MONTREAL — Far removed from herding sheep in the Holy Land, where she became a prominent Israeli Bedouin feminist, Amal Elsana-Alh’jooj now heads the International Community Action Network (ICAN) at McGill University in Montreal.
Her path to the French-Canadian city is an unlikely personal journey: After shepherding as a five-year-old Muslim girl outside her sun-scorched, ramshackle Bedouin village in the Negev desert, she eventually received her PhD in social work at McGill and now speaks widely in international forums while also pursuing a postdoc at Harvard University.
“When I was a shepherd early in my life, this was a result of my grandfather… My mother saying she didn’t need me in the kitchen, so my grandfather said, ‘We need her to herd the sheep.’ So my first career really I would say was as a community organizer, as someone who would organize and take responsibility, was as a shepherd,” Elsana-Alh’jooj tells The Times of Israel in a recent interview at a café in the Montreal neighborhood of Notre-Dame-de-Grace, where she lives with her husband and their 17-year-old twins.
“I remember myself waking early in the morning, taking the 50 sheep, three cows, and a donkey, and I used to have Loksie the dog, and going barefoot in the morning when there’s dew. In the morning, it’s still wet and then after that, all the kotzim [thorns] are becoming harder and you walk on them and it’s so horrible. It’s not easy,” she recalls from a world away.
But while she’s lived outside Israel since 2012, Elsana-Alh’jooj is steadfast in her commitment to the country’s Bedouin cause and her advocacy for Arab minority rights and greater Arab-Jewish cooperation.
“I may be physically separated from Israel, but mentally I’m really very connected to it,” says 47-year-old Elsana-Alh’jooj.
“There’s not one day I’m not following the news from Israel and having Skype discussions with Israeli NGOs to develop the best strategy to tackle an issue, whether it’s women’s issues, building shared societies and shared spaces, promoting a bilingual school system in Israel and giving Israeli citizens the choice to send their kids to Jewish or Arab schools or joint schools,” she says.
ICAN, the organization of which she’s now executive director, was founded in 1994 by Jim Torczyner, the son of Holocaust survivors, and was originally called the McGill Middle East Program in Civil Society and Peace Building. It brings together Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians and Syrians to study at McGill’s School of Social Work, which is followed by a year back home in their respective communities working in the field with at-risk populations. Currently, one project involves Jewish and Arab Israelis in the mixed city of Lod collaborating to improve life for both communities.
Having long fought for her people, Elsana-Alh’jooj is considered a leader in Israel’s Bedouin community and an authority on the status of both the Arab minority and women in Israel. She’s pushed for the emancipation of women in male-dominated Bedouin society; created the first Bedouin women’s organization; is the founding director of the Arab-Jewish Center for Equality, Empowerment, and Cooperation; has received numerous international humanitarian awards; and was included among a group of 1,000 distinguished women collectively nominated for the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize.
Even while abroad, Elsana-Alh’jooj makes Israel a big part of her reality, including her postdoc at Harvard. Its focus is on gender-based violence, specifically Arab-Israeli women murdered by their husbands or other relatives, and the response of government and Arab women organizations to the problem.
Elsana-Alh’jooj says she visits Israel several times a year.
“Every time you leave Israel and zoom out, you see things differently,” says Elsana-Alh’jooj. “But my vision remains constant. It’s always been and always will be how to create a shared space for Palestinian and Jewish Israelis to live together in Israel on an equal basis with mutual understanding.” (Throughout our interview, Elsana-Alh’jooj often uses the terms “Palestinian,” “Israeli Arab,” and even “Palestinian Israelis” interchangeably.)
In 1997, on her first foreign sojourn, Elsana-Alh’jooj spent a year in Montreal after being selected as a fellow for the ICAN program. Life on and off campus made an impact on her.
Elsana-Alh’jooj recalls how soon after she arrived in the predominantly French-speaking city, she boarded a local bus for the first time, showed the driver the address of her destination, and asked him to tell her when to get off.
“The driver looked at me and said, ‘French!’” says Elsana-Alh’jooj. “I looked at him and said, ‘English,’ because I didn’t know any French. I was very stressed because my English was so basic then, I was alone and it was my first time outside Israel.”
“I was trying to communicate but he wasn’t willing to help,” says Elsana-Alh’jooj. “He was really pushing back, saying ‘French!’ and I answered, ‘I don’t speak French.’ Then, suddenly, not knowing what to do next, I heard in the background a young girl say something to her mother in Hebrew.”
Never before had Hebrew sounded so good to Elsana-Alh’jooj’s ears.
“I jumped at that woman and asked her in Hebrew if she could help me,” Elsana-Alh’jooj continues. “This was the first time I felt that Hebrew, which I spoke fluently having studied it since the third grade, was a language I belong to, that’s part of my culture, society and everything. So, for me, this was an interesting experience.”
All the more so given what it led to.
