An Interview with the With the Directors of Mahapach – Taghir
Fida Nara Abu-Dabai and Sarit Larry, Co-Directors
TELL US ABOUT THE WAY YOU WORK AND YOUR VALUES:
Sarit: I hadn’t been in Israel for 10 years; I had finished a PhD in the United Sates. I lived in Greece. There was something about the distance from Israel that made things much easier for me. Less stress, less heartache. I didn't think I would return. In the summer of 2011, I began to understand that I would return. It happened suddenly – a clear, simple, and very strong understanding that my place is here. I returned a year and a half later, and, after about two years, I was very fortunate to become the co-director of Mahapach-Taghir.
Our activities in Mahapach-Taghir relate to something that has been very neglected in the Israeli public arena: the possibility of solidarity between the Jewish and Palestinian peripheries. In addition to the general neglect of the economic and social peripheries in Israel, we note the very specific neglect of programs related to shared society.
These programs for shared societies almost never choose the periphery as their target group. In fact – the assumption and the constant message that we receive is that there is an eternal, and natural, hostility between the Jewish and Palestinian peripheries. In Mahapach-Taghir we strive for solidarity – and it doesn't even demand such a great effort – one of the keys to shared society in Israel can be found within the Palestinians' and Jews' natural mutual interests.
I don't have the privilege of being tired
Fida: My name is very political and very Palestinian; it means "sacrifice," and is highly identified with the Palestinian people's struggle. Over the years, feminism and social action took on a significant part of my daily life. My first campaign was to enable the girls in my class to go on an annual hike in Eilat, which meant that we would be sleeping away from home. I went to a public school, with a population that was both deprived and traditional, and it was very strange for them to accept that the girls would go on a trip and sleep away from home. In the end, we were seven girls on the trip, and I was very happy.
The combination of being both a Palestinian and a feminist is one of the most challenging identities that a woman in Israel can assume. Motherhood and a career add on two more difficult challenges. I feel that I don't have the privilege of being tired and declaring that I just can't do something. I also don't know any other way, and probably I don't want to know any other way.
HOW DID YOU COME TO CO-DIRECT MAHAPACH-TAGHIR?
Fida: As I was studying for my MA, I met Kholoud Adris, the past director of Mahapach-Taghir, and for two years, we traveled together to classes and the entire way she would nag me, "You must join Mahapach." So it would be more correct to say that Mahapach-Taghir came to me. I remember the moment on my first day at work in Mahapach, when an ultra-Orthodox woman from Kiryat Hayovel said to me, "Oh, so you are the new Palestinian director? Welcome." That has stayed with me – it was the first time that a woman who is so different from me greeted me warmly and accepted my identity.
As time went on, I came to understand that this is one of the unique things in Mahapach. I am also moved by the deep partnership among the women, children, and students. It's not a partnership based on, "I am coming to provide a service," or "I know something and I want to teach it to you," but rather on a space in which all of us learn together. It is amazing and significant to direct together with a woman, and even more so, with a Jewish woman, given the difficulty realty that we face in our lives here.
Sarit: When I came for my job interview, I was simply looking for work. My grandfather had lived in the Florentine neighborhood of Tel Aviv for many years; my father grew up there. In Mahapach-Taghir the residents of the communities are part of the hiring process for the directors and one of my interviews was with them. I sat across from these four women activists and a representative from Mahapach. They asked me questions about myself and my plans, and, as the interview went on, something happened that had not happened in the two previous interviews with the committee and the staff. Suddenly I realized that I had not come merely for a work interview, and that I really wanted to work here. I had gotten used to thinking of deprived communities as something that I want to help, rather than as something that I can be part of, something that has the potential for tremendous power. Where else can you find such powerful partnership?
Co-Directing – Growing Even in Times of Disagreement
Sarit: Co-directing is very important to me. Even when there is disagreement, it is a place to expand, even if it is unpleasant or if we are in a crisis. Through partnership, you become aware of your own blind spots. The best projects we have done in Mahapach-Taghir grew out of those moments when Fida and I thought very different things and were gradually able to create a third version that both of us loved.
