From top: members of Mahapach-Taghir; volunteer Nasreen Yassin (left) with Bairbre Flood
‘Learning To Change in Israeli and Palestinian Communities’
A radio documentary premiering this weekend by Bairbre Flood on a grassroots, feminist, Jewish-Arab organisation that works for social change through education and community empowerment.
‘It’s in the community, it deals with women, students and children; and it deals with Jewish and Arab, so I cannot find a more holistic way to make a change here in my society.’
– Fida Nara, the Palestinian co-director of Mahapach-Taghir
Influenced by a huge student strike twenty years ago in Jerusalem, Mahapach-Taghir (change in Hebrew-Arabic) was founded after students reached out to community members in a marginalised neighbourhood in the city, and with the residents set up an after-school program for children.
The learning centre they started for the children soon became a hub for community activism as parents gradually became involved – a key part of Mahapach-Taghir’s approach to community organisation.
As one of the women in the Yafa, Nazareth group told me:
‘I feel like they really hear me, really talk with me and they respect me. It’s a partnership; it’s dialogue. It’s not like ‘we have our program and this is what will happen,’ – that’s how it’s different here.’
Currently Mahapach-Taghir works with over 600 children and families, and 140 university students throughout Israel. Their emphasis is on strengthening bonds within each area, and creating links between the different communities.
I visited groups in Nazareth, Tamra, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem (they also have a group in Maghar, a mostly Druze town in Northern Israel) and every group – whether Palestinian or Jewish – spoke of how they valued getting to know the other community.
‘Meeting Jewish women changed us,’ as another of the women in the Yafa, Nazareth group put it. Yafa (or Yafa an-Nasriyye) is part of the Nazareth municipality, and they’ve campaigned on a number of issues over the years, and set up initiatives such a women’s savings scheme – a way for the women to become more financially independent.
The coordinator of the group, Mona Arok, started attending a university course through her work with Mahapach-Taghir; in spite of huge opposition from her husband and family to stay in the home.
‘I realised that I’m raising five daughters. I realised they are the future in the community,’ she told me. ‘And if I go back now, [leave the university course] it will destroy them. So from them I took the energy to continue.’
She smiles broadly. ‘And now my husband came with me to the women’s protest in Tel Aviv. It’s amazing that I succeeded to do this change with him and with my family.’
When Mona began her work in the community there were seven women in the group; now there are more than forty.
‘I don’t decide alone,’ she said. ‘It’s important to talk to them as equals. Not from above, because women will think: you are living in your high palace and we are the poor people and you don’t really feel our pain, and what we need.’
‘I see a lot of leadership inside the women’, Mona continued. ‘I want them to decide the future of Mahapach. I want them to lead the work that I do here today.’
This excitement about learning is also evident while visiting Tamra, a mostly Arab town about an hours drive from Nazareth. I meet Suwad, who was given a scholarship – ‘like something gold’ – through Mahapach-Taghir.
‘This opportunity for learning changed my life,’ she said. ‘Now I am fifty-two years old, I think when I’m coming to the studying I feel like something was lost from me – and I found it.’
Another of the volunteer tutors, Nasreen Yassin, a young student at Haifa University, told me how working here helps her feel connected to her community.
‘I believe if I want to change something in the community I should begin with the children who surround me,’ she said.
Houria Abu Nimir, has prepared food for everyone. She’s a science teacher in the local school, and she tells me they can discuss political issues with the children in Mahapach-Taghir which they can’t do in the school.
‘We ask them what have you heard in the news, and give them the opportunity to say what they feel and think about it,’ Houria said. ‘It’s very important to understand your identity as a Palestinian who lives in Israel…and that you have enough time to talk to someone about it.’
Around 20% of Israeli’s are Palestinian, and while they have full voting rights and equal citizenship like any other Israeli, there are issues around racism and identity.
Lima Hajiah, is a young Palestinian student who volunteers in Yad Eliyahu – a mostly Jewish neighbourhood in Tel Aviv. She tells me how it’s important for her, as a Palestinian, to be here with the kids.
‘Most of the children might never have communicated with a Palestinian,’ she said. ‘This could be the first time for them to get to know each other as Jewish and Palestinian, and what this means to co-operate here together.’
