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Twenty-year-old Yahya Mahamid is one very brave individual. Not only has he defied the overwhelmingly anti-Israel sentiment that dominates the Arab world – and his own Palestinian people, by proudly describing himself as an “Arab Muslim Zionist”, he has been willing to stand up directly to virulent critics of Israel in such hotbeds of hatred toward Israel as South Africa.

On Tuesday, October 24, Yahya was the guest speaker at the launch of the Winnipeg chapter of StandWithUs Canada, an organization whose purpose is to provide Jewish students with the tools that would allow them to defend Israel against charges that Israel is a racist, “apartheid” state.
The organizers of the Winnipeg chapter of StandWithUs are: Louisa Raizman, Judi Shuster, Don Aronovitch, and Steven Schipper. As I noted in an article written in October 2016 following the appearance here of two representatives of StandWithUs Canada – Merle Kates (Canadian office executive director) and Zina Khamilova (Canadian campus coordinator), “Jewish students on campuses everywhere are often left feeling defensive and quite unprepared to quell criticisms of Israel. In 2005, the first initiatives to organize an active program of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions against Israel began. As the BDS movement took hold, combined with annual ‘Israel Apartheid Week’ programs on campuses across the United States, StandWithUs developed an active strategy designed to equip Jewish students (also non-Jewish students who were sympathetic to Israel) with the means by which they could defend Israel on university campuses.”
Following introductory remarks by Louisa Raizman and Merle Kates, Yahya took to the podium. Considering how young he is – and how recently he has taken to speaking publicly about his staunch defense of Israel, Yahya delivered a polished and impassioned presentation.

He began his remarks by explaining that he had not had much contact with Jews in his youth. Yahya grew up in the small Arab city of Umm Al-Fahm which, while located in Israel, borders on the West Bank, and is dominated by “Islamists”. How then, did someone who grew up in an atmosphere that was decidedly hostile to Zionism undergo such a radical transformation?
Yahya said he was looking for work (although he was still going to school) and found a job working in a hotel in Tel Aviv, which was a “two-hour bus ride from Nazareth”, the closest Israeli city to Umm Al-Fahm.
His first day of work, he was “very nervous – I didn’t speak Hebrew, but the first day was absolutely amazing,” he said. He met his Jewish co-workers and his manager – who spoke to Yahya in a halting English.  On the bus ride home Yahya said he thought to himself: “Did I just make my first Jewish friend?”

Yayha and LubavitcherThe epiphany for Yahya occurred in the very first week of his new job. It was shortly before Sukkot, he explained – as he showed a picture of an Orthodox Jew with Yahya on the synagogue screen to the Shaarey Zedek audience.
“That gentleman, as you can tell,” Yahya said, “works for Chabad.” He proceeded to tell Yahya “how important it is to shake the lulav.”
Yahya responded to the Chabadnik: “I’m sorry, but I’m not Jewish.”
The Chabadnik answered back: “It doesn’t matter if you’re Jewish or not; what really matters is whether you’re a good person.” That, Yahya noted, “has remained with me to today.”
“Those very specific words shattered what I had always been told about Israel,” Yahya continued. “I thought to myself: ‘Maybe I should re-question everything I was taught about Israel and the Jewish people.”

“Life was good,” Yahya went on – until June 2014, when three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped near their West Bank home. (They were later found murdered.)
“I said to myself: ‘They’re the same age as me; they’re the same age as my Jewish friends…Somebody has to stand up and condemn this.”
So Yahya took a picture of himself with an Israeli flag and sent it to a campaign called “Bring back our boys”. Within a very short time, Yayha explained, he received a phone call from a blocked number. It was from the owner of a coffee shop in Umm Al-Fahm, telling Yahya he had better go to the police - for protection. As it turned out, the picture he had taken was all over social media, both Israeli and Arab – and the reaction from within the Arab community was hostile. “I was being called a traitor and a spy,” he said.
Yahya did go to the police and six people who had made the most violent threats against him were subsequently arrested, but his life was about to change forever. “Most of my friends stopped talking to me, most of my family stopped talking to me,” he said. “I pretty much locked myself in my room for two months.”
“But then I got a message. It was from StandWithUs. They said: ‘We heard what happened to you. Would you like to start volunteering with us? We work in 18 different languages and our second biggest language is Arabic.’ So I started volunteering – helping translating, research, doing social media –and a year later I get the offer of a StandWithUs educator.”

