continued to split her life between Ramle and Haifa, where she studied at the Arab Education College, receiving her first degree in Arabic-Hebrew Education in 1999. She remembers those as hard days.

“When I began working I already had two daughters and I would work 12 hours a week. I was teaching in Haifa and in Kiryat Haroshet, a Steiner anthroposophic school. So I developed my own program. I met the principal there and I asked why he wasn’t teaching Arabic there. He said, ‘I would love to have someone to teach Arabic,’ and I told him I had my own program and that I would love to do that.”

Her teaching excellence and initiatives brought her to the attention of the Abraham Fund, a coexistence NGO, and she helped create a program to teach Arabic.

“I was the first Arab teacher in that program. Today we have it in more than 400 schools. I went in 2006 to represent the program in New York. I went and gave a speech for it. Peter Geffen, the founder of Kivunim, was one of the people at that event.”

SITTING FOR a coffee with a smartlooking red overcoat, she describes in animated sentences her long quest to provide solutions for problems relating to coexistence in Israel. She looks back on meeting Geffen as a sort of deeply inspirational experience. According to the Kivunim website Geffen is “the Founder of The Abraham Joshua Heschel School in NYC, former director of the Israel Experience Program, N.A. for the CRB [Charles Bronfman] Foundation, and one of the most respected Israel education specialists in the world.”

The organization seeks to “introduce students to the world of Arab-Jewish coexistence, perhaps the greatest challenge to the State of Israel and the Jewish People in our time.”

Because Kivunim works with American Jewish students who come to study on a gap-year program, Abu-Sif saw this as an opportunity to influence them in a positive direction. “I believe that they can help with the conflict,” she says.

In Kivunim the students come to Jerusalem and also visit other countries to see examples of coexistence. Abu-Sif describes how important it is for them to see that Jews and Arabs can live together in a place like Morocco.

“Kids get 30 credits for studying at Beit Shmuel, and then they go to a [foreign] country. We are trying to give those kids examples of how Jews, Muslims and Christians can live [together] better.”

Morocco was once home to almost 300,000 Jews; today it has around 5,000. Is such a decline in a community really an example of coexistence? Abu-Sif believes it is.

“In Morocco the king protected them. All the world thinks that there is a problem between religions; it isn’t about religion, it is about control and money. I don’t think God asks for murder.”

Abu-Sif argues that a major change will come in Israel once peace has been achieved with the Palestinians.

“All the Middle East will change.

The Arabs in Israel will be a bridge between Israel and the Middle East. I think that we, Arabs in Israel, can play a major role.”

Toward that end, she sees herself as also playing a role in raising awareness about the plight of women in the Middle East.

“When I decided to continue my education and do my PhD, I went to BGU and I did my MA thesis on violence against teenage Beduin girls.”

She decided to focus her research on physical and emotional violence against women. She recalls the impact that hearing about such violence had on her as a young woman.

“As a teenager, I was looking around my community and I compared it to the Jewish community. I was surprised to see that it [violence] didn’t exist in the Jewish community and yet in the other it did exist. I saw the girls there suffering.”

At BGU she considered doing research on political violence or coexistence relating to the conflict but felt that examining the controversial issue of honor killings against Arab women remained of value.

“I started to do my PhD dealing with the political violence, but the idea of the women’s issue was still in my heart. I knew I would go back and look at it. I knew that one day I would raise my voice about it. I wanted to let everyone know what was happening in the community.”

IN THIS context she was invited to address the UN Commission on the Status of Women in March.

“I felt like here was the opportunity to make people listen and fight for these women. I wanted to talk about the Arab women in Israel. I am going to fight for those women, for their rights.

But I was not going for a political issue.

People were very worried [about whether] I would talk about the Palestinian women and the impact of the occupation on them. But I care about the women in Israel, that they have rights in a democratic country and to fight for their rights.”

The question of how to describe “honor killings” has been an issue in Israel and abroad. Some people, such as MK Ahmed Tibi, have said that to refer to such killings as something other than plain murder is to excuse them, while other commentators think the term stigmatizes the Arab community.

Abu-Sif also seems to tread the line between accepting the term and applying it to the Arab community.

“You can’t say it is a norm in a society or an ‘honor’ killing. If it is a Jewish woman, Arab woman or American woman, we all suffer from the same problem.”

However, the issue of abuse of women, in her view, is directly related to how women live their lives.

“Eighty-six percent of women married at age 17-18 are Arab women… the problem is the early marriage. When she is 17 and married and used to violence and she doesn’t know her rights, [that] as a human being that she should live in a way that protects herself and her children from violence, she thinks this is the norm and that she should be controlled based on what her husband says, or that he has another wife.

“She is told to lie, [to say] that nothing happens. She has no education.

And she needs the money from her husband. That is what will make things continue. I think the religious leaders, and the government in Israel, should bring more awareness for those women to be empowered and support them.”

This brings Abu-Sif back to the issue of integrating the education system.

“When we continue to educate [Arabs] in different schools we will still have all these problems. For instance, when an Ethiopian comes here she goes to a Jewish education system. Arab education supports the man. We have to empower those women through education. The government is partly to blame. We [Arabs] are part of Israel but due to separate education, no one cares.”

Abu-Sif doesn’t see the Arab political parties as doing much to advance the status of women.

“We women are 51% of the Arab community and there is just one woman, Haneen Zoabi [in the Knesset].

And what does she deal with? She fights for Palestinian independence.

The Arab parties don’t talk about the problem of the community.”

Amal Abu-Sif sees herself as endlessly on the move to new and bigger things.

Her work at Ben-Gurion University, the United Nations, Kivunim and Abraham Fund are only part of a larger goal.

“I will continue fighting against inequality in each community and society. I don’t care if it is in Israel, Saudi Arabia or Africa. This I can say. I know that very well. I can’t tell you where yet.”

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