Fida: During the Protective Edge Operation, we held a very emotional meeting with our residents. Some 30-40 women from deprived communities throughout the country participated, and their last words were, "We want peace. We want to calm down and we want a better life for our children." I have been a peace activist for many years, but I never had the opportunity to sit with men and women who had faced such different life experiences and whose views were so different from mine, and to realize that they, too, want peace. That is easy to miss when you look at people only according to their party affiliation. That meeting was more challenging than any demonstration of hundreds of people. Anat Bracha said something that has stayed with me ever since: "This is a men's war and we don't want to be part of it."
TELL US A BIT ABOUT MAHAPACH-TAGHIR AND THE "COMMUNITY UNIVERSITY" PROJECT
The Community University for Women's Leadership creates meetings among Palestinian and Jewish women from deprived neighborhoods, where they can study, teach and grow together as community leaders. The participants learn about various aspects of community organization, such as identification and leverage of community resources, communication skills, visibility for community projects, leadership development, and so forth.
Fida: The purpose of the Community University is to build leadership among women from deprived communities in Israel, to bring them together in the university from all over the country. And to connect to the potential that Sarit mentioned earlier – when one of the participants was asked, "What is success in your eyes," she answered, "In in ten years from now, I would be able to direct Mahapach-Taghir, together with a Palestinian community member."
Sarit: When we thought up the Community University we were thinking about all sorts of communities – women, students, graduates, so that it would be suited to every type of community. With the women, for example, we want to emphasize the practical aspects. The model of concentrated learning for activism, empowerment and leadership was born out of the Community University and has created networks of connections within the universities' partnership with our communities. We are always looking for ways to clone the model, with other communities and in our other programs.
Sarit: It is important to remember that the processes in Mahapach-Taghir are long-term; sometimes it takes years to get them moving. From our point of view, the program is successful when the participants become agents of change and leaders of significant social processes. Mona Arouk, for instance, began her activism in Mahapach-Taghir as part of the community in Yafia, became a coordinator, and today she is one of our best. Mona, and another activist, Sarah Sela, were recognized on International Women's Day in a ceremony at the Knesset for their activism for the benefit of women in Israel. In addition, Mona was awarded this year's Yaffa London Yaari Prize. Today, Mona is a key figure in the organization and in our partnership with the universities.
Fida: Another participant, Sarah Sela, is leading Mahapach's campaign for elderly benefits.
We had two participants who ran pre-schools in Kfar Manda but never participated in demonstrations or in the campaign for the pre-schools. Thanks to the Community University, they became very active as the representatives of Kfar Manda to the national forum of pre-school operators. One of the women, from Nazareth, has started studying at the Open University (the Community University met on the campus of the Open University.)
Collaboration Between Community and Academy:
Fida: There is a deep, profound connection between the Community University and the "Second Chance" project. Within the framework of the meetings of the Community University, we brought 20 Arab women, 99% of whom view themselves as Arabs, to Bar Ilan University, just one day after the elections in which Bibi declared that the "Arabs were flocking to the polls. (The guards could see them flocking into the university). That was a very empowering experience, and it was difficult for the guard, too, within the campus and for the women. It gave them tremendous strength. The entrance into Bar Ilan was very symbolic, significant, and difficult. But they came in, we came into a place where we never thought we would ever be.
WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR YOUNG FEMINIST ACTIVISTS?
Our advice is related to our own personal learning experiences: First of all, each and every one of us has the potential for fixated thinking, basic assumptions and racist perceptions; at some time, each and every one of us is stuck thinking in a box that someone else built.
Second, every argument and disagreement within the feminist world and with any of our partners is a form of a beginning and an opportunity for new partnerships and learning, expansion and growth.
We have three wishes:
- We want to raise our children without fear of video clips, clothing stores and toy stores.
- We want to live in a world in which people don't look strangely at a 50 year old woman who is starting to study at the university.
- We hope that feminism can light the lives of all of us, and show us the injustices and inequalities and will lead us to a shared and free society, where there is no occupation.