Palestinian Women are Transforming the Shari’a Law Court System

RAMALLAH — In 2009, a woman arrived at the Shari’a courthouse in Ramallah, West Bank and asked to see the judge. A few minutes later, Kholoud Faqih, then 34 and 5’6”, appeared in a black robe and printed hijab to greet her. The woman immediately stood up and said words Faqih would never forget: “I will never allow for a woman to judge me.” She left the room without turning back. Even after struggling for eight years to become the world’s first female judge in an Islamic court system, Judge Faqih was the one being judged.

In
a recent interview, Faqih reflected on those early days on the bench. “You know
the men, they tested me. At first, they didn’t discuss the cases with me and they
tried to trap me by assigning me difficult ones,” Faqih recounted. “Finally,
they accepted me. But what surprised me was that the women were the ones who
refused to believe that a female could be a judge.”

Qadi (Arabic for “judge”) Faqih is now a celebrity in her own right with an acclaimed documentary called The Judge based on her decade of struggle. “You should see my movie,” she said. Ten years ago, when she was struggling as a lawyer and a mother, she couldn’t have imagined saying those words. “Yes, I faced many, many difficulties to be in this position then.” She reflected now on how many things have changed since, but the change in her she said was this: “I’m a feminist judge in Palestine. That’s why I’m different from the others.”

Where some tried to sow seeds of doubt in her credibility, Faqih, in turn, sowed seeds of inspiration in the women around her who followed in her footsteps and have even exceeded her in the Shari’a court system. Today, Faqih is among the first four women in the world including Faqih’s own former clerk—all of whom happen to be Palestinian—who now serve as judges in Islamic court.

One of them, Somoud Damiri, was dubbed the Chief Prosecutor of the Supreme Judge Department in the Judiciary High Council of the State of Palestine in 2011, the first woman to ever earn this title and the first to speak to an international audience at the United Nations in 2017 on the issue of women’s rights under Shari’a law.

Damiri, 37, was the third female to become a judge in the shari’a system after Kholoud Faqih and Faqih’s collegiate peer, Asmahan Wuheidi, 41. She dealt in women’s equality, divorce, and domestic violence cases every day, but at home she was mother the of four who split the chores equally with her husband. Asked why she chose to join the justice system, Damiri responded fervently saying, “It’s the time. It is our time. That’s it.”  

Damiri
is also a lecturer at Birzeit University in the West Bank. She remembers
discovering from the school administration that the young women studying law
there would quietly go to the department to request to join her classes. “The
girls look to me to tell them that they can make it and that it will be okay
for them,” said Damiri. She reflected on the questions she got from her female
students in class. “They ask me: ‘Is it easy for you to be with sheikhs (male
judges)? Do they really listen to you? Do they respect you in the courts? What
is it like to be a mother and a judge?’ They ask me human questions really.”

Mid-march was a stressful time for aspiring lawyers at Birzeit University. Hundreds of young Palestinian women and men were taking the three-hour-long bar exam on Saturday, March 16 to enter the law and justice system of Palestine. Among them was 22-year-old Diala Nidal Sayyed.

Sayyed
graduated from Birzeit University three months ago after completing her
three-and-a-half-year law course and took the exam so she could qualify to train
with a lawyer.  It was her female law
professors, she said, who left an indelible mark on her career path. “There
were actually a lot of women professors at my university, and they were so much more effective than men,” she said
with a hearty laugh.

There was one who she unequivocally deemed her favorite: her international law professor, Hala Shoiabi. “Her way to teach, her personality, everything about her made us girls very happy in her classes,” said Sayyed. “She is a role model for me. She didn't take the same ways to teach. We had to act out cases for each other. She made us watch movies about crimes. It was a really new way of learning that opened me up.” Sayyed noticed that her classes at Birzeit were now full of women too, as was the bar exam hall this past March. “In the past, women didn’t even study in school, but now almost 85% of women go to university,” she said. She’s not wrong. Palestine has the highest female literacy rate in the entire Middle East at 94%, according to a 2013 UNDP study. And the rate of female enrollment rate in higher education institutions in Palestine is soaring, despite poor funding and even poorer infrastructure, both of which are at the mercy of the Israeli Ministry of Education.

