I spent last Sunday in Umm El Fahem with staff members from The Abraham Initiatives (TAI), a non-profit organization that works to promote equality for Arab citizens in Israel. As an intern at TAI, I often go on site visits and join staff for key events to learn about and help document their work across Israel. On our trip to Umm El Fahem, we participated in a tour of the city along with 20 administrative staff members from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem as part of TAI’s Academia as a Shared Space initiative.
Colleges and universities are often the first place where young Jews and Arabs in Israel interact because their education systems are largely separated from primary school through high school. The number of Arab students pursuing higher education has increased significantly in recent years, but they face several difficulties due to cultural and language barriers. Academia as a Shared Space comprises several programs aimed at boosting intercultural awareness and social cohesion on campuses within this reality.
The tour on Sunday was part of one such program, allowing staff members from the Hebrew U (many of whom had never visited an Arab city) to learn about one of Israel’s largest Arab cities from a local tour guide. The program also includes components such as Arabic language instruction and courses on Arab society in Israel. Many of the staff members told me that they signed up in order to improve their understanding of Arab culture and facilitate communication with Arab students on campus, as well as the Arab population in Jerusalem more generally.
Our tour began with a discussion of Umm El Fahem’s demographics at a scenic viewpoint overlooking the city. Umm El Fahem is a predominantly Muslim city with approximately 60,000 residents divided across four main extended families. The population is quite young on the whole, and much of the city’s youth pursues higher education in Israel, the West Bank, and abroad. Umm El Fahem is located near the Green Line in the mostly Arab Wadi Ara region of the north. Israeli politicians have proposed transferring Wadi Ara over to the Palestinian Authority for a future Palestinian state in exchange for Israeli settlements in the West Bank, though such plans have damaged residents’ perception of citizenship and never materialized.
With an overview of the region under our belt, we proceeded to stroll through the narrow, winding, and nameless streets of the city, discussing different facets of Arab culture along the way. Our first stop was a cemetery where our guide explained Islamic funeral customs. I found it interesting that she said it is not recommended to visit graves of loved ones frequently, so as to encourage moving on more easily. We then visited a bridal shop and learned about marriage traditions. The group very much enjoyed watching two of their fellow coworkers enact a wedding day, replete with traditional dress and dance. We also passed beautiful buildings with Ottoman architecture, as well as homes with Mecca posters hanging outside indicating that residents had gone on the Hajj.
Next, we headed to the Umm El Fahem art gallery. This gallery was founded by Said Abu Shakra in 1996 as Israel’s first museum dedicated to Arab art. Said spoke about his view of art as a powerful social force, and his focus on pride in depicting Arab culture. He also discussed the gallery’s role as a center for dialogue between Arab and Jewish artists, as it offers classes for both on identity, shared values, and recognition of the other. Fittingly, Said was a recipient of TAI’s Champions of Shared Society Award last year for his contribution to promoting partnership between Arabs and Jews.
As Said showed us around, he spoke fondly of the connection locals have established with his gallery. One story he told that I found especially moving was about a young girl from a poor family who expressed interest in joining a pottery class several years ago. While she initially felt shy to participate due to her stunted arm, she grew more comfortable over time and proved to be one of Said’s most talented students. She is now in her 20s and still frequents the gallery, or her “second home,” according to Said.
Overall, I found the tour very engaging and informative, and I think the group did as well. They asked about a wide range of topics, from the challenges of urbanization in Umm El Fahem to the origins of Islamic religious practices, and many expressed gratification with the amount of new information they learned. With Arabs making up roughly 20% of Israel’s population, and more of them attending higher education, I believe programs like TAI’s are crucial for promoting greater inclusion in colleges and universities. In turn, these institutions can harness their diversity and become an example for an equal and shared society on the national level.