“That woman took me to the right address and invited me to her synagogue,” Elsana-Alh’jooj recounts. “It had me asking myself an important question — why did I need to travel 9,000 kilometers [roughly 5,600 miles] to meet someone from the Jewish community who’s willing to take me to her house and bring me to her synagogue, whereas in Israel, because we live in a very segregated situation, I never had the opportunity to visit a synagogue.”
“It’s not something you do,” she says. “We live in our village, Jews live in their town. The three main places we might have an opportunity to meet as citizens of the state are the university, work place, and public spaces. But even in public spaces, you won’t see us mixing.”
Today, Elsana-Alh’jooj feels extremely comfortable around Jews. Many of her friends and people she associates with in Montreal are Jewish. On several occasions, local synagogues have invited her to address their congregations.
Born in a temporary Bedouin camp near Arad in 1972, Elsana-Alh’jooj grew up in the northern Negev village of Laqiya. As it was unrecognized by the state at the time, it had no electricity or running water. Like other traditional Bedouin communities, it was a patriarchal society in which women suffered discrimination and polygamy was rampant.
Now, decades later, Elsana-Alh’jooj enjoys telling people of her arrival into this world as the fifth of 13 children. After her mother had previously given birth to four consecutive girls, her parents had counted on the next pregnancy to finally produce a son, much exalted in Bedouin tradition.
“When I was born, the fact I was a girl was a catastrophe for my parents, but for separate reasons,” says Elsana-Alh’jooj. “If you’d ask my mother, she’d say she was worried my father would marry a second wife because they always blamed women for giving birth to a girl. My father’s concern was the more you have girls, the less status you have in the tribe because they measure your power according to the number of males you have in the family. My father felt that by me coming into the world, he became a weaker person in terms of his status.”
Her parents named her Amal (hope in Arabic), hoping God would bring them a boy the next time. Sure enough, they had five boys after her.
Growing up, Elsana-Alh’jooj was much closer to her father than her mother, who was tough on her because she was wilder and more rebellious than her sisters.
“I had many special moments with my father who treated me in a way so I did many things my sisters wouldn’t do,” says Elsana-Alh’jooj. “I remember we had those wooden boxes from Jaffa oranges and he’d put me on them and say, ‘Now, give me a speech about anything.’ I would make up speeches and when I gave them, he would laugh.”
It proved a good training ground. Since then, she’s given countless speeches, lectures, and workshops in Israel and abroad in her work as an activist, community organizer, public speaker and educator. Rarely at a loss for words in Arabic, Hebrew or English, Elsana-Alh’jooj is gregarious, with a luminous smile and easy laugh.
Already at a young age, she was struck by the contrast in living conditions in her village and those in Beersheba, where her parents would take her if she needed a doctor.
“You’d see a whole different landscape,” Elsana-Alh’jooj remembers. “You’d see buildings, green parks and all these beautiful things. Then you’d return to your village and you’d see only dirt roads and no infrastructure. As a child I accepted it, but then early in my youth, I started to question these things.”
It would lead her on a quest for change.
“Early on, I became aware of what would become the two main struggles in my life,” says Elsana-Alh’jooj. “One was being a girl in a patriarchal system and my decision not to play the role of the victim. I also became aware of myself as a second-class citizen in Israel and I wanted to rebel. I remember thinking, if I’m already standing up against my mother, why don’t I stand up against the state? That I don’t have electricity and water only because I’m a Bedouin or a Palestinian is wrong.”
That I don’t have electricity and water only because I’m a Bedouin or a Palestinian is wrong
“Justice is justice,” she adds. “I stood up, knowing exactly what my fights were inside and outside my community. I always interweaved them, but sometimes after leading demonstrations and feeling I was succeeding on the political side, I’d go back to my community and feel like there’s no way I can make changes there.”
“It’s so rooted in the way the Bedouin community treats women,” she says. “I often asked myself what’s harder — the political struggle in Israel, or the social struggle in my community, changing the country’s political system to accept me as an equal person or changing the patriarchal system to accept me as an equal human being in my house. I’ve always felt I have to fight both struggles in parallel.”
While in high school, Elsana-Alh’jooj stood up to her parents for granting privileges to her brothers but not to her. She also became increasingly active politically, more extreme in her thinking and a self-described “troublemaker,” much to her mother’s dismay.
“When I was leading demonstrations as a teenager,” says Elsana-Alh’jooj, “my mother would say to my father, ‘She’s crazy. She’s the only girl among all those men going out there. You have to stop her.’ My father would look at me and say, ‘Don’t do that. You listen to your mother,’ but would then whisper to me, ‘Go, go, go.’ I always felt his support.”
Her Bedouin tribe, the Elsana, is one of 16 in the Negev. Unlike Bedouin more integrated into Israeli society, including some who serve in the Israel Defense Forces, the Elsana are highly politicized and reject military service.
“I remember in 1982, I gave my first political speech,” says Elsana-Alh’jooj. “I was in second grade when we had a march, at the end of which they put me on the stage and I read a speech against violence and war, and in favor of peace. After that, when there would be a demonstration against government house demolitions or uprooting of trees from our village, I’d be the one to give the speech.”