Photo by Radha Dhar

Internal documents from the Palestinian Bar Association revealed that out of the latest cohort of 630 practicing lawyers in Palestine, only 36% were women. Though it was a far cry from equality, the number was an industry record. “Things are changing and we are supporting that change,” noted Samar Issa, a high-ranking member of the Palestinian Bar Association that keeps records of these demographic trends in Palestinian law and justice and supports women’s growing involvement in it. “We give trainings to women in Shari’a law about their rights,” said Issa. “The first judge in Prophet Mohammad’s time was a woman after all. His wife!” she exclaimed.

Professor Abdelrehman Rehan would agree. He is a professor of law at Modern University College in Ramallah. Rehan explained that Shari’a law how often misunderstood. According to him, it is less to do with stoning as the Western media frames it, and more to do with “personal status” issues like getting a divorce, child custody, and management of financial assets within a family. Among Rehan’s current course offerings is one called “The Rights of the Wife.” Referencing the Prophet’s wife, he explained that the role of shari’a law is simply to guide people spiritually as they live a holy life in each of its stages, fulfilling their duties under the eyes of Allah. In a recent interview in his office at the college, Rehan gestured to his classroom textbook, pointing to the section he would cover the next day. “But the main book of law is this one,” said Rehan, placing a copy of the Quran on top of the textbook.

Amid his lesson plans in Arabic splayed about on his desk, he pointed to the attendance sheets. “I have 26 students now, and 15 of them are women,” Rehan said, counting up to 15, marking the rows on the spreadsheet before him as he went. They had stellar attendance. The prior year’s demographic revealed 13 females in class. But the step forward was marred by a discussion of a backwards practice under weak shar’ia interpretations that gives allowance “for a man to hit his wife, only politely, in extreme cases,” explained Rehan. “But I don’t think hitting is ever ok. The Quran does not tell us to harm a woman,” he stated firmly with brows furrowed. When asked what happens to the judges who do not believe this as he does, Rehan said that they are transferred to a lower court, “But they are never dismissed. I guess, it is a problem.” 

Rehan
worked in the courts for years as an arbitrator, making decisions on paper for
smaller domestic cases that never made it to higher courts. “I always dismiss
the man who hits his wife. There are other ways to explain to her her duties,”
said Rehan of the matter.

Faqih, also a wife and mother to four, spoke through laughter as her kids interrupted her speaking on the phone from her home in Ramallah. “I’m sorry, I’m cooking and I had to open the door,” she apologized. “It’s an old system, the shari’a law. The time has changed and it has to change too. And we will change it,” she said with pause. One of her daughters, the youngest, wanted to be a judge like her mother at first, but changed quickly her mind to become a doctor, fearing that higher ups in the Supreme Court would not accept her and she would be transferred. Faqih calmed her down. “I told her you can do anything, but you have to be strong. You have to know your rights. You can do anything.”

Top image by Radha Dhar.


Empowering Palestinian Women, one stitch at a time

BEIT SAHOUR — There are a few words that can be used to describe Najla Azar : petite, open and inviting, just like her home in Beit Sahour, the largely Christian town outside of the West Bank.

 Almost
all things sacred to her are displayed on her living room walls. A black and
white photo of she and her husband, who is also her first cousin, on their
wedding day are proudly displayed by the entrance. Framed pictures of her four
children and their spouses, all of whom are Orthodox Christians, are also
showcased. On her couch sits two needles with black thread wrapped around it.
When the project is completed, it  be an
intricately embroidered shawl that will join a vibrant collection of Azar’s
other work including dresses, wallets, scarfs and bookmarks. These items, once
pinned to the wall, are ready to be sold to customers around the world, a
continuation of a lengthy journey.

