Last week, I had the privilege of sitting down with Yaacob Ibrahim, director of High School Programs and Arab media spokesperson at The Abraham Initiatives. I was interested to hear his experience as an Arab man teaching Jewish teens about the Palestinian experience in Israel, as well as the development of the Abraham Initiatives’ high school anti-racism educational program. He explained to me that the ultimate goal of the program is “to break stereotypes, to know each other, because [the students] live in the same country, the same area, in the same city…and they know nothing [about each other].”
The program originated six years ago in a meeting at The Abraham Initiatives, where staff discussed the typical high school experience in Israel—12 years of school without having met someone different from them. No Arab teachers in Jewish schools, no Jewish teachers in Arab schools, and very few instances of Arabs attending Jewish secular schools. Overall, students’ only sources of information about those different from themselves are their parents, friends, or the media.
To fight this lack of knowledge and understanding in high schools in Israel, The Abraham Initiatives started their anti-racism program in a Jewish high school in Ramat Gan. It consisted of three lectures about Arab society, starting with “Sorry for the Question” facilitated by Yaacob, as well as lectures from important figures in Arab society, with topics chosen by the school principal. In front of an auditorium of Jewish students, Yaacob and other Arab presenters answered any question that students submitted, many of which came from misunderstanding and stereotypes: “Why do you hate us? When was the last time you met a terrorist?” The Jewish students for the most part listened with open minds.
For the participants, the first session on tolerance and anti-racism training brings about shock and confusion. Since the majority of students grew up only hearing negative stereotypes about Arab society, they greatly benefited from meeting Palestinian citizens of Israel and being able to speak with them openly and learn about their culture. After the first session with one high school, a student expressed their surprise and confusion after listening to Yaacob: “My mother always told me Arabs are like dogs, but you’re just like us… I’m confused.”
The ignorance goes both ways. Last year, The Abraham Initiatives expanded their high school anti-racism and tolerance program to Arab high schools around Israel. Through the same basic structure, Jewish lecturers are brought to Arab schools to share their perspectives and work towards correcting any misconceptions that the Arab students have.
After the unrest last May, the questions the participants asked Yaacob and the other Arab presenters got much more difficult, “because they saw only one perspective because of the media.” The high schoolers also sat with their phones, fact checking every statistic Yaacob gave them. Almost a year later, it is clear how important it is for youth to know and understand those who are different from them. Because youth were the ones inciting much of the violence, it’s essential for the Israeli Ministry of Education to invest in anti-racism and tolerance education in schools. There is still hope for this generation to foster tolerance and acceptance of the other through interactions with those different from them.
Currently, the Abraham Initiatives runs their high school programs in 10 Jewish schools and five Arab schools across Israel. Yaacob says that if the initiative comes directly from the Ministry of Education, it will be easier. With adoption by the Ministry of Education, the eyes of many more students can be opened to the “other,” who will then be able to better grasp how similar we all are.
Conducted Interview with Yaacob Ibrahim on March 27, 2022 in the Abraham Initiatives offices in Lod, Israel