At age 15, she spent a night in jail after being arrested for a protest against Israel’s policy toward Palestinians at her high school, where she tampered with the lock of a classroom door so others couldn’t enter.
At the prison, two security officials questioned her. Describing it as a good-cop-bad-cop dynamic, one took a softer approach while the latter pressed her with hostile questions about political activism in her village.
“’Listen, you’re a beautiful girl and smart,’” she quotes the gentler cop. “’We know you’re the best in your class. Why would you ruin your future with this kind of activism? I want you to get an education. You can help your community more that way.’ He was really nice.”
Using the Hebrew term for Middle Eastern Jew, she explains that the tough cop was Mizrahi, while the other was Ashkenazi. She says this influenced her perception of Jewish Israelis and their political leanings.
“I’m not blaming Mizrahi Jews for being right wing,” she says. “I’m blaming the whole system for creating a situation where Mizrahi Jews cut themselves off from their Arab culture and are tough on us because they want to show the Ashkenazi system that established Israel that they are equal, that while they weren’t the founders of the state, they’re protecting it.”
Returning to that night in prison, Elsana-Alh’jooj praises the “nice” cop who made a major impact on her.
“He showed me there are other ways of dealing with your anger, in a soft way,” she says. “That stayed with me. I think if I would’ve only had that one tough guy treating me in a disgusting manner, I would’ve become a terrorist after that. But I had someone showing me an alternative way, saying to me, ‘You’re smart. You can help your people.’ He presented a different perspective.”
By then, already inspired by her grandmother’s fortitude and support, Elsana-Alh’jooj was teaching girls and women in her village how to read and write as a means of empowering them. When she was 17, she established the first Bedouin women’s organization.
Four years later, in 1993, still living in Laqiya, Elsana-Alh’jooj became the first woman from her tribe to attend university, studying social work at Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba. She was head of the Arab Student Union, took part in many student organizations, interacted with Jews, saw her first computer, and greatly broadened her horizons before graduating in 1996. By that point, she was living in Beersheba in a student residence, determined to break free of the limitations of her village.
Today, she’s the only one among her 12 siblings living outside Israel, but remains close to them through daily contact via WhatsApp.
She says they respect her work and take pride in the international recognition she’s earned. In addition to receiving many awards, Elsana-Alh’jooj was selected as one of 100 thought-leaders in different fields for Genius: 100 Visions. Founded by a Toronto-based Israeli, Rami Kleinmann, it’s a global community focusing on solutions to major issues.
Like many Israelis living abroad, Elsana-Alh’jooj insists her expatriate life is temporary. Notwithstanding, she has applied for Canadian citizenship along with her husband, Anwar, formerly a lawyer in Israel. Originally from an unrecognized Bedouin village in the Negev, he works as a community organizer in Montreal.
“I see my future back in Israel a few years from now,” says Elsana-Alh’jooj, who plans to live once again in Beersheba. “I have dreams and projects to implement there and being away makes me believe it’s possible, especially when I look at Canadian society and see how multiculturalism and diversity can be practiced and valued.”
Elsana-Alh’jooj admits the situation of Israel’s 250,000 Bedouin, a minority within the country’s Arab minority, has improved considerably since her youth, but much remains to be done. Although the number of state-recognized Bedouin towns has increased significantly, she says 82,000 Bedouin still live in unrecognized villages without electricity. Elsana-Alh’jooj is encouraged by the growth in the number of Bedouin women studying in university, reflecting the importance Bedouin now give to higher education.
Nothing if not passionate about her home country, she enjoys talking about it, especially its social and political conundrums. Despite lamenting worrying developments in Israeli society, she’s optimistic about the possibility of positive change.
“When I think about how racism is becoming legitimate discourse in Israel by the right wing, I feel what we’ve built in the last 20 years of creating shared citizenship in Israel is being affected,” says Elsana-Alh’jooj.
“But I also remind myself the darkest time is usually the moment before the sunrise,” she says. “So, I always look at what’s going on in Israel right now between the Arab minority and Jewish majority and the government, and I say maybe these are the darkest times that will bring the dawn, that will bring positive change soon. Because there are many people in Israel who really believe we should live together in equal and shared spaces.”
While strongly supportive of Palestinian statehood, Elsana-Alh’jooj has faced abuse from Arabs in Montreal for defending Israel’s right to exist.
“Many times, I’ve found myself fighting for the rights of Jewish people to their homeland when Palestinians or others say Israel shouldn’t exist,” she says. “If I believe in the Palestinians’ right to have a homeland, I absolutely believe in the right of Jewish people to have their homeland.”
“Yes, I criticize what kind of homeland and certain policies, but I defend the right of Jews to their homeland,” Elsana-Alh’jooj says. “Some have called me a traitor because of this. But that’s what would happen to a Jewish Israeli who would fight for Palestinian rights. Many would call him a traitor, right? So, I’m not afraid of being called a traitor if I believe in human rights and people’s rights.”