Azar has been using her home as a workspace
for nearly 50 years. As a seasoned craftswoman, she founded a business called “
Cross Stitch 4 Palestine,” a website that sells embroidered products both
locally and overseas. Her mission, however, is not just to sell handmade
crafts, it’s to encourage women empowerment between the Muslim and Christian
communities. Azar expanded her business by allowing women from Bethlehem, Gaza
and Hebron to help her stitch products. The opportunity allows for the ladies
to support themselves and their families whom many are responsible for.

“I wanted to help support these women,” said Azar, a 71-year old Christian woman whose income supports herself and her husband who is unemployed.

According to the United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs,  the Gaza unemployment rate is 44 percent with the leading cause due to disability.” The unemployment rate is somewhat higher in the West Bank cities like Bethlehem and Hebron, but making a living is still a considerable challenge.

Although Azar had
never lived in a refugee camp, she had visited two times before which sparked
her interest in helping.

 “ A lot of these women are either enrolled in
school and are responsible for the costs or they have to take care of their
husbands who may be sickly,” Azar said. “ That’s why it’s important for us to
make sales.”

The craftswoman
learned the art of embroidery at the age of 13. While she was still in school,
learning how to stitch was a mandatory for young women.

In 1977, at the age
of 25, Azar traveled to Jerusalem for the first time. She had been hired to
work in the dining room at the Church of St. Andrew’s, a Scottish Church.
There, she befriended Yael, a Jewish Orthodox woman who would later become her
business partner for Cross Stitch 4 Palestine.

During the Second
Intifada, Azar was no longer able to work at the Scottish Church and had to
figure out a way to help support her young family. Since mobility was limited,
Azar decided to return to embroidery and create her own business. During the
day, she would invite women from Bethlehem and Hebron to come to her house so
she could teach them how to stitch.

“These ladies were clever,” said Azar. “ They learned very quickly,”

She taught them how
to do the cross stitch.

Each town has its own
distinct knitting style. In Beit Sahour, the signature pattern is the
cross-stitch which is a series of “ X” or cross shaped patterns. Despite the
appearance, the cross-stitch does not have a religious tie to it. However,
items that have a cross-stitch pattern are popular among the Eastern Orthodox
and Catholic communities, particularly during Christmas and Easter.

The cross-stitch is sold to local churches, including her own, First Baptist Church in Jerusalem.

“Life is much easier now,” said Azar. She now has access to go to and from Jerusalem with a church permit. This also allows her to pick up the material necessary to create the embroidered goods and transports it to the women who work for her.

“My hope is that people will continue to support us so that I can continue to support the ladies,” said Azar. “My hope it that they will be able to lead a life of peace.”


With Netanyahu’s re-election, Israeli Druze wonder if their loyalty to the state is reciprocated

BEIT JANN – In most of Israel, the election billboards in recent
months featured the faces of the two main rivals for Israeli leadership:
Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz. On the winding streets of the Druze town of
Beit Jann in the north of the country, roadside posters instead featured the
smiling face of Ali Salalha, a former Druze high school principal who was
running as a candidate for the left-wing Meretz party.

In one of the closest elections in recent Israeli history,
Netanyahu defeated Gantz by a razor-thin margin and is expected to form a new
government in the coming weeks. In a twist of irony, Salalha failed to win a
seat despite winning almost two-thirds of the vote in his hometown, propelling
his Meretz party to a haul of four seats in parliament.

Only two Druze lawmakers won election to the Knesset, Israel's parliament — the lowest tally since 1999, and down from five in the previous election. Despite the setback, this year marked the election of the first Druze woman to parliament: Gadeer Mreeh from Gantz's Blue and White party, which swept the vote in her hometown of Daliyat al-Karmel and in seven of the 12 Druze-majority towns in Israel.

