Galilee Jewish-Arab tech collaboration shoots for the coexistence moon

Galilee Jewish-Arab tech collaboration shoots for the coexistence moon

Moona, set up by a former Israeli fighter pilot, uses technology to empower students and focus them on targets, not war

Students at Moona, working on a project (Courtesy)
Students at Moona, working on a project (Courtesy)

When Asaf Brimer left the Israeli air force in 2008 after serving for 27 years as a fighter pilot and taking part in four of the nation’s wars, he spent six years in the military industry but then decided it wasn’t for him. He wanted to do something bigger and bolder for the benefit of society.

So four years ago he set up “Moona, a Space for Change,” a nonprofit technology incubator in the Galilee that aims to build bridges between Israeli Jews and Arab youth through space technologies.

Moona — which means “wish” in Arabic but is also a syllable away from both the English word “moon” and the Hebrew word emunah, or “faith” — operates out of the sun-drenched and stark Muslim Arab village of Majd al Kurum, ranked by the statistics bureau among the Israeli cities with the lowest socioeconomic status. Working in collaboration with the local council, Moona hosts groups of Jewish and Arab students who work jointly on projects for drones, robots, 3D printing and software and hardware development.

“I grew up in a kibbutz and I and all the children growing there were always given the feeling that we were the best in the world,” said Brimer, 54, in an interview at Moona. “That makes you grow up with a feeling that you can do anything. I grew up believing I was part of the best league in the world. So, I decided I needed to give that same feeling to others who have not been as fortunate as me.”

But kibbutz life, happy though it was, limits your horizons, he said, as its members share their space and experience with people who are just like themselves. He decided he wanted to “become a facilitator to allow people to meet other kinds of people and to work together.”

Moona's Asaf Brimer at the entrance of the incubator (Shoshanna Solomon)
Moona’s Asaf Brimer at the entrance of the incubator (Shoshanna Solomon)

The aim of Moona is to give the students who attend its programs practical skills to help them get tech jobs.

Local industries “tell us what their requirements and job opportunities are and we adapt our curriculum to their needs and match the students to the factory,” said Ron Strugo, the manager of the Starter for Engineers program at Moona. “We give them the practical knowledge to meet the needs of the factories. Normally at school you are lacking practical experience and that is what we give them here.”

In its three years of operation Moona has also set up three national programs in schools around the country in which students built drones, quad-copters, or escape rooms.

“This year 30 schools will participate in our project,” Brimer said.

The third program focuses on student development, providing three courses a year in robotics and electronics.

“The idea is to take young adults and give them practical skills for the industry and give them mentorships,” Brimer said. “We also train teachers here, over a period of a year, and then send them back to their schools so they can work locally and build up a local community to foster technology studies and entrepreneurship.”

Moona student Yazan Kiwan with instructor Ron Strugo (Shoshanna Solomon)
Moona student Yazan Kiwan with instructor Ron Strugo (Shoshanna Solomon)

Yazan Kiwan, a 20-year-old from the Arab city of Sakhnin in northern Israel, is working on his final project, in which he manufactures and performs quality control of metal wheels on an aluminum lathe. His partner in the project is Eran Luzon, a 36-year old Jewish Israeli from Afula. Luzon studied at a college in the western Negev city of Sderot city and works at a defense manufacturing firm.

Kiwan studied engineering at Ort Braude college in the city of Karmiel, in northern Israel, and said he was missing practical experience to get a job. He read about Moona’s program on Facebook, came for an interview and got accepted to the course four months ago. “It is hard to find a job. They tell me I am still young, go get experience,” he said.

He now has a part-time job at a tech firm in northern Israel that makes products out of quartz and hopes to continue there full-time, he said.

Shlomi Hassid, 31, studied electric and electronic engineering at an Ort Braude college. “I came here because everyone needs experience, experience, experience,” he said. He works with Edwar Hanany, 23, to make a robotic arm from the 1960s work again by giving it new encoders.

Leadia Fauor, 33, left, and her 31-year old sister Marwa Fauor at Moona (Shoshanna Solomon/Times of Israel)
Leadia Fauor, 33, and her 31-year old sister Marwa Fauor at Moona (Shoshanna Solomon/Times of Israel)

While Leadia Fauor, 33, and her 31-year old sister Marwa Fauor both studied computer engineering at the Sakhnin College but failed to find jobs in the field. Today they study 3D printing at Moona and teach the subject to children attending Moona classes three times a week.

“I didn’t work for many years because I didn’t have the experience needed,” the 33-year old Fauor said. “I wanted to find a job in my field.”

Moona is an NGO that is funded mainly by donations and revenue generated from groups that take part in the programs. It is also supported by the government and has sponsors including Qualcomm and Check Point Software Technologies. It also got an US Aid grant for three years to finance joint programs. The then-head of NASA, Charles Bolden, visited Moona at its launch.

“We are very successful,” said Brimer. “We are only three years old and we have a budget of $1 million a year and a team of 10 fixed people/employees, Arabs, Druze and Jewish Israelis.”

Some 750 students graduate from its activities every year, he said

“We hope Moona will be a model that can be copied elsewhere in Israel and internationally,” Brimer said. “People in a NASA space station work and live together for very long periods even if they are from different parts of the world. And from space, everyone looks alike. I chose to focus on space, because space is a subject that is fascinating to youth. And in space you manage to overcome all earthly limitations,” he added.

Working together as Jews and Arabs, however, can be challenging, especially during times of conflict such as the recent wave of stabbing attacks by Palestinians.

Moona students working on a project (Shoshanna Solomon/Times of Israel)
Moona students working on a project (Shoshanna Solomon/Times of Israel)

“Two and a half years ago we were in the middle of Operation Protective Edge, the war with Gaza, and my son was a soldier fighting in the war,” Brimer recalls. “Aya, the head of our robotics program at Moona, on the other hand was out every day to demonstrate against the war. When the ‘lone wolf’ terror of stabbings started, we had to convince parents it was ok for them to send their children to Moona in Majd al Kurum. Reality is complex. But when you come and see how things work and meet the people, things are different and the point of view changes.”

Moona's Aya Manaa (Courtesy)
Moona’s Aya Manaa (Courtesy)

Aya Manaa, 30, head of the robotics and drone program at Moona. studied chemistry and biology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and then worked for a year with Physicians for Human Rights. She then moved to Italy and studied Human Rights and Conflict Management in Pisa. After working for NGOs, she did a fellowship in restorative justice with George Mason University in DC. Then she came back to Israel to “work for social justice,” she said. While she was volunteering in the council of Majd al Kurum, she met Brimer, on his hunt to find a place to host Moona.

“I liked the idea and I left the council and started working with Asaf,” she said.

“In Israel you don’t have many places for Arabs and Jews to meet. There are no common entertainment spaces, no cultural events where people meet. Jews don’t come here anymore to eat and fix cars. There is no real interaction,” she said. Moona helps create such a space.

When the students raise the issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, “we open a discussion but we try not to talk politics,” she said.

“It is not easy to work in a multicultural environment — to fit your ideas with others and find a common ground to work together,” she said. “When connected to a common target, like building a robot or winning a competition, you have no choice but to work together. Then, you don’t talk about conflict but about technology. They are overcoming stereotypes and fears with which they come from home.”

The work of Moona is a drop in the ocean, she acknowledged, but it is still important.”We are not going to solve the conflict but we work like ants. We take little steps to bring people just a little bit closer,” she said. If Moona’s students are able to “find a common language and work together, then so can we.”

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