Helps Students Face Their Identities
"Maybe if you
painted your face black for Purim, then you would know how I feel."
"If I'm not an Israeli that doesn't make me less Jewish."
"Is it typical for Jews to leave and Arabs to stay and try to
are some of the comments aired during a course entitled, "A Meeting
of Identities: Between Gender Identity and National Identity."
Sponsored by Kidma: Project for the Advancement of Women at the
University of Haifa, the class is composed of sixteen women: 8
Jewish and 8 Arab. The course meets each Tuesday for over three
hours during one academic semester. The women are guided by two
female facilitators from Nisan Young Women Leaders, the only
organization dedicated to the advancement of young women in Israel.
"Although Arabs and Jews are in class together, they never connect.
Most of the time, they listen to the lessons. This is the first time
they have to talk to each other," explains Tali Raz, the Israeli
Jewish facilitator of the group. Recognizing the situation, Kidma
established this course in the spring of 2005 with the intention of
facilitating dialogue among Arab and Jewish women.
Although a small group, the course includes women from a variety of
backgrounds, including Christian, Muslim, and Druze Arabs, American
Jews, and Israeli Jews from the FSU and Ethiopia. Each woman had to
be interviewed prior to being accepted into the course, which earns
them four academic credit points upon completion. The topics covered
include streams of feminism and the role of women in times of social
change, peace organizations, and militarism. A variety of guests are
invited to speak about their role as activists for feminist
The course is organized around a feminist model. Dalia Halabi, the
Israeli Arab facilitator, explains, "In most conflicts there is a
patriarchal point of view. We are trying to use a different dialogue
based on feminist pedagogy and critical theory to encourage dialogue
based on empathy, listening, and acceptance even if I disagree with
"If you look in the newspaper, you see only males who are
negotiating. They bring their agenda. A big contribution of feminist
theory is to help conflict resolution…we are trying to combine the
two at the civil society level."
Because the focus of the course is on identity, the
Palestinian-Israeli conflict is frequently discussed. As a result,
Dalia states, "There are a lot of hard moments. This is a difficult
issue to speak about. But we don’t try to diminish things or hide;
rather, we emphasize the issue of power relations."
"I don't always enjoy class--sometimes it evokes feelings of anger
and pain. I want to shout and say it's not fair," said Mayce, a
22-year-old Druze student from the Golan. Sophia, a pseudonym for a
21-year-old Arabic-speaking student who asked to remain anonymous,
describes her frustration over the two-sided issue. "It is very hard
because there is no solution to the conflict…I'm an outside watcher.
I attack the Jews when I have to and the Arabs when I have to."
All the women interviewed cited the difficulty of explaining their
identity in the framework of gender and nationality. "If I don't
identify myself enough, someone in the course does it for me…I feel
Israeli and that I have an influence from everything here," affirms
Irit, a 25-year-old Jewish student. On the other side of the
spectrum, Mayce explains, "I don't feel a part of this country. I've
never been in Syria, but I don't belong to Israel…I'm just here."
Sophia finds herself somewhere in the middle; "After taking a course
on national identity last year, I saw myself as an Israeli because I
live in this country…but in my heart I am with the Palestinians."
Often the variety of viewpoints represented in the course lead to
heated debate. After watching Children of Arna, a film that depicts
how Palestinian children from a theater group became involved in the
Intifada, the reactions were extremely volatile. The participants'
sensitivity to the subject matter was clear after one participant
left the room in anger. In the dialogue that ensued, the women
anxiously described their feelings toward the film. "Angry,"
"frustrated," and "confused" were the most popular emotions.
The facilitators see these feelings as normal at the mid-way point
of the course. "I would like to see them as a group to work
together, but they have to go through the battle,” Tali comments.
“This is the reality. They have to handle the situation. If they
don’t talk about the difficult things, how will change happen?"
Tali's co-facilitator, Dalia, agrees. "When you meet the other, you
meet yourself…you confront things in you that you don't want to
see…If I first see who I am and accept myself--the weaknesses,
prejudices, and stereotypes inside me--tthis will bring a better
understanding of the other."
To have a better understanding of "the other" was the most common
response when participants were asked why they chose to take the
course. Irit, a Middle East History major, wanted to gain a greater
understanding of Arabic culture, as well as to explore work in a
feminist organization. Mayse, who is studying English literature,
was also interested in feminism but sought to understand the Jewish
viewpoint after completing a previous Kidma course only for Arab
Mollie, a 21-year-old American student in the University’s Overseas
Studies Program, thought the course would be a "sound box for
different opinions." A Political Communication major, Mollie got her
wish. "Although there is a huge conflict when people express their
opinions in class, it is amazing to be expressing and hearing
different opinions,” she says. “So many times people stick to their
cultural groups and guess what the other side is thinking. It's nice
to actually hear the other side."
Dalia believes that "as a whole, all the participants in this course
won't leave the same. All the questions they ask and what they think
about a matter is not what they came with. I believe that awareness
isn't something easy to have."
Tali adds, "If they go home and don't think about doing anything
inside, this is a failure. But a success is to see them getting
angry and talking after each lesson…You can see and hear the
emotion. I believe in the hard process. If everyone had the
solution, it would be different."
Claudia Goodich-Avram, Kidma’s program coordinator, cites the lack
of women in the decision-making process of politics as a large
problem. Her hope is that the students involved in Kidma's courses
will become volunteers or activists in a feminist organization. "The
main outcome is to see what they can do, as a way of raising
consciousness from the feminine perspective and also trying to
resolve conflict," Claudia stated.
Kidma has been working for the past twenty years to advance the
status and improve the lives of all women in Israel. It offers a
variety of courses, seminars, and workshops to increase women's
access to the academic and institutional tools needed to improve
their lives. A financially independent institution within the
university, Kidma depends on outside support to continue
strengthening women's rights in Israel. –M.-A.F.
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