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Sam Shepherd

Putting it together

The Abraham Initiatives board members and staff gather in Umm Al-Fahm during their annual retreat. Photo courtesy of Yaacob Ibrahim.
The Abraham Initiatives board members and staff gather in Umm Al-Fahm during their annual retreat. Photo courtesy of Yaacob Ibrahim.

A Canadian, a New Yorker, a Jewish Israeli, an American married to a Bedouin man, and a Palestinian-Australian walk into an Indian restaurant in Ramle…

…and they had a delicious farewell lunch! 

What I just described was not a joke. I was just sharing what I did the other week during my internship at the Abraham Initiatives, which concludes at the end of June. After eight months volunteering, learning, and exploring delicious corners of the country with this non-profit, I now feel more passionate about shared society work in Israel than ever. 

Over the past year, I experienced a crash course on relations between Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel. I spent hours in the office compiling explainers on topics like “Ramat Eshkol” or the “Garin Toranim” for international visitors. I travelled north to Umm Al-Fahm and met with a man who dreams of founding Israel’s first Palestinian art museum, and I commuted south to Rahat to observe a class about destigmatizing sexual assault among Bedouin women. 

At each juncture of this journey, I met with grassroots activists, award-winning journalists, and passionate members of Knesset, all of whom were eager to share with me their take on Israel’s future. I became acquainted with the culture wars of Israeli society, as well as its most intractable, thorniest questions: Security or human rights? Ethnic supremacy or democracy and equality? Tribalism or pluralism and mutual respect? This internship gave me a deep-dive education into the status of “the other” in Israeli society that no number of hours reading Edward Said’s Orientalism in a university library could offer. 

This fall, I also had the unique opportunity of witnessing in real time the rise of the most right-wing government in Israeli history. Within my first few weeks interning here, I observed the fair and free election of Netanyahu’s controversial coalition, which placed members of the extreme right in positions of power. The next morning, the pain in the office was palpable. It felt as if our work towards a more democratic society in Israel was coming undone, threatened by laws designed to intensify division and stoke inter-ethnic hatred. 

Oftentimes, interning at The Abraham Initiatives has made me feel ahead of the curve in Israeli activism. When the judicial reform protests first began in January, shared society organizations like The Abraham Initiatives were at the forefront of demonstrations standing up for Israel’s democratic system. Many of our existing programs – like initiatives to bring Arab and Jewish high school students together in shared classrooms, or  programs to raise awareness of the murders of Palestinian citizens of Israel – were already intertwined with the goals of promoting democracy and civic equality in Israel. Thanks to this internship, slogans like “Arab Lives Matter” or “Democracy For All”  were in my vocabulary long before they became protest chants. 

Other times, working at The Abraham Initiatives has made me realize how behind I am in understanding Israel and its citizens. Researching the rise of anti-Arab racism in Jewish Israeli schools taught me that the recent election results did not occur in a vacuum. Rather, politicians in Israel exploited anxieties among the Jewish Israeli public to gain power. Realizing how fear can drive ordinary people in Israel to turn a blind eye to bigotry and extremism was a heartbreaking pill to swallow.

In a similar vein, I learnt that Palestinian citizens of Israel face a significant crisis of crime and violence in their communities, which the Israeli government and police are insufficiently addressing. This was a culture shock to me, as I could not understand how a modern government could ignore such profound pain stemming from a large segment of their society, nor how horrific honour killings and family feuds can persist in a modern country.

With more information, I can read between the lines in the media I consume and stories I hear to understand the socio-political context affecting current events in Israel. I learnt that every event or altercation in Israeli news  – like the moss-covered ruins of Lod I passed by this year on my commute to The Abraham Initiatives office twice a week – is rooted in a rocky history lurking beneath the surface. 

This year has also taught me to be patient with people who do not necessarily agree with me, and to actively listen to understand where someone may be coming from if they disagree with my perspective. Outside of my hours volunteering at the Abraham Initiatives, I also work with local schools and several community organizations in Lod. Being in these spaces has provided me with a crucial frame of reference into how ordinary Israelis perceive issues relating to crime, Jewish identity, and security.  

I have learnt to hold multiple narratives in my mind at once, while thinking critically about how fear and family trauma shapes people’s point of views. I have come to understand how both Jewish and Palestinian Israelis live with mutual distrust of each other and a deep sense of attachment to their own group: a tribalism that is as native to this land as olive trees. 

At the same time, I have also learnt that it is possible to work with people from vastly different backgrounds and beliefs to find common goals that uplift everybody. Contrary to popular belief, shared society in Israel does not entail disavowing one’s unique identity and history to eat hummus together in a circle. Instead, it is about acknowledging each other’s traumas and determining practical, synergetic solutions to problems affecting real people today. 

Towards the end of my internship, I had the privilege of sitting in on a talk with MK Sami Abu Shehadeh in Jaffa. He shared with The Abraham Initiatives board his vision for a political system in Israel that provides full and equal rights for all its citizens. Sitting in a room of activists far worldlier than me, I asked Shehadeh how he expects to address the fears of Jewish Israelis when realizing this new society. After all, Jewish Israelis’ experiences of persecution have erected walls in Israel, both figurative and literal, and Israel today is embroiled in a conflict in which everybody sees themselves as a victim. Shehadeh stumbled through his response to my question, but it got the room thinking about multiple perspectives.

I believe that understanding people’s fears – not ignoring or belittling them – is crucial in achieving a democratic, shared society in Israel. After all, it is these Israelis who must ultimately decide in what kind of country they want to live, and it is these Israelis who are responsible for shaping a better, more just future for the next generations. 

I do not know the future of Israel, but I am grateful for my year here learning about both the country’s challenges and its changemakers. I will return to North America with a fervour that I plan to mobilize into action and advocacy for a better future. I am happy I took the initiative, to join and contribute to broader initiatives, for a shared and stronger society in Israel. Onwards, and yalla

About the Author
Sam Shepherd (he/him) is a recent graduate of McGill University, where he studied history, literature, and Jewish Studies. He is currently volunteering in Lod as part of the Yahel Social Change Fellowship, in which he works as an English-language teacher and community volunteer. Sam is also an intern at the Abraham Initiatives for 2022-2023.
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