Forsan Hussein calls himself “the luckiest man I know,” and it’s easy to think you understand why. He’s articulate and charismatic and has obviously been blessed with a good brain. He speaks not only his native Arabic, but perfect Hebrew and English as well. He has degrees from Brandeis, Johns Hopkins and Harvard Business School. He’s married to the daughter of Israel’s first Arab ambassador. And he makes his living as CEO of the Jerusalem YMCA — an oasis of harmonious calm in the heart of this frenzied city.
But all that, however impressive, is actually not the half of it. Hussein’s good fortune traces its improbable path from the teacher in his Galilee village who introduced his class to the Jewish kids at the moshav next door, via a laudable scholarship which he had no remote prospect of winning, to an American university that demonstrated rare flexibility to ensure he flourished.
It’s the immense good fortune of a poor Arab kid from the north who, if it hadn’t smiled upon him, would almost certainly have grown up carrying the chip on his shoulder borne by most of his peers, and working all hours to feed, clothe and house his family, with nothing to bequeath his kids but more of the same.
In the course of telling me his life story, over three lengthy conversations in the cafe at the Y and in his office, Hussein describes an emblematic moment: He is working with his construction laborer father on a building site in Ramle, sweaty and covered in flecks of cement, when the phone rings in the boss’s office. It’s his mother, telling him that, in frankly ridiculous against-all-odds fashion, he has somehow managed to talk himself into that full university scholarship, at Brandeis. “I took off my ragged T-shirt and threw it at the boss,” Hussein recalls, noting, almost apologetically, “he wasn’t a very nice man.
The boss stared at Hussein, dumbfounded. “I told him, ‘This is my last day in construction. You’re going to be here forever. I’m going now, and I’m never coming back.’”
You can visualize the exchange as a triumphant scene in the movie somebody should make about Hussein. The strings would soar in the background as our hero is liberated from bleak decades of hard labor and poverty, and released into a better life, a life of challenge, of expanded horizons, of fulfillment.
And that’s when you realize the dismal side of Hussein’s oh-so-accurate “luckiest man” assessment. Because he may be remarkably smart and personable and driven, but he’s emphatically not the only Israeli Arab kid who should have been afforded the opportunities that he has managed to utilize so admirably. He’s not the only Israeli Arab kid who deserves to escape that bleak future. He’s just one of the very few who got to maximize their true potential. He’s one of the very few who got away. Almost all of the others are still laboring on building sites in their sweaty T-shirts.
Forsan Hussein is 34. He lives in Jerusalem and has been married for a year and a half to the daughter of Israel’s first Arab ambassador (to Finland and then Greece). A gracious and articulate interviewee, Hussein is good-natured, calm, and earnest, and he tells his story straightforwardly, without pride or false modesty.
Throughout our conversations, installments of his biography were often followed by a rapid switch into the subject Hussein wants to talk about much more — the need for Israel’s Jews and Arabs to shed the defensiveness and the paranoia, to spend more time in each other’s company, to build a country together. He set out his formulas for co-existence in the days before the dangers of Jewish-Arab animosity were re-emphasized by the near fatal attack by Jewish teens on an Arab youth in downtown Jerusalem last week. Those formulas are not radical — they reflect the path that he got to follow, and that he feels he knows can really work.
Okay Forsan, let’s plunge straight in. From the start…
I’m a Palestinian-Israeli, an Israeli-Palestinian. I come from Sha’ab, a village in the Lower Galilee, near Acre. I have four brothers and a sister, and there were two other boys who died young. I’m the luckiest man I know. I came from a modest background, but I’ve had the best education.
My family suffered in 1948. Most Husseins are refugees in Lebanon. I’d like to believe that the Jews forced us out, but I know there’s a larger picture. Sha’ab had a population of 1,974 people at the time, and the entire village went to south Lebanon. I was born and raised on a one-sided narrative that puts all the blame on the other side. Like most Israeli Arab kids, I had a certain idea of who the Jews were — the same as most Jewish kids have of the Arabs — not knowing the other or meeting the other.
My parents are simple, good people. My dad is 62. He is a construction worker. He had a second grade education. My mother never went to school. But even though we kids worked from a young age — my first job was as a shepherd — they raised us with education as the highest value.
Tell me a little more about the village and your family’s history.
