Earlier this year, a natural-born activist visited the Memphis Jewish community and brought her amazing stories.
Amal Elsana Alh’jooj journeyed to Memphis as a lecturer for Beth Sholom’s Israel: Behind the Conflict speaker series, a program funded in part by a Lemsky Endowment Fund grant through Memphis Jewish Federation, with additional support from the Inter Agency Task Force, an initiative of JFNA.
“I was so excited to come to the Deep South, with all of my knowledge and feelings in terms of the Civil Rights Movement,” Amal said. “For me it’s really exciting to come and see (for example) the Martin Luther King site. Because I really very much resonate with the cause and with the process and with the achievements they accomplished. Still, a way to go, but at least they chose an amazing model for the people.”
An Arab Israeli Bedouin, Amal is the Director of North American Relations for AJEEC-NISPED (the Arab-Jewish Center for Equality, Empowerment and Cooperation – Negev Institute for Strategies of Peace and Development), an Arab-Jewish nonprofit organization she founded which is based in Israel’s Negev desert and dedicated to education and economic empowerment.
At 17, Amal founded the first Bedouin’s women’s organization and today is recognized as a key voice for the Israeli Arab Bedouin community, and an outspoken supporter of gender, ethnic, economic and cultural equality for humans of every stripe.
She’s a powerful speaker, using episodes from her past to describe universal truths about the human experience. She’s given TED talks, university lectures, and campaigned to make real change in disenfranchised communities. She is a graduate of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, and McGill University in Montreal, where she is currently studying for her doctorate. She lives in Montreal.
Between appearances across the Memphis Jewish community, Amal sat down with JCPConnect and let the following conversation unfold. The photos in this article come from AJEEC-NISPED’s website, and represent the varied work the organization does in Israel and other parts of the world. At the bottom of this article, you’ll find more links to their work.
How did your earliest past inform the path you took into your career?
I think that the setting and the context that I was born in was really the main story of my life. It really designed and shaped who am I today, and what path I took, because from a very early age I felt: what is the meaning of injustice? I felt: what is the meaning of being excluded? And I knew from a very early age what’s the meaning of conditional love?
And it all started around women and girls issues. I wasn’t at that time aware of the national or citizenship area but I was so aware of what’s the meaning of being a girl in a patriarchal society.
Your grandmother taught you at an early age to ask questions. Why do you think it’s important to always be on the lookout for the right questions to ask?
I wasn’t comfortable with my own place and my own reality, so if you don’t feel that you are comfortable, and there’s something hurting, and there’s something causing you to be worried, you cannot just accept it as fact and say: “That’s my life.”
I was complaining about all this stuff, and asking: “Why.”
When we complain we can develop a deep sense of victimization and say: “I am a woman and I am a girl in a patriarchal society and there’s nothing to do about it, everybody is against me because I am a girl.” Or you take yourself and you say: “I want to do something about it.”
The one that walked me through how to navigate this pain and do something positive in my life was my grandmother. She encouraged me to ask these questions, and she put on my shoulders a very heavy task, saying: “For the answers you must go and search. Because I can’t answer all your questions.”
She always liked to talk with me, always liked me asking questions. She put a lot of confidence (in me). She opened my eyes to many other things that are going on. She was the one to tell me her stories to inspire me. For her to be married at the age of 20, where all the girls were married at the age of 15 at that time, because she said: “No.” She said no all the way. For me it was like: among all these women, in her tribe, she was the one to say: “No, I’m not ready to do that step in my life.”
And she would be strong. She would see that people are coming to ask for her hand and she will take her horse and she would go to the field and they would ask her and she would say “Oh, I have something to do.” And she would come back only after. She was really… yeah. She passed away 2007 and I was in New York when I got a call from my father saying I have to come because my grandmother is very sick. So I arrived in the morning, she passed away at 7:15 P.M. I arrived 9:00 A.M., so I was able to see her and say goodbye. She still lives with me. Every time I go back to visit my parents I go to the cemetery and I sit and I talk with her. And I have videos and recordings and I listen.
Sounds like your grandmother really empowered you to become an activist.
My activism didn’t come from nothing. There is a story that I never told, and you will be the first one. At that time, we barely had books to read, except the books from the school, like school books. But my uncle used to bring books from West Bank and from Gaza. So I used to steal his books. I’m a book thief, I admit it. I used to steal his books and read. I used to sleep at her place when sometimes she needs someone to stay with her. So I was staying at that night with her, and I was reading this book and the book was Ihsan Abdel Quddous, big famous Egyptian author, and the cover page is a man kissing a woman, and the woman is half naked. My grandmother saw the cover and she looked at me and she said: “That’s not acceptable.” She took the book in a very angry way and she said: “I’m taking this book away, that will ruin your life!”
