‘My Community is Bigger Than I Thought’: The Evolution of a Leader
Dr. Amal Elsana Alh’jooj grew up in the unrecognized Bedouin village of Tel Arad, in Israel’s northern Negev. Her journey as an activist has taken her from a life as a shepherd and daughter in a culture ruled by sons and fathers, to her work as a respected activist in Israel, to McGill University as one of the first class of ICAN Fellows. After years spent organizing for rights and recognition of Israel’s Bedouin population, she returned to Montréal as ICAN Executive Director. ICAN’s social media editor, Grace MacDonald, interviewed Amal in her office at McGill.
Grace MacDonald: How do you feel that your personal history led you to working with ICAN?
Amal Elsana Alh’jooj: Since day one, I was really aware of the issues of justice and fairness and women's rights. The issue of being part of a (Bedouin) minority in Israel, and also being part of a patriarchal system: understanding that you are excluded from both, based on who you are as a person, and who you are as a woman. Very early in my life I became aware of this. The fact that I took action wasn't because I was more aware than other people. The reason is that I had first the support of my father, and second the really leading ideas of my grandmother. When I was 14, I was very angry with my dad for sending all of my younger brothers to Christian high schools in the north to acquire a better education, because our village in the Negev wasn't recognized. We were without water, without electricity, in a shack without windows or doors, and I was a shepherd from the age of five to the age of seventeen.
My grandmother helped me translate my anger. I was so angry as a child. I was a troublemaker, fighting over everything. And if my brother got more than me, I would jump on him. But then she asked me, “Why would you jump on your brother? He is not the issue, the issue is the system that gives him more than you, so you should see beyond your brother.” And I think that was my grandmother telling me to translate the things that bring that anger, get it out by doing something positive. Think about life in a different way. So, I really became aware of these issues, women's issues as a woman in a patriarchal system and human rights issues as part of a minority in Israel. This goal, to juggle these two issues — equality for women and equality for minorities — became my main drive. Because this is my lived life. It wasn't a choice.
GM: Do you feel ICAN has changed society, either here in Canada or in the Middle East?
AMAL: Let me give you a historical view on ICAN, since I was among the first group, in 1997.
As a person, I think I would have reached where I am today, though it would have taken longer and it would be more complicated. The fact that I was able to join ICAN when I was only 22, thinking at that time that the only conflict that existed in the world was in the Middle East, that the only issues were the villages' issues.
The idea of the opportunity to come and cross the ocean and be here really gave me two things. One is that, away from the conflict, it's relaxed. You don't have to fight all the time. You can see how relaxed people are here. And you breathe freedom from day one. A lot of people don't understand, but that really is the feeling, that you can breathe the freedom. No one is asking you who are you, asking you for your ID, everyone is walking around, wherever they want. No gates, no checkpoints.
The second thing was realizing that social issues, human rights, are not only an issue in my village. These are global issues that many other minorities are facing. Women in Manhattan are still struggling for equality and inclusion. So, I understood that issues are beyond the borders of my village, or Israel, or even the Middle East.
That's what ICAN gave me personally. But also, the fact that I came here, I studied the model of rights-based practice, and when I went back and understood that I have to reach out to my people. Doing only the classic advocacy and organizing demonstrations where you find yourself out there only by yourself, "Where are my people? They have these issues, they're suffering. Why are they not part of this movement?". This is where I understood that we have to organize people, we have to raise awareness among people. We have to build their self-confidence. That they are entitled to their rights, that a right is not a privilege. And also, if it's not practiced, it means nothing. You can talk about it every day, you can talk about access to water, but if you don't have that glass of water you will never understand the meaning of practicing your own rights.
That's where I started really working with the unrecognized villages, reaching out, going from tent to tent, house to house, shack to shack. I really was able to visualize, and make my people visible. Especially to the institutions like the National Insurance Office, the welfare institutions, that usually if you don't go to them then that's it. Or if you live in an unrecognized village, then "We can't do anything to help you, because by law, you are not…" Then, I did two things: one, make people aware that they can come to these institutions, and break that fear of stepping into a scary institution, by really recruiting a lot of volunteers.
This is the model that they teach you: The ones who can help you raise awareness are the people like you. So, I used to sit and meet with people who have issues with each other, and after resolving the issues we would say "now you are ready to help others!". And that's the circle of creating more people who are involved.