The olive trees date back to the Romans. Before 1948, the village was Christian and Muslim, with one Jewish family. My parents always went to [pay respects at] the Jewish family’s graves. Now everyone in the village is Muslim.
Like I said, I grew up on the one-sided narrative — that we were Arabs, Palestinians, not part of the majority. We watched Syrian and Jordanian TV; that had a huge impact. It showed a very harsh image of the other — of the Jews. It cemented the stereotype we were fed. We are all fed ignorance as children. And when you don’t see the other (side) in person, TV is the key. I liked to watch TV. And Syrian TV was all (Israeli) occupation and violence — the killers, the Jews, uprooting trees and doing all sorts of terrible things.
Back to the late 1940s…
After the family all gathered in south Lebanon, my grandfather decided to come back to the village, in early 1949. He came back and saw it was safe. He stayed two weeks and then went to collect the rest of the family from south Lebanon. But he couldn’t get out; the border had been fenced off.
This was the biggest exodus (of Palestinians). The second biggest was when Kuwait kicked out 350,000 Palestinians after the Gulf War, including my mother’s distant cousin, because Yasser Arafat had supported Saddam Hussein.
My grandfather lost all his land. He was considered to have abandoned it, even though he was back — a “present absentee,” he was called in the legal jargon. He had to start over. He couldn’t legally be in touch with rest of the family in Lebanon.
Today, our village, Sha’ab, is the same size as it was then. And all the surrounding Jewish moshavim have grown. You see them expanding, getting closer.
I’m very critical about Israel, only because Israel is my home. I love it. I dream of the day when I wake up and feel as psychologically and emotionally connected to my country — Israel — as any normal citizen of any country, without the need to take sides or feel alienated. That day has not come. It’s a big missed opportunity — by both sides.
Let’s come back to that. First I want to understand how you came to be the person you are.
Well, that begins on the day our elementary school teacher took our class to meet the Jews of Shorashim (an adjacent moshav founded in 1980 by American immigrants). This is where I began to undergo the U-turn that hopefully everyone goes through. I’d seen the Jewish kids; they looked normal; they played soccer and basketball. But I’d never met them.
It was Tu Bishvat (the Jewish new year for trees), so our teacher gave us all pine saplings to carry as gifts. We saw the gates of Shorashim opening up. A man approached us. At first, I thought he was holding a gun. It was a tray of chocolate chip cookies. I always say a chocolate chip cookie changed my life. He was kind, smiling, wearing a kippa that was only a little smaller than the Muslim kippa my grandfather wore. His beard was similar to a Muslim beard.
Then, later, two teachers from our village, Yassir and Abed Faour, and teachers from the moshav got together for a co-existence project. We started meeting regularly with these bright Jewish kids. I didn’t tell my parents, at first. But then we had to invite them to our homes. My mother would have objected, but education was everything, so I told her it was a school project.
I loved it at Shorashim. It was clean and green, had paved streets, and it didn’t smell of sewage. They played soccer on real grass. I just selfishly liked it. I had no Hebrew — but we Arab kids and the Jewish kids managed to make each other understood.
I quickly began to ask myself: Why am I going to a stinky, damp, dark, school? These guys have air conditioners, computers, microscopes! There actually was no high school in my village; we learned in rented rooms all over the village. We sometimes had to walk a long way between classes. I organized strikes because sometimes in winter it was dark and cold and there was no electricity.
I’d grown up with this narrative of refugees and dispossession, and now I saw how well the Jews lived. Well, I’m a curious kid. I went on a voyage of self-discovery.
And the interaction deepened?
We established a peace camp (in the summers). I was 10 or 11. It was called Shemesh (the Hebrew word for sun) — the acronym of Sha’ab, nearby Misgav and Shorashim. I loved it. I became an assistant councillor, then a coordinator. At 17, I took 50 kids — Jews and Arabs — on a peace camp to Jordan where we met with Jordanian youth.
I was working all the time, through my teens — in summer camps, in the fields, and then in construction with my father.
When I had finished school, and I was working in Ramle with my father on a building site, one of my friends from Shorashim told me about this scholarship program through the Slifka Family Foundation to Brandeis — one place each for a Jew and an Arab — a fully funded degree. They were looking for good students, which I was, kind of; who had worked for peace, which I had; with good English, which I had not got. I didn’t really have the grades, but I certainly didn’t have the English. Really, I had terrible English.