“We’ve lived together for more than 70 years with no problems,” said Salalha, outlining the history of the Druze in Israel. “Druze don’t just live in villages, we go to universities, we speak very good Hebrew. If this is not a democratic country anymore, then tell us.”

Aside from the loss of Druze representatives, the election
marked a defeat for the Druze if only because of Netanyahu’s victory. As the leader
of the right-wing Likud party, Netanyahu has been at the forefront of an effort
that many Druze view as an attack on their Israeli citizenship: the “Jewish nation-state”
law.

For the roughly 130,000 Israeli Druze, most of whom live in
mountaintop communities in the country’s north, the law opened a deep wound
that calls into question their loyalty to Israel. Of the more than 1.5 million Arab
citizens of Israel, less than 10 percent are Druze. Unlike their Muslim and
Christian counterparts, the Druze have been conscripted into the Israeli Defense
Forces since 1956. Druze Israelis have fought as soldiers in Israel’s wars and
served as ministers in several governments.

As Salalha made clear in an interview shortly before the Israeli
elections were held, this was not just another political campaign for the
Druze. Leaning back on a sofa beside a small fireplace in his living room in
Beit Jann, Salalha cut a calm figure in his white shirt and black trousers.

“The nation-state law means that we are not citizens of the
country,” Salalha said, his voice rising. “It’s not suitable for a democratic
country, it’s not democratic.”

Adopted by the Israeli government last July, the measure amended
the country’s Basic Law — Israel’s equivalent of a constitution — to
specifically define Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. Its
passage drew condemnation from a wide swathe of Israeli society, from secular
Jews to minorities who felt it demoted them to second-class citizens.

Now, the Druze feel betrayed. Tens of thousands of people,
Jewish and Druze alike, marched in the streets of Tel Aviv last August to
demonstrate the breadth of opposition to the nation-state law. Young Druze are
growing disillusioned with the state of Israel, and some are even refusing to
serve in the army. Across Israeli Druze society, from the generals to the
objectors, there is a sense that their status as equal citizens of Israel is in
jeopardy.

On a Friday night in the Druze town of Isfiya, about an hour’s
drive from Beit Jann on the slopes of Mount Carmel, Amal Asad plotted the next
steps in his campaign to overturn the law. Dressed in a blue North Face jacket,
a grey shirt, and blue jeans, the former general and leader of the Task Force
to Amend the Nation-State Law calmly described his path forward.

“I believe that this state is ours, not only for the Jews,” he
said. “We fought for it. I lost my brother and a lot of friends, commanders,
and soldiers in the army, and then suddenly they signed this law.”

Asad mentioned that he had received assurances from Benny Gantz
and Yair Lapid, the leaders of Blue and White party, that they would amend the
law if they succeeded in unseating Netanyahu at the polls. With Netanyahu's
victory, Asad and his allies are preparing to challenge the law in the courts.

“The state belongs to all its citizens, no matter your
religion,” he said. “We will not accept this law, we will not give up after the
elections. We will continue.”

Asad is not alone in the fight — Druze servicemen from across
the political spectrum have joined the movement. Fadel Salalha, a former IDF
commander who supports Meretz, and Asaad Asaad, a former IDF colonel who served
in parliament for Likud from 1992 to 1996, discussed their mutual objection to
the law over dinner on a Tuesday evening in the northern city of Karmiel.

“After this law, the majority of the Druze will not vote for
Likud,” said Asad, who abandoned the party after being expelled for supporting
the Oslo accords in 1996. Nodding in agreement, Salalha warned darkly of the
consequences of yet another Netanyahu victory. “It will be like apartheid,” he
said.

While they make up less than two percent of Israel’s population, the Druze have not banded together to form community-based political parties, like Arab Israelis have with Balad or the United Arab List. Since the 1990s, many Druze communities supported parties on the right, but this month’s elections signaled a shift towards the center. The three parties that openly supported amending or repealing the nation-state law — Blue and White, Labor, and Meretz — won a combined 52 percent of the vote in the twelve majority-Druze towns in northern Israel.