The other thing that I did was that I went to the Supreme Court with other organizations saying that it doesn't matter, the status of the village. Whether it's recognized, unrecognized, that's a political issue. But this woman has an Israeli ID, and she's entitled to all these rights. They are beyond politics. It doesn't matter who she is or where she is, she is entitled, and they have to provide her with these services. So absolutely, the landscape of community organizing is one of the main contributions of ICAN in the Negev.
After this, you saw more demonstrations, more community organizing campaigns, more people going out into the streets, and more outreach. It's that self-confidence I talked about. So, I really saw this with the unrecognized villages and the Beduoin community, but also later seeing the marginalized communities in Jordan and Palestine… that people need to understand that they are worthy. That they are strong enough to say I will stand up and fight for my rights, or at least negotiate. It doesn't have to be a fight all the time. Sometimes you just have to know how to present it. Sometimes someone is there who is not saying "no", but we have fear to approach that person because this is authority, this is occupation, and we fear those things. So, to liberate ourselves from that kind of fear is half the battle. And then learn how to approach, and if they say "no", then you have the tools to make them say "yes", or at least make them feel uncomfortable saying no.
GM: How can the RBCP model be applied outside of the Middle East?
AMAL: The essence of this model is applicable anywhere. The means are different. Because each context is different. When you work in Jordan for example, the advocacy aspect is not very strong with our partners in Jordan, so we focus more on service provision and community-based advocacy to create engaged citizens who are aware of their rights and entitlements. So, if you want to advocate and change policies, that's not an easy sell within this context. In Palestine, it's an emerging state, so we focus more on building capacity and resources to assist the community in finding solutions to collective problems. Whereas in Israel, you're able to adapt the model as it is in Montréal, where you have the aspects of the rights and the aspects of services and the aspects of advocacy, as well as policy changes.
But all these areas are common when you talk about the people's roles in these processes. Where are the people standing? One of the main lessons is that usually as social workers, we react to crises. If something happens, if people are victims, then we jump, we go to them, and outside of a crisis we wait until people come to us. That's how our profession developed. But I think that ICAN's model and the role in the last twenty years has proved that all social work doesn't need to be reactive. It can and has to be proactive. These people that are working with us, we need to help them raise their voices to reach out to institutions to make their voices heard in terms of political solutions, in terms of big solutions. In terms of megapolicies, and macropolicies, and micropolicies, and not only the international or personal. All those local issues are linked to the global issues.
GM: What have you learned with ICAN that you wish everyone could know? Not just within peacebuilding communities, but everyone in society.
AMAL: I think the link between peacebuilding and social work. I think this is very important, that many times social work is peace within relationships: peace within the family, within the community. We have a lot to contribute to cross-national peacebuilding. Because if people live in peace within their own societies, they are able to outreach to others. I see that happening. I see our Fellows who would come here, viewing each other as enemies, and all of a sudden, they would understand “Yeah, we face similar issues,” and they would start outreach to each other, and look at the similarities and not only the differences.
The fact that you bring people together, sit them around one table, and tell them “You don't have to agree 100 percent. Even I don't agree 100 percent with my husband and yet I am building a family. So, I think one of the big lessons that our Fellows are learning is that you don't have to agree on everything, but you have to find your shared values and agreements, and build joint projects on that common ground. So, this is really what our Fellows are taking with them, and continue doing it, back home in Jordan, Israel, and Palestine.
GM: You were born into a system that defined you as 'other' from the very start. How did you channel that into what you do?
AMAL: Channel is a very good word. Channeling is like... When you work with stones, you need to know the weak point or the crack, so you can enter. As a feminist girl in a patriarchal system, you don't want to fight head to head — you'll just exhaust yourself. This is a society with rooted values and beliefs, it's much stronger. But if you look to find the cracks, then you can create a change. Not overnight.
I don't really believe in revolutions. I believe in social change that's gradual, because I can't think of people changing their minds overnight. Every idea that we really believe in took time to design or build as a solid idea. We need time to break and unpack an idea, and start playing with it, change it and modify it.