You owe a lot, then, first to those school teachers of yours, and then to this friend.
Oh, absolutely. And then there was some kind of divine intervention.
I got a call: Go to the interview at 18 Hillel Street in Jerusalem. I’d never even been to Jerusalem. I was on the construction site. I was wearing jeans and dirty boots and a dirty T-shirt. I saw all these kids there, with their parents. Some of the kids were in suits and ties! But I knew this was my chance. I hated my father’s life; I did not want it. I could hear my heart pounding when they called me in for the interview.
There were five interviewers, including political science professor Galia Golan. I apologized for my appearance. I explained that I had come from work and only got home at weekends. I said that, ‘If you really want to know me, please allow me to speak Hebrew. I won’t be able to express myself in English. I promise you, if I get the scholarship, I’ll learn English in a few months.’
They looked at each other, and said okay, and I was off. In fact, I was on a roll, this little Arab kid. Fifty minutes later, I knew I had to seal the deal. Again, divine intervention told me what to say. I said, ‘Thank you for giving me the chance to speak Hebrew. I leave Jerusalem today feeling victorious, even if I did not get the scholarship. My success is for this 18-year-old kid sharing with you all my vision of peace and how to reach it.’ Galia got up and hugged me. They said, ‘We’ll try to help you.’
Two weeks later, my mom calls the building site. There were no mobile phones, of course, so she had to call me via the Arab boss. He wasn’t a very nice man. I pick up the phone, and I’d got the full scholarship to Brandeis! I took off my ragged T-shirt and threw it at the boss. I told him, ‘This is my last day in construction. You’re going to be here forever. I’m going now, and I’m never coming back.’ I don’t think I even got my salary that month.
So that was it, you set off for Brandeis, with hardly any English — from Ramle to Massachusetts?
On August 22, 1996.
And you studied what?
I partnered with my close Israeli Jewish friend and created my own peace-building major — including sociology, economics. I did a minor in Near Eastern and Judaic studies. And if I could do all this, there is no reason why all Arabs and Jews could not go through the same transformation.
Brandeis must have been a whole new world?
Brandeis was the first time that I’d left Israel other than to go to Jordan.
I was the Arab community at Brandeis for a couple of years until other Slifka scholarship scholars started coming. The university was very welcoming. I got every ounce of support from teachers, from students.
I struggled with my weak English. I was taping every lecture, and playing it back to try to understand it. They gave me three English-as-a-second-language tutors. Gradually, I was learning to write in English.
In some ways, though, I felt close to home. There were people with kippot. I heard Hebrew. The food was kosher. There were Muslim students from Pakistan, India and Bangladesh.
After a year and a half I started thinking and dreaming in English, and then I started to flourish.
My friend Michael Bavly and I started a weekly radio show called ‘Just Like You,’ in Arabic, Hebrew and English — an Israeli Jew and a Palestinian Israeli talking about what needs to be done to achieve peace. We talked about the similarities in our cultures, food, language, celebrating holidays, sharing our mothers’ recipes. Every Thursday for a couple of hours.
I remember a Jewish girl calling in from Brookline, MA, asking us to play an Arabic song we had played the week before. That was a great moment. We even created a peace agreement — the Bostonian Agreement. Our little movement prompted dialogue groups at 25 universities across the United States. As far as I know, the one at Brandeis is still going.
And you completed your degree?
I finished my degree in 2000. Brandeis had really invested in me. I made the USA Today All-American Academic Team. That was 200 students, nominated by deans on the basis of course averages, leadership contribution and so on.
After that, I did some lecturing in the US, and then I went to work full-time at the Abraham Fund in 2001. Alan Slifka (the fund’s founder, who died two years ago) was my mentor. It turned out, incidentally, that he had come to my village, Sha’ab, when I was 10.
From 2003-2005, I did a master’s in international relations and international economics at Johns Hopkins, the School of Advanced International Studies. I was always interested in the economics of peace — to achieve a better business environment between Israelis and Palestinians, cross-border business transactions and so on. And then, from 2005-2007, I did my MBA at Harvard Business School.
