Israeli-Arab women tell of trials, triumphs
Facing tough odds because of their gender, ethnicity, and independent nature, two Israeli Arab women explained how they are working to build a new educated professional class of Muslim women inside Israel.
Speaking Feb. 23 to an audience of 40 people on the Wilf Jewish Community Campus in Scotch Plains were Safa Garb, director of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s Arab Society and Infrastructure division, and Dr. Dalia Fadila, president of Al-Qasemi College near Haifa.
The program was sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ’s Israeli Arab Committee.
Garb described the challenges facing Israeli Arabs, who, she said, constitute one-fifth of Israel’s population but suffer poverty at five times the rate of the Jewish population. One of three Arab Israeli women is not in the workplace, she noted.
Garb said she was “born in a poor village near Haifa, and I could easily have been among the one in three, but fortunately, my village is near a Jewish population center, and I had daily contact with Jewish neighbors” and was motivated by witnessing their pursuit of education and success.
Disturbed that her Muslim grandparents “referred to Jews by an Arabic term meaning ‘masters,’” she said she was determined as a teen to overcome that perception by working and saving for her studies.
Three years later, she began to study for a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and political science at the University of Haifa, then a master’s degree in public policy at Tel Aviv University.
Since then she has been a consultant for several Jewish and Arab organizations and is currently in charge of the JDC’s TEVET Employment Initiative, which works to create job opportunities for Israeli Arabs and others underrepresented in the workforce.
Garb noted that despite a strongly conservative, male-dominated culture in much of the Arab Israeli world — which views women strictly as mothers and homemakers — “Arab women want to be part of the workforce; they want to change their lives.”
“We need to help people get positions — and not just low-level positions — in the workforce, and we need to do that now,” Garb said emphatically.
“I know how easily I could have become a middle-aged woman with no profession or strengths,” she added. “For me now, to be able to work with the JDC in my own community, with women, is everything I could have hoped for myself.”
Fadila told the audience about her struggle to establish a school so that Arab Israeli children could learn English. “Our community — even Arab women — are not very accepting of educated Arab women,” she said.
After Israel won its independence in 1948, she said, “a big majority of Palestinians with nationalistic aspirations turned into a small minority that is very much dependent on the ‘master.’”
She challenged her Jewish audience to “imagine you live on your land owned by your grandparents in a house you built and you have no other land, but after 1948 everything around you is not yours.”
When a woman in the audience interrupted Fadila’s presentation by asking her to “move further” beyond the “victim mentality,” she responded, “I am moving further.”
“I am moving through the complexity,” she said. “This is not victim mentality; this is a description of a country’s situation. Arabs have been disconnected from their culture. They need to learn Hebrew and become bilingual Arabic- and Hebrew-speaking Palestinians.”
But, the obstacles are also within their own community. “Arab culture patronizes women. Arab culture is so centered around the ego of Arab men,” she said, “that unless a woman is a good belly dancer,” she may not be respected.
“It is even more complicated for Arab women in Israel, because anything you would like to do in terms of becoming somebody else or even not covering your hair, you are automatically suspected of wanting to move to the other side, of wanting to pretend to be Jewish and betraying our culture,” said Fadila. “For any Arab woman to step outside of that and stay Arab and stay Muslim in the eyes of the beholder — especially if that beholder is somebody from the Israeli Jewish community — it is very difficult….”
Striving to make progress, she said, “complicates everything. You want to be a citizen of Israel but you can’t because you are a woman, you are a Muslim, you are an Arab.”
After studying American and English literature at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Fadila said, “My decision was to use the most powerful weapon: education.”
She became a lecturer at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya and president of Al-Qasemi, a technological college for Israeli Arabs.
Then, in 2007, she invested her family’s savings in the Q School, an English-language school for Arab children, in the village of Tira. What started with 30 students in two small rooms now has 600 Israeli Arabs who begin their education in pre-kindergarten and continue it through high school.
She told the audience that 100 percent of Q School graduates go on to higher education.
“I want Arab kids in Israel to think of themselves as learners, as people who are thinking and are hopeful and are able to develop,” said Fadila. “As long as they are developing, they are going to be at the best Israeli universities, best Israeli institutions and companies. This means they will be part of the state.”
Reacting to the two women’s speeches, Dov Ben-Shimon, CEO/executive vice president of the Greater MetroWest federation, told NJ Jewish News that “the work of our Israeli Arab Committee is so critical in understanding our connections with the Arab community. There are many challenges ahead, but I believe the more our community understands these issues and comes on missions to see them, the more chance we have of meeting those challenges successfully.”