Since that time (2015) Yahya has found himself traveling to different parts of the world – South Africa, Finland, the United States and most recently – Canada.
As an Israeli Arab, however, Yahya says he finds himself in a real quandary. “I’m stuck in the middle,” he suggested. “In Israel I’m considered an Arab; outside of Israel I’m an Israeli – so I’m banned from entering most Arab countries.”
When he was in South Africa, Yahya related, he met a woman from Egypt. After a fairly lengthy conversation, “she makes this statement: ‘We’re going to come for Israel, you’re going to be the first Israeli we kill, we’re going to behead you and put your head on a pole.’ “
Gray Academy studentsWhy has Yahya chosen to follow such a radically different course than he expected his life to take? “Because I believe,” he stated. “I believe in democracy, I believe in freedom, and I believe in human rights…all of those three basic things are not welcomed in the Middle East. And Israel’s a beacon for all of us.”
“I’m willing to put my life on the line,” Yahya continued, “because I understand how important change is needed in this world.”
Yahya noted that he doesn’t expect every Arab to love Israel and “sing Hatikvah”. He would just like to find some “common ground” whereby pro Israelis and anti Israelis could have a reasoned discussion.

Following his remarks, Yahya fielded questions. The first questioner noted that, in past peace negotiation between Israelis and Palestinians, Yahya’s hometown of Umm Al-Fahm has been proposed to be transferred to Palestinian jurisdiction under a land swap. The questioner wondered what Yahyha thought of that.
In the course of his answer, Yahya made the following observation: “Israel started in 1948 with 160,000 Arabs and now we have almost 2 million Arabs living in Israel – maybe it’s just a gut feeling that maybe they like it there.”
I asked Yahya about his own personal security, wondering whether he’s ever been physically attacked or found himself in immediate danger?
Yahya joked that he’s protected by “5,000 Jewish mothers”. Seriously though, he disclosed that five months ago he had to leave his hometown of Umm Al-Fahm for good, “after an attempt of planting a bomb right next to my car”.
(Later, during the question and answer session, Yahya revealed that, not only has he had to leave his hometown for good, he has “now lost all communication with his family.”)
Further, one time when he attempted to go see his grandmother, Yahya said, when he got off the bus, he was recognized and “attacked by 15 people.”
Still, as much as many individuals, particularly students, would like to be able to speak up in defense of Israel, Yahya noted, they have to be “educated” how to do that – and that’s where StandWithUs comes in.
Israel is not without its flaws, he said, but it’s a “democracy and democracy is very valued for a reason – because everyone gets a voice.”

In response to a question whether there are more Arabs who would have similar views as Yahya, he answered that there are 140,000 followers of StandWithUs’s Arabic Facebook page – which makes it its second most popular Facebook page after the English one.
“The messages we’re getting from the Arab world are absolutely amazing,” he continued. “I’ve personally seen messages from Palestinians asking how to join the IDF” (Israel Defense Forces).
With reference to Jewish students on campuses, Yahya admitted that, in fighting against pro-BDS movements on campuses, “we have to convince Jewish students that we’re doing this for them. We’re lacking support,” he suggested. “This is very, very unfortunate – there are students who are very motivated, but without organizations like StandWithUs, I don’t know how students my age (20) can get organized. “

Someone else asked Yahya how successful he’s been in “convincing others”?
“My job,” he answered, “is not to convince others. It’s to offer another reality. Without a proper education you really have a black and white picture of Israel.”
Yahya then told the following story: Two months ago he was signing papers to join the IDF. That particular day, when he looked at his Facebook page, Facebook showed him a picture of what he was doing four years ago to the day. What he was doing, Yahya related, “was participating in a pro-Palestinian demonstration”.
He showed the officer at the IDF induction centre that picture, saying: “Look what happens in four years.”

Going back to the Chabadnik with whom that one simple encounter just before Sukkot four years ago changed everything for Yahya, it was the simple kindness which that particular man showed that changed everything, he said. “It started with one simple word: ‘shalom’.”
There are “other Arabs” who are willing to do the kind of work Yahya is doing, he suggested, but “it comes at a very hefty price.”
He told another story to illustrate how misguided proponents of BDS are. One time, he said, he was working with an Israeli colleague who was making a film about Israeli and Palestinian attitudes toward peace. They went into a Palestinian town and began asking townspeople what they thought of BDS.
No one had heard of BDS, Yahya said, and they were puzzled as to why non-Palestinians would purport to be speaking on behalf of Palestinians.
“There are anti-Israel organizations speaking in my name and calling my country an ‘apartheid’ state and here I am, speaking for myself.”