In the course of that degree, I had to do an internship and I did mine with Delta Galil, the Israeli apparel company. At the time they were employing 6,000 people in Egypt and 4,000 in Jordan and I worked for a few weeks in the factory in Egypt, where they were making brand name underwear and apparel. These were people employed by Jews and Israelis, and it changed their stereotypes. They had not known that there were Palestinians like me who were living in Israel. For them, everything Israeli is Zionist and everything Zionist is bad. I would highlight my Muslim identity.
They had an honorable job and could make an honorable life for their kids and they were very proud. They would relate to their Jewish supervisors normally.
So that was my internship, between the first and second years of business school. I still wonder why no (major Israeli company like) Teva or Keter (plastics) exists in the Arab world. You wouldn’t have to say ‘Made in Israel’ in big letters. Business people are interested in business. They do business together. It’s not just possible. It’s inevitable. It’s a duty to try this paradigm. Everybody benefits.
When it comes down to our Arab-Israeli conflict, if you’re not part of the solution then you’re contributing to the problem — which is mainly ignorance. Yes, there are bad policies on both sides, but there’s ignorance because there are no direct meetings. There’s negative propaganda, there’s demonization. The enlightened must counter the ignorance.
What did you do after Harvard?
I moved to LA, to an investment management fund called Capital Group Companies.
My job was identifying investment trends. I had to stop because my H1 visa expired and my Green Card never arrived. [The US authorities] told me it was in the mail. They told me it was sent three times, but it was never delivered. For six or seven months I was waiting next to my mailbox. I’m convinced I was the victim of racial profiling. But in any case, it was time to come back, to check on how my family was doing. And I had begun my friendship with my wife-to-be, so I came back, in 2009. My Green Card was sent to me a week and a half after I got here.
For six months, I worked to establish a private equity fund for investments in Israeli Arab society. Then I got talking to Professor Simon Benninga (a Tel Aviv University finance processor who is the voluntary chairman of the Jerusalem International YMCA board). He suggested that I become the CEO of the YMCAs in Jerusalem and Tiberias, even though I was too young and not Christian. And for three years that’s been my job. I’m responsible for the operation, advancing the mission, fundraising, ensuring the YMCA flourishes and has a legacy. This building is a sermon in stone.
The Jerusalem YMCA is indeed a remarkable building. Hussein lends me the last copy he has of a glossy brochure produced in 2003, “Perfect Harmony,” that details its history, its architectural features, the significance of some of its decor and more.
Facilitated by a $1 million donation [on Christmas Eve 1924, by James Jarvie of New Jersey -- a lot of money in those days -- it was built by Muslims, Christians and Jews.
My family spent several fascinating hours one recent weekend exploring the building, designed by Arthur Loomis Harmon, whose firm built the Empire State Building at around the same time in the early 1930s. From the observation gallery atop the bell tower with its art-deco flourishes, to the subterranean room for silent prayer, its construction is an homage to Jewish, Christian and Muslim themes and sensitivities.
Hussein shows me photos on his office walls of Jerusalem at the time that the YMCA was established in the city in 1878 (some 40 years after the YMCA had been founded in London). He points to a photograph of Lord Allenby walking through Jaffa Gate after the capture of the city from the Ottomans in 1917, with a quotation from the speech the British field marshal gave at the inauguration of this building 16 years later, on April 8, 1933: "Here is a place whose atmosphere is peace, where political and religious jealousies can be forgotten and international unity be fostered and developed."
There'd been a sense here that the Americans would bail us out if we messed up. Now we have an empowered and diverse local board. This is the only place in Jerusalem where Palestinians and Israelis, east and west Jerusalemites, Christians, Muslims and Jews can walk into a building to relate to their common humanity. The diverse populace of Jerusalem feels this.
It’s a building of brotherhood and reconciliation and a place that encourages more active, ethical leadership. The visionaries behind this place are inspirational. Before this building was constructed, this was just a hill owned by the [Greek Orthodox] church. The building and its goal were inspired by [YMCA Jerusalem general secretary] Archibald Harte in the 1920s, who dreamed of an institution to bring glory to God and peace to the land.
By the end of this year or early next year, our sports center here for the entire Jerusalem community should be ready. There have been lots of delays. It’s being built as part of a deal under which we also leased out land to property developers. But we’re getting there. It is one of the biggest sports centers in the region — 10,000 square meters, with the capacity to serve 8,000 people.