Rachel, one of the mothers, is part of a new women’s group which is just setting up. They haven’t decided exactly what they’re going to focus on, and are in the early stages of brainstorming with each other.
‘I want my son to learn with me how to give back to the community,’ she tells me. ‘We want to see a change. We want to see improvement.’
Another mother, Tickva, said that meeting other women – whether Palestinian or Jewish, gives her new ideas.
‘If they share similar kind of problem,’ she said. ‘How they deal with that, what kind of solutions that they find…it’s interesting.’
The next day, in the Florentine neighbourhood of Tel Aviv I meet with Zehava Aknin and Dvora Levian, women in their sixties who’ve been volunteering for years in their community.
‘I work with religion people, not religion people. With women, kids, old people…with everyone,’ Zehava laughs.
Dana Zarif, the coordinator for this area translates for us, and she explains that the previous evening they’d a similar learning community in Florentine as in Yad Eliyahu where they help children with school work. ‘They also visit old people,’ she adds. ‘If I can help, I help,’ Dvora said. ‘It’s good for the heart.’
Devora also feels it’s important that the group is mixed.
‘They Arab want to live,’ she said. ‘We Jewish want to live, in not war, just peace. We want together speaking with each other – and meeting each other.’
Meytal Srul, a community organiser in Tel Aviv also joins us.
‘I also got empowered by working with the women in the neighbourhood,’ Srul said. ‘When the women get together and go to the City Hall and demand their rights, it looks different than every woman dealing with her social worker alone. It’s not like I’m getting help – I’m getting my rights.’
In Tel Aviv I also spoke to Rawan Bisharat, the Palestinian co-director of Sadaka-Reut (friendship in Arabic-Hebrew) which was set up years ago by students in the University of Haifa.
‘They realised they lived here, but they didn’t talk to each other as Palestinians and Jewish here inside Israel,’ said Rawan. ‘We work with Ethiopian, Mizrahi (Jews that came from Arab countries) and we think that they have common things also together.’
They run programmes in schools and universities, youth projects for 14-16 year olds, and a community in action programme for 18-22 year olds.
‘It’s a long process,’ she said. ‘Sometimes you don’t feel that a change is going on. And also there’s a lot of political changes all the time so we feel like we work, work, work – and we have a lot to do. But we are still relevant so I think it’s a good thing what we do.’
It is a long process, and one that gets little attention. The struggle to build strong communities within marginalised areas, and then for these communities to work together for social change, is not headline-grabbing news.
And yet it’s the kind of work that’s integral for any society – especially one with such obvious challenges as Israel. In a region often riven by sectarianism, these women’s solidarity is even more striking.
And the process of community-strengthening is not always an obvious one. It might involve an issue that appears unimportant to some, as Nurit Barak, the Jewish co-director of Mahapach-Taghir, had told me. But the idea is to build on that empowerment.
‘This is the kind of space we want to create with them,’ she said.
We visit the Talpiot area of Jerusalem which is home to successive waves of Jewish refugees from North Africa, Russia and Ethiopia – and now new residents in modern apartment blocks. 75% of people living in Talpiot didn’t finish school, so the local principal offered the school’s premises to Mahapach-Taghir to set up a learning community here.
Einat Lerner is one of the mothers involved in this new group and we chat with her and Yaniv Teiltel, the coordinator for Jerusalem.
‘I think most of the organisations in Israel and worldwide look at disadvantaged communities as people who they need to give to,’ he said. ‘But this project says ‘we’re just going to guide and you lead the way – we don’t know to where’. Because I meet the parents and I don’t know what we’re going to fight for.’
Einat tells me this works better on the ground – supporting locals to work on the things that matter to them – ‘with an open mind’. She feels that tensions can be lessened through community interaction, and is also glad this is a mixed Arab and Jewish organisation.
‘We have no choice,’ she said. ‘We have to share this country.’
‘Learning To Change in Israeli and Palestinian Communities’ supported by the Simon Cumbers Media Fund will be broadcast on Newstalk 106-108FM this Sunday at 7am and Saturday June 29 at 9pm.. Podcast to follow here