Not everyone is convinced that Druze voters are organizing
against the law. Druze tend to vote for parties that put forth candidates from
their own hometowns, according to Salim Brake, a political scientist at the Open
University of Israel in Tel Aviv who studies Druze representation in Israel.

“There is some change, but the majority still vote for people
from their villages,” said Brake. “Most Druze are against the law, but how do
you explain that many still voted for right-wing parties?”

The dispute over the nation-state law is not just political: it
strikes at the heart of how the Druze relate to the state they live in. While
most Druze live in Lebanon, Syria, and Israel, there is a global diaspora with
communities stretching from Venezuela to Germany. Regardless of where they
live, Druze communities are loyal to the state they reside in. This concept is
rooted in their faith, which emerged as an offshoot of Islam in 11th-century
Egypt.

Clad in the traditional black shirt and white shirwal turban
worn by Druze sheikhs, Fadel Mansour offered strong Arabic coffee and biscuits
from his home in Isfiya. Renowned throughout Israel as a leading scholar of his
faith, he elaborated upon centuries of Druze history in the Middle East.

“There are three values we will never give up: religion, the
land, and national honor,” he said. “The Druze are loyal to the country where
they don’t attack these values.”

Tracing back to the persecution the Druze faced from 1021 to
1028 CE, forcing them to scatter to the mountains of the Levant and keep their
faith secret, Mansour emphasized how generations of Druze fought against
foreign powers that refused to respect these values. “The Druze fought against
the Ayyubids, the Seljuks, the Ottomans, the French, the Maronites,” he said.
“The Druze fought against them to protect these values.”

For Mansour and other members of the community, the nation-state
law represents a modern-day attack against their faith. “We want to live free
from ostracism,” he said. ”This law made the Druze united.”

Druze who train to become sheikhs are exempt from conscription
in the army — as are women — but the process to prove a religious exemption is
long and difficult. Instead, there is a movement of young Druze who are
refusing to serve on ideological grounds.

Founded in 2014, Urfod is an organization that helps Druze men
that object to serving in the IDF. Meaning “Refuse” in Arabic, the group runs a
hotline and works with objectors by providing legal assistance and
psychological support.

“The law changed the whole relationship between the Druze and
the state,” said Hala Marshood, an Urfod member who is not Druze and identifies
as Arab Palestinian. “A lot of people felt betrayed by the state, and a lot of
people refused to serve.”

Many draft resistors are jailed, with sentences ranging from as
little as three months to as long as two years. Urfod helps objectors navigate
the legal ways to avoid service, which often involves claiming an exception by
proving they are mentally unfit to serve.

Despite their common aversion to the nation-state law, sheikhs
like Mansour and activists from Urfod do not see eye to eye when it comes to
their relationship with Israel. “Part of our struggle is against religious
leaders,” said Marshood. “They support the status quo.”

Beyond its mission to aid draft resistors, Urfod campaigns for
Israeli Druze to abandon their loyalty to Israel and identify as Palestinians
instead. The movement was co-founded by Hadiya Kayoof and Khaled Farrag, two
Druze activists who reject what they view as Israel’s systemic oppression of
all Arab minorities in Israel and the Palestinian territories — Druze, Muslim,
and Christian alike.

“This movement is revolutionary, it wants to create something
new,” said Marshood. “The Druze have been excluded from the Palestinian
struggle, and the issue of conscription hasn’t really been dealt with.”

For most Israeli Druze, giving up their Israeli identity is out
of the question. “It’s not something you can choose, Palestinian identity is
not a substitute for Israeli identity,” said Sawsan Kheir, a PhD candidate in
psychology and theology at the University of Haifa and at Åbo Akademi
University in Finland. “We will keep on being Israelis, it’s just that we don’t
have equal rights.”

Born and raised in the Druze town of Peki’in in northern Israel,
Kheir has dedicated years of research to studying religious minorities in
Israel — particularly the Druze and Muslims. In one of her studies, she found
that Druze Israelis experienced less discrimination in Jewish towns and
universities than do Muslims. That could change with the passage of the nation-state
law.

“Now, the Druze might feel more rejected,” said Kheir. “We serve
in the army, we do what we should do, but still we are betrayed.”

From sheikhs in Isfiya to army commanders in Beit Jann, from
youths in Rameh to academics in Haifa, there is one word that is constantly
repeated: betrayal.

Ali Salalha at his home in Beit Jann. Photo: Giacomo Tognini

“Many young adults feel betrayed and say that they don’t want to
serve in the army anymore,” said Kheir. “We have the same obligations, but we
do not get the same rights.”Ali Salalha at his
home in Beit Jann. Photo: Giacomo Tognini

As widespread as it may be, that feeling of betrayal has not
translated into a political movement powerful enough to defeat the nation-state
law. Druze voters turned out in large numbers for Blue and White and Meretz
this year, but Netanyahu still emerged victorious. Protest leaders like Asad
will challenge the law in the courts, but he is unlikely to succeed because the
changes were enshrined in Israel’s Basic Law — making it more difficult for the
Supreme Court to defy the wishes of parliament and overturn it.

Back in Beit Jann, Salalha was still confident that change will
come. Sipping from a cup of coffee, he described another important value shared
by Druze all over the world: brotherhood.

“All Druze are brothers, no matter where they live,” he said. “We will make an
effort to make changes for our sons and daughters. We will continue like this
all the time.”

Salalha seems to be an exception to the rule, and there is a
pervading sense of hopelessness throughout Druze communities in Israel. With
the re-election of Netanyahu and Salalha’s failure to make it into the Knesset,
it’s clear that many Druze have lost faith in Israeli democracy.

“Israel is now like Poland between the two World Wars, where the
constitution was liberal but there was discrimination against the Jews,” said
Brake. “Now, unfortunately, the Jews are like the Polish and we are like the
Jews.”

In the eyes of the Druze community, Israel is well on its way to
becoming an illiberal democracy — or worse.

“There’s no reason to be optimistic,” said Brake. “We thought that we were equal citizens, but we’re not. It’s irreversible.”

Top image: Beit Jann, a Druze town in northern Israel. Photo: Eleonore Voisard


16 Israelis and Palestinians Talk Identity, Before Elections : A Photo Essay

As published in The Forward

In Israel, Judaism alone boasts a spectrum of denominations, affiliations and nomenclatural religious-national identifiers. 93 percent of Israeli Jews would say they are proud of their Jewish identity, according to a recent Pew study, but the way they understand and describe that identity - and what it means to be Jewish - can vary drastically, whether it be “Israeli Jew” or “Jewish Israeli”, along with labels like “ultra-Orthodox”, “modern Orthodox”, “Conservative”, “Masorti” or “secular” to name a few.

But how do other religious communities identify themselves in Israel and parts of the Palestinian territories?

We travelled from the northern Druze village of Beit Jann to a cluster of Jewish settlements in Gush Etzion, to interview and photograph 16 people of different faiths about the way they self-identified. In a land where even calling a country “Israel” can be construed as a political statement, those we interviewed described themselves very intentionally while describing their relationship with the state.

Our interviews came at a critical juncture as the country prepares for what is expected to be one of the most closely contested Israeli elections in recent political history. The incumbent, Benjamin Netanyahu of the Likkud party, is looking to win his fifth election on April 9th and eclipse David Ben Gurion’s record as the nation’s longest-serving prime minister. He is challenged by the newly-formed centrist Blue and White led by Yair Lapid and former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz.

With the growing political clout of extremist parties on the right like Jewish Power (“Otzma Yehudit”), this won’t be the first time the country’s identity has become a topic of national discourse. The Knesset’s passage of the nation-state law last May, which affirmed that “the right to exercise national self-determination” in the State of Israel is “unique to the Jewish people,” has provoked similar discussion and controversy.

In this election, identity is everything.

Maayan Mankadi, Beit Horon

Maayan Mankadi is from Beit Horon, an Israeli settlement located a few kilometers away from Ramallah. Mankadi identifies as a modern Orthodox Zionist, and recently got married in Jerusalem. “I’m at the Kotel to pray and to thank God for helping me get to where I am now,” she says. “I appreciate the sanctity of the Torah, but I’m also a regular member of the country’s workforce. We earn a living and serve in the army or complete national service. It’s somewhere in the middle of the two extremes we find in Israel.”

Sawsan Kheir, Beit Jann

Sawsan Kheir is a psychology PhD student at the University of Haifa. Born and raised in Peqi-in, a Druze village in the Galilee, her research focuses on the effects of modernization and the value of faith in Muslim and Druze students across Israel. She defines herself as Druze, Arab, and Israeli. “Since the establishment of the State of Israel,” she says, “the Druze have been loyal to the government and had very positive relations with the Jews because of our shared history of persecution. There is a mutual understanding.” With the recently passed nation state law, Druze like Kheir are nervous. “We are loyal to the land we are born into,” she says. “There are three basic elements of our faith: the land, honor, and religion.”

Avi R, Haifa

Avi, a security consultant from Haifa, considers himself a masorti (traditional) Jew. “I go to synagogue for all the festivals and keep our traditions,” he says. “I am first Jewish and then Israeli.” For Avi, his identity won’t change in the upcoming elections. “My family and I always vote for Likkud.”

Sheikh Jamil Khatib, Beit Jann

Sheikh Jamil Khatib is one of Beit Jann’s four imams. “I am an Israeli Druze,” he says. “First, I am a Druze through my mother and father, then I am an Israeli because I am connected and attached to the land of the State of Israel. I am prepared to do anything for my country and to perpetuate its existence.” Politically, Khatib explains, the Druze in Beit Jann are somewhat divided. “Some support Likkud, some support Meretz, some follow Chadash - you see us in every single political party and this election won’t change that.” Khatib himself is committed to Druze education and cultural workshops for his community, and served as principal at a local elementary school before becoming an imam.

Chaftzivah Bitton, Tzfat

Chaftzivah Bitton lives in Tzfat, and works as an advisor to newlyweds and a supervisor at her local mikveh. “I am an Israeli from a religious household,” she says. “My father was a rabbi, my husband is a rabbi, and we are continuing the traditions of the Jewish people. My identity will not change at all in the upcoming elections. I am Jewish, religious, and Israeli.”

Sheikh Sami Abu Anas, Nazareth

Born and raised in Nazareth, Sheikh Sami Abu Anas is the head imam at the city’s White Mosque. “I am a Muslim Palestinian, living in the State of Israel,” he says. “Though I would always describe myself first as a Palestinian, I was born in Israel. I respect the laws of the state, and respecting the state you live in is a principle that goes all the way back to the time of the Prophet himself.” Anas’ mosque is open to all, but he fears that increased polarization has pushed Israeli Jews and Arabs to more extreme sides of the political spectrum. Nazareth is the largest Arab-majority city in Israel, and to Anas, this indicates that many different kinds of people can live in the same place. “I truly hope that whichever government is formed after the elections makes us feel more included, even if it is Netanyahu’s government. I also have the freedom to express myself here as a Palestinian Muslim, unlike in Gaza or Egypt or Saudi Arabia, for example.”

Sami Shalsha, Nazareth

Sami Shalsha is a caretaker of the White Mosque. “I am an ordinary and simple human,” he says. “I don’t like discrimination or hate, and my religion teaches me that we all must live together in harmony, whether you are an Arab or Israeli or English or Jew or Christian or Muslim or whatever - it does not matter.” Though he lives just around the corner from the White Mosque, Shalsha is originally from the north. “I take care of the mosque every day from 10 in the morning until 7 at night…I also guide the tourists who come visit talk about the history of the mosque. I try and change their perception of Islam because some of them see groups like ISIS as Islamic. ISIS does not represent Islam, and Islam is not a religion that condones murder.”

Shmuel Zengoltz and Matanya Guetta, Jerusalem’s Old City

Shmuel Zengoltz and Matanya Guetta know each other from yeshiva, and come to the Old City together almost every week. They both identify as Haredi (ultra-Orthodox), and Zengoltz, originally from Tiberias, sees his Israeli and Haredi identity as inextricably linked. Guetta feels slightly different: “I am from Jerusalem,” he says. “I am first a Jew, then a Haredi, and then an Israeli, because Judaism has been around the longest, before Haredim and before Israel. No election will change my identity.”

Ahmed, Nazareth

Ahmed makes some of Nazareth’s best knafe, doling it out from a small corner of the famed Mahroum sweet shop. “We are all human beings at the end of the day,” he says. “I don’t like that everyone categorizes themselves as either Israeli, Palestinian, Christian, or Muslim. We all belong to the human race.”

Dr. Maria Khoury, Taybeh

“I identify as a Palestinian in spirit, but I’m Greek Orthodox in blood,” says Dr. Maria Khoury, a Taybeh resident. Along with her Palestinian husband and his family, Khoury runs the popular Taybeh Brewing Company, the Taybeh Winery, and The Taybeh Golden Hotel. “No matter what the election results are in Israel, I think our situation here in the West Bank will pretty much stay the same. I do not think the wall is going to go away. I do not think the checkpoints will go away. I do not think the Israeli settlements are going to go away. We suffer from the Israeli occupation because our freedom of movement is limited.”

Pastor Munther Isaac, Bethlehem

Serving at the Christmas Lutheran Church in the old city of Bethlehem, Pastor Munther Isaac is acutely aware of his own religious and national identity. “I am a Palestinian Arab Christian,” said Isaac. “I am a follower of Christ. And when I think of the elections, I just hope that people choose someone who is willing to have a serious conversation about making peace. Right now, current Israeli rhetoric is reflected by the recent Nation State law. I’m hoping for people who will make the country more inclusive.”

Isaac Simanian, Tel Aviv

Isaac Simanian’s spice shop in the bustling Levinsky market is always full of customers. “My parents were born in Iran,” he says from behind the counter, “but I am an Israeli Jew. I wear a kippah, but it’s important to me that all religions are welcome here.” Simanian plans to vote for the Likkud party in the upcoming elections. “I choose Netanyahu,” he adds. “No one is better than him.”

Zahi Khouri, Ramallah

Born in Jaffa, Khouri is one of Ramallah’s best-known businessmen. He has lived all over the world, and is the founder of the Palestinian National Beverage Company and produces Coca-Cola for the region as well. He opened up the Palestinian Beverage Company as a way to not only encourage local business in the area, but also to provide hope to the community. He is outspoken against Israeli occupation, but doesn’t think the elections will change much. “First, I am a human being,” he says. “Second I am Palestinian. Third, I am a Christian.”

Rabbi Dov Berkowitz, Shiloh

Born in Chicago, Rabbi Dov Berkowitz now lives in Shiloh, an Israeli settlement almost 30 miles north of Jerusalem. “I consider myself a Jew, a father, and a husband,” he says. Upon moving to Israel, Berkowitz never intended to move to a settlement. When he and his wife first arrived, Berkowitz says he was “the leftie here - the peacenik.” But after the first intifada, Berkowitz started to change his mind. “I deeply believe in creating peace with the Palestinians,” he says. “For me, Zionism means many things, but the bottom line of Zionism is that the Jewish people came back to Israel not to be killed.”

Omar Hmeedat, Dheisheh Refugee Camp

Omar Hmeedat calls himself a Palestinian atheist. “I do not support any political party,” he says. “I am even more critical of their agenda and the way they work. I also do not think this conflict should be religious.” Though he does not live there now, Hmeedat grew up in