This place can exemplify what Jerusalem can be. It inspires everyone who comes into the building.
There was some controversy here this summer that supposedly the YMCA summer camp for kids was flying a Palestinian flag and no Israeli flag. That sounds highly unlikely. What’s the truth?
The truth is that we are the Jerusalem International YMCA. We have been serving Jerusalem since 1878. We are an Israeli institution and we fly the flag of Israel on many different occasions throughout the year. The truth is that there were Israeli flags.
There were no Palestinian flags. We try to stay away from politics, and there’s so much politics in hanging flags. But in good faith we couldn’t bring this journey around the world — the camp’s theme this year — without them. We had about 200 kids who ‘visit’ different cultures, different countries, learn about different languages and customs and traditions. We even prepared a passport, a YMCA passport, that spells out our vision and our values. The first country that we visited was Israel, and Jerusalem being its capital. The capital had three different sites that are important to the three Abrahamic faiths, in a way to show the inclusivity. There was the Western Wall, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Al Aqsa mosque.
The kids are supposed to also learn about the flags of these countries, and even color those flags. So we had those flags hanging, and it seems to me that one parent simply mistook the Jordanian flag, where we stopped and ‘visited’ Petra, for the Palestinian flag, and also somehow ignored the sight of the Israeli flag hanging. So, they contacted the media. And even though they connected with the director of the camp, a Jewish-Israeli, who explained to them exactly what was going on, that explanation it seems was not good enough. And then it quickly went to the media.
I wasn’t in the country to respond. But even when I came back and responded to Israel Hayom, I felt that I was totally misrepresented and misquoted. There was an Israeli flag hanging up in the very room where Israel Hayom took a photograph supposedly showing there wasn’t one.
It seems to me that this is another case where because of ignorance, or defensiveness, not wanting, maybe even not having the abilities or the tools to deal with another narrative… it makes you simply not see the other side. It’s too bad, because I feel like bad news is news and good news isn’t. This whole thing, David, almost went out of control. We got letters from municipalities, friends from the States writing and calling and asking. And, for what?
People who really knew us and knew me personally, realized that there’s something wrong with the picture. The municipality wrote us support letters. I spoke with some high officials at the municipality, some of my donors from the United States, and I think the genie’s back in the bottle. But the amount of time that I spent trying to respond…It’s just a waste of time.
I’ve kept pulling you back to your own story, so tell me now a little bit more of your philosophy for enabling that kind of harmony and inspiration more widely in Israeli society.
(Hussein sighs and sets off:) I believe that Israeli Arabs can be the best bridge to the Arab nations, the best ambassadors for the country. They can help promote the business side of peace.
The Israeli Arabs should be the perfect internal and external ambassadors. By not pushing that process, Israel is missing an opportunity.
There must be an internal peace and an external peace. America is the land of opportunities, David. This is the land of missed opportunities. It’s a country with no vision.
I’m a member of a minority; there’s only so much I can do. All of us here act out of defensiveness. There’s a deep, inherent paranoia and defensiveness. So we’re destructive. We have to see the humanity and potential in each other.
I am empathetic of the Jewish mentality of fear. The Holocaust, the Arab wars, and previous tragedies — I wouldn’t wish that on anybody. But that history and cycle of paranoia dictates today’s attitudes. By building walls, by shielding yourself from others, you lose sight of them…
As for the Arabs, we suffer from this mentality of victimhood. It’s always easy to blame the Israelis for things. We have let the cycle of fear and victimhood dictate how we live.
I don’t want to sound naive, but policies have to change. The land isn’t mine or yours. We belong to the land.
Well, where does that put you on the hot potato issue of national service for Israeli Arabs? Last month, Knesset speaker Ruby Rivlin, of the Likud, said anyone who talks about conscripting Israeli Arabs is just being hypocritical and unrealistic, and that what’s needed is a separate mechanism for Arab national service.
It has to be mandatory for Israeli Arabs. I believe in it. It’s a good thing for my society, for the Israeli Arab society, which is at large a society that is fragmented, with a great deal of conflict, be it ethnic or religious or socio-economic.
Today, if you really take a deeper look into the Israeli Arab society, you’ll understand how decayed it is. The time has come for us to create our own institution [for national service], and support one another in our villages, whether through the educational system or through recreation or through sports. It’s a necessity for us.