I decided that I loved my community, and if I loved my community, I had to work in a way that would respect and change, respect and change. And build on their resources. I decided I would build my program on the essence, and this will handle the issues. For example, when I built a catering program for single mothers, I asked okay, what is the essence of my community? The women in my community, they know how to cook, but they lack job opportunities. So, you have the issue, and you have the assets. So instead of saying let's find a job in a hotel — which is against the culture — or let's send you to a Jewish town to work — no one will go — we said "let's build a kitchen in the middle of your village where you provide hot meals to schools". It will empower and yet people will accept the change. Nobody will fight you. They will love it, but in the long run, that woman working there (in the catering kitchen), she will lead a feminist movement in the future, while the men are not aware that such a big change is happening. So, it has to be gradual and within the system.
I was in jail when I was 14 years old because I was really radical. I saw life as black and white with no grey area, whereas now I realize that most of my life is in the grey area. People tend to go to these extremes because it's easier to deal with, it's no or yes, it's simple. But you need a lot of skills to deal with the grey area. If you don't have enough skills you will end up either here or there [gestures to either side]. This is exactly why marginalized communities often end up at those extremes, because they don't have the skills, or the energy, or the time... Or the belief that they are able to do it, that self-confidence, that self-esteem, to deal with the grey areas.
So, within the Israeli system, at the beginning, I was really very crazy. But then I realised that if I was going to change the law… I organized a big camp as a protest, bringing all the Bedouin kids, we built tents next to the Knesset to tell them "we don't have what we need." And then only a hundred and something people showed up, out of the thousand or so that I was planning would join. And then I said to myself, even if they change the law, if my people are not understanding the meaning of the law and how the law can change their lives, no one will join me. So, I decided I had to, from the ground up, go back and make sure that people understand what kind of law they want.
GM: How has ICAN changed you, and your own approach? How do you feel as a worker and later as a director, that you've changed ICAN?
AMAL: ICAN helped me by globalizing the issues. Making me understand that human rights issues are global issues, women's issues are global issues. When I came here, I was really very radical, but when I was here with the Jewish Fellows, I started to understand that we are both victims of this conflict. And instead of blaming each other, let's both fight against the root causes of this conflict.
When our Fellows come here from the region, it allows them to interact with people that usually they would never see. I went through that. I really understood that I don't need to love my neighbor, but I do need to accept that I have one.
I used to be a community organizer, before I joined I used to teach women reading and writing and go to the villages, so the community approach was already part of me. But when I came here, I was able to conceptualize it and realize that this is also something we can do in other places in the world. My community is bigger than I thought.
And when I became a centre director, one thing, I think the fact that I'm not only Arab but Israeli as well. It brought a kind of comfort to all the Fellows. They can all look at me and think 'Ah, she's ours. She's on our side'. I can serve as a bridge to connect everybody. I think that's one.
The other thing is, the organizational tools and strategies that I have, where I really look at the partners from the sustainability point of view, and not that they do not have to rely on our support to continue. I really try to make it clear to the partners that we bring the model, but we teach you how to do fundraising, how to sustain that model. Partners understand that we are here as their partner but not here as their funder. Which can be a big shift, it can be very challenging.
And also, I bring hands-on knowledge of ideas from the Middle East. I know the issues. I'm familiar, I have firsthand information. I can connect with Fellows from Sderot, from Nablus — often, we've gone through the same checkpoints. So, the fact that they can consult with me knowing that not only do I professionally understand community organizing, but I have lived there. It's personal to me as well. I can network.
I really want to see this model not only to the Middle East but elsewhere in the world, because I believe that the vision of ICAN and community linkages is a sustainable way of producing knowledge and introducing it to people's lives.
GM: You once said that your grandmother drew two lines and told you “This line is anything forbidden by the culture. This line is everything forbidden by God. These are your limits. Don’t cross them.” Have those lines moved for you at all?
AMAL: These lines were here [indicates a small space with her hands]. They are here now [widens her hands]. They have expanded since that conversation. I was really able to make revolutionary steps in my community. I married outside of my tribe, which was not allowed, and they burnt my car, this and that. But! I was able to do it. I also came abroad to study. So, you move them. I said, I'm not going to break it, but I think I moved it, and also, I opened some holes. To allow other people to bring their outside input into my world. I think the change is continuing, and I think that if my daughter would talk with me about this, I wouldn't give her these lines. They would not exist for her. I would tell her to draw her own.