But the story there, the love story, it is so strong that I want to know more what’s happened there. So I’m crazy about getting the book back and I started saying: “Please! That will be the last book and you have to give it to me!” And I was so sad because I wanted to know what is happening. So she saw that I am not happy with that decision, and she came back and she said: “Okay here is your book. But you promise me that this will be the last one.”
So we were sleeping on mattresses, no beds. I was sleeping here and she was sleeping next to me. But for me to read the book I had to lie on my stomach and the light is in front of me. So I put the book down into the light and I was reading like this. And she was lying down next to me. She kind of looked at what I was reading, but she never knew how to read, but she said: “Can you give me your pencil?”
I was like: “Alright…?” And she said: “Give me a piece of paper.” I give her a piece of paper, I give her my pencil, and she opened that piece of paper and she drew two parallel lines.
And she said: “This line is anything forbidden by the culture. This line is everything forbidden by God. These are your limits, these are your borders. Don’t cross them. You have to walk in between.”
I looked and I said: “Grandma, it’s so narrow! That’s not enough space to move.”
And she said: “Well, you can move it a little bit further, without breaking it. And open more space without breaking it. Do you understand me? Without breaking.”
And this is the theory of change in terms of my feminism, and in terms of how to do things and to create change while utilizing the space and expanding it without breaking it, because the minute you break it then you will be kicked out from your community. You will lose your legitimacy. And as a social change agent, you need legitimacy to be able to influence people’s lives. Without legitimacy, you are nothing.
So I wanted to keep this community legitimacy. I wanted to keep this ability to be able to talk with the people. So all the changes I did in my life were really to push a little bit, and do something, and by doing push a little more. And doing and pushing more. It takes years before people can look at it and say: “Oh, she pushed it that far!” But in the first moment, they are not aware of what I am doing, and this is how I start teaching women reading and writing when I was 14 years old.
That was my first community work. I started teaching them Arabic and Hebrew, and I really knew that when they started reading, things would start happening and it would lead to change. But I taught them Arabic in the way that we read the Quran text, so the head of the tribe says: “Oh, she’s teaching them Quran, that’s acceptable.”
But Quran is language, language is text. So through that I was able to choose the text from the Quran that talks about women’s rights, I choose the parts that talk about children’s rights.
You said in your TED talk that you weren’t interested in creating a third culture that was a mix of the two cultures. You’re more interested in helping foster pride and confidence that allows people to feel comfortable and peacefully coexist in a space. Our nation could use a lesson in this right now, allowing two different points of view to coexist. Do you have any advice for grassroots organizers to be effective in the current political climate?
It’s a very big question and it’s a question of all the social movements.
I think one of the big mistakes of people leading a change is they think by excluding the others, or by fighting against them, you can win the case and I think this is a big mistake because people in the other camp are people we can bring into the camp and we cannot bring them by excluding them, by talking at them or to them in a way that they are enemies.
People many times are waiting for someone that would tell a story that would include them. Build the camp around values, and not around left and right. Not around liberals and conservatives.
I think that the voice that should go out today, it’s not about the two camps today, it’s about America. And about America of human rights, inclusion, peace and diversity. And this is where we all want to create, this third space where we all move together. And through that you can bring people from both camps. But if you build it in two camps, like left and right, then that will exclude more people that include them into the process.
Which is a great way to explain why it was such a mistake for Hillary Clinton to have referred to the ‘basket of deplorables’ during her candidacy, because it’s a divisive statement.
It was very excluding. Both- they played a very… Trump played this politics of fear, and Clinton played a game that I didn’t like which was really saying: “We know more, we understand more, we’re more educated people. We are leftie, we understand!”
This kind of speech doesn’t work with people in poverty. This kind of speech doesn’t speak to people without education. You’re kind of paralyzing, and your speech is like: “Here, that’s the only people I want to speak with.” So that’s the only people that vote for you.
It seems like there are two layers to your activism. You’ve got the gender equality thing but then also you’re a champion of ethnic equality. Do you think there are any major differences between these two agendas, or are they really part of the same goal?
It’s part of the same dominations of powers. The same, same.
I’m writing about this now. These dominations of power most of the time really coexist and have great common ground in fostering this domination and excluding people from this power and resources. Yes, I started at an early age on women’s issues and at a certain age I started being aware that I was a second class citizen in the State of Israel by living in an unorganized village and seeing house demolition on a daily basis. My aunt’s house was destroyed, then another aunt’s house was destroyed. It’s the story of my life. I saw this, I felt this. I felt how it feels when the police come and take out, they uproot the olive trees that you spend five years of hard work without water, watering these trees and then all of a sudden “Tak Tak Tak!!” in one day, and they will take them and plant them in a Jewish moshav or a settlement or whatever and we’re like: “Why?”
I remember the first time I saw this action and asked the question was when I was around 6 years old, when my youngest aunt got married and she was so beautiful. She’s a beautiful woman and she was the first one to be a bride with a white dress. So for me it was an amazing day of seeing something new and I loved her. And the day after, she came crying. So as a child I saw that she was so happy the day before, and the second day she came with her black dress, crying, and I said: “Why did they destroy her one room? It was a shack. It wasn’t even a real room.”
And my father said: “Because we are Arabs.” And that answer, I feel like this was a very dangerous answer because my father didn’t explain further. He said: “Because we are Arab.”
For me, as a child who wanted a compelling answer, I started searching. And in that search I could have found bad people who plant extremism. So that was very dangerous. I would say to parents: “Don’t give half an answer.” If you have half an answer, give it, but then give directions about where to find the rest of the answer. Don’t leave your kids with half answers. So at that time I was really in a situation where I felt like I had to search for answers from whoever around me, and whoever was around me were sometimes people (with an agenda).
I grew up in a very extremist mindset. I don’t want to learn Hebrew, I don’t want to talk with Jewish people, they are uprooting our trees. As a teenager, I was so extremist in terms of I don’t want to speak with them. I used to be a shepherd, so the only time I met with Jewish people, I met with them in uniform as soldiers because my area is a mountain area that they used for navigation training exercises. As a shepherd, they used to have these pieces of paper that they would hide. The soldiers need to train with maps and they hide these small pieces of paper, which were points of reference. I used to see where one group would hide and the other group would search, so I would go and take that piece of paper and go far away and watch the twelve soldiers look around and try to find and I would laugh. They would go away and then come back to the same point because the map showed that it’s here but it’s not there.
Was that a risky thing to have done?
Soldiers were very friendly. Very Friendly. So I used to go to them and say: “Hey guys, are you looking for this?” And they’d go: “Yes!” And I’d go: “Okay, I want to give it back but you give me food.”
And they will take their backpack and they will share with me their food and I will give them. So I used to play this game with them. I never felt afraid of soldiers. It wasn’t the soldiers that uprooted the trees and destroyed the houses, it was the police. It’s not the soldiers’ task. Soldiers are the borders and out, not the inside. For me, I never felt afraid of them.
They sometimes would knock on the door because they got lost in the village and my father would show them the way in a very nice way, like “Oh, you are looking for this here.” And they are not supposed to ask because they are supposed to find the way themselves, but we used to help them. This was the first encounters with them for me.
But then, I start organizing with demonstrations against house demolition. Every time they come to destroy a house we would go and we will stand there and we will throw stones at the bulldozers, and we will throw stones. But even when we would do that, the police would take us by hand and drive us back away and say: “Don’t do that.” But it wasn’t violence that we see today.
But I start understanding that most equality conflicts are very connected with each other. But I was pushed back every time I tried to support women’s rights by men in my community saying: “That’s not the right time to do it. Look, we have house demolition, we have this, we have all this stuff…” And today I think this was a way to push me away from a women’s agenda by claiming or saying this is not the right agenda. Women’s agenda is the right agenda, every time, all the time. Because I believe that if women are educated and if women are free and if women get political position, then house demolition, oppression, national oppression would stop because women would lead and we would lead in a different way.
It’s exactly what happened with black rights movement here. “Oh, it’s against everybody. It’s against men, against women, so leave women’s issues aside for now.” It’s with Palestinian women. “Oh, we have the occupation now, and you are talking about violence against women? Leave it aside here and let’s fight to end the occupation.” But what’s happened with Palestinian women after Oslo? They were released from the jails. The men who were released from the jails were given political positions in the Palestinian Authority. Women who fought alongside the men in the 1980s for the political liberation of Palestine, they were released back to the kitchen. And not only back to the kitchen, but maybe they raped you in the jail so you are not a virgin anymore, so no one would marry you. The men got all these positions, the women, back to the kitchen.
So what comes first? Women as women liberate ourselves from this patriarchal system, or to liberate ourselves from this political domination system? What comes first? And I think we have to do both at the same time. When I look at these two dominations of power, I see very much how they play and feed each other against women. I see it when it comes to killing in the name of family honor. The women would go complain to the police and the police wouldn’t do anything to help the women, and he would say: “Oh, this is your culture, we have to be sensitive.” And in the name of sensitivity they are kind of helping the men to do whatever they want. We see how the police cooperate with the head of the tribe against the women. So you see all these kinds of power games that I saw: “I don’t want to be part of it.”
I look around, I see all these movements, these social movements, around the world. Around land, around indigenousity… these movements did succeed. What happened to women never succeeding? Because we never united as one movement across the universe, and saying: “Okay, you are Israeli and you are Palestinian, and you are black, and you are here.”
But we have something in common that we can accomplish. I know there is a national issue here as a Palestinian or as an Israeli, I know that there’s a race issue as a black person, but let’s do it. One movement for all. And once we’ve won, we’ll be replacing all these men who are task oriented, always trying to fight to get to the next obstacle. And they don’t use processes, or trying to understand. But we are the ones who know what are the names of love and caring.
To build peace and love across nations, you need women. That’s what I’m thinking, really. That women, we have to stop serving national agenda or race agenda and we have to go forward and really serve our own agenda and put ourselves in the front line in a decision making position, and make the change there.
You said early on before university, you only ever interacted with Jewish Israelis during forced removal of villages, communities, and houses. That might lead other activists to choose to be aggressive in their activism but you chose communication, questioning, and listening to the answers. Do you think that tact that you chose made you more effective at accomplishing your goals?
Absolutely. I learned this from my grandmother. It wasn’t something that I learned at the university. How to frame the message. How to communicate your message and how to recruit supporters to your message. And I think most of what we are doing is really how do we frame the message?
If the message is inclusive, and if the message is based on values and speaks to people’s hearts, the message will win. But if the message is excluding people and violent… Violence feeds moments. Violence and aggression never feeds lasting processes. I can be angry in two moments and it’s done. I will break something and it’s done, right? But it’s not lasting. It’s not the energy that gets things built. It’s the energy that will help you get rid of something in that moment and then that’s it. But show me any one in the world that will not regret a moment of aggressive that they did.
I learned doing this because maybe because I wanted to survive. The space that I was given it was so limited and so small. To add to that, between these two parallel lines, to add to that third limit that I grew up under, and that is the Israeli law. Everything forbidden by my culture, everything forbidden by my religion, now everything forbidden by the law. So you have three system of telling you what not to do. The Israeli law, the culture and traditions, and the religion. And you have to navigate and move in between these three systems in a way that you survive, and in a way that you accomplish something because if you don’t accomplish, why are you here?
So, in between the three I was really able to think wisely. When I start teaching women in a different village, which is not my village- in my village it’s my aunts, but even if they are against me they would come because they love me. They would come to my class. But then when I went to the university, to BGU, and I wanted to expand my activism outside of my village and outside of my tribe, people don’t know me. They don’t have this natural love so I have to plant it, have to build it. So everything I did, it was outreach to the influential people.
Amal was about to be spirited away to her next Memphis appointment, but she was anxious to leave us with one more thought. Before leaving, she shared this with us.
This is important to mention: I believe that Jewish and Arabs are going to live forever together.
Building cooperation is a must and not a choice. We have one ship, the same ship, and we have to lead this ship to a safe shore. So I decided to work on bringing Arabs and Jewish together based on equality and empowering the disadvantaged community, which in my case was the Bedouin community. Empowerment, equal basis, cooperation. Okay? That’s the principles.
To learn more about the work Amal Elsana Alh’jooj and her organization do, follow these links for detail.
AJEEC-NISPED (Arab-Jewish Center for Equality, Empowerment and Cooperation – Negev Institute for Strategies of Peace and Development)- An Arab-Jewish nonprofit organization based in Israel’s Negev, dedicated to strengthening active citizenship through education and economic empowerment.
Early Childhood Projects– AJEEC-NISPED is developing innovative approaches to early childhood education that focus on the relationship between parent and child.
Economic Empowerment– AJEEC-NISPED has developed unique employment initiatives in the Negev through the integration of innovative social and economic tools.
Health and Environmental Issues– AJEEC-NISPED is working to address significant health disparities that exist between the Bedouin Arab and Jewish populations in Israel.