I don’t need to dress this whole national service issue with nationalistic overtones. As citizens of this country, we have rights and responsibilities. My society is heading into a crisis. There is so much violence, there is so much social degradation. The norms of volunteering and helping one another almost don’t exist in the Israeli Arab society. The fact that unemployment is so high — always two to three times the national average — is creating lots of stress.
So, one way to think about it is, what is good for the Israeli Arab society? Forget about the Jews, ignore Israel for the time being. What’s good for us? What’s good for us is that our youth need to have some kind of a melting pot place where they can learn these values of volunteering and caring for your own society, for your elderly and for your youth.
What would you have young Israeli Arabs people do? At age 18…
At age 18, do a year, maybe two, of, first of all, training. We need to have kids go through a process of a month or two to train and to give them skills in order for them to go back to their villages and towns and volunteer. What kind of volunteering? You can volunteer at kindergartens, you can volunteer to be assistant teachers. You can create clubs for youth. You can create libraries, create educational programs in the village itself. Clean streets, for god’s sake. Help rebuild or build things in your villages. It’s complicated because it depends on budgets…
Well, in partnership with the government.
Of course. One of the biggest problems is that Arabs and Jews don’t meet. Here is an opportunity. I would love to send kids from Sha’ab to volunteer at a hospital in Acre or in Tel Hashomer or I don’t know where. Let the Arabs and the Jews now have the chance to integrate.
You can also create vocational training programs. There are so many things, David.
How much support do you think there would be for any of that? Knesset members from the Arab parties, I assume, would not be supportive.
You are right. The Israeli Arab leadership has not been very vocal or supportive of this service. Partly that’s because of the way it has been structured. It has been seen, to a large extent, as an initiative from the government and the Ministry of Defense. Therefore if you take part in it, you’re actually cooperating with the establishment.
Now, I think differently. I actually don’t care what the establishment thinks about it. I want to look at what is good for my society. And even [for those who deem that Arab] society is not [part of] the larger Israeli country, then look at the Arab villages and towns. Look at the Arab society in Israel, its needs.
The other way to look at it is, you know, we are citizens of this country. The country claims that there is discrimination because Israeli Arabs don’t serve in the army and don’t contribute to the country. You know what? Give me a system.
Let’s try to end on a positive note. Is the scholarship program that opened up your life and sent you to Brandeis still going?
That program is still going, yes, I’m glad to say. But the interaction between Sha’ab, Misgav and Shorashim that opened the earlier doors is not. Our teachers had made the connection with Shorashim because they were teaching Arabic to a group of Chicago Jews there. Some of those American Jews, some of those who founded Shemesh, went back to the United States. Since the second intifada (in 2000), my school is no longer involved. Shorashim people don’t come to Sha’ab. The trust is shattered. It’s hard to retain when 13 (Israeli Arabs) are killed (in northern Israel by police amid rioting at the start of the second intifada).
But we can certainly end on a positive personal note. My youngest brother, Ashraf, just graduated Brandeis, would you believe? I had always hoped he would be able to go there, and he did. And my father, who is not an emotional person, there he was in the VIP seats, and very moved.
So that’s a huge positive. But then you think of the lost potential of all the other kids who haven’t had this kind of opportunity — Jews, Arabs, Israelis, Palestinians.
It’s not easy, it’s not without a price, but you cannot let the atrocities of the past dictate the present and the future. If life is the greatest blessing, then we must protect it.
Are you ultimately planning to go into politics? Presumably, you could build a career — including by pushing your ideas for Israeli Arab national service.
One day, I’d like to come back into politics and policy-making, but from a place of strength. As much as I care about my society, I cannot afford to come into politics from a position of weakness. And weakness and power are a function of business success.
My dream is to connect Israel with the rest of the Arab world economically — to create business transactions and cooperation. We talked earlier about Teva, about Keter. There are many other companies [that could be at the forefront of such cooperation]. Real estate. Investment. Business people understand the bottom line. Social value creation is not something only for social entrepreneurs or governments. The business community and the private sector must be involved.
The magic of Delta Galil Industries changed thousands of lives for the better in the Arab world. We need more of that.
My dream and vision is to work on the business side of peace — to be an ambassador for Israel in the Arab countries, and for the Arab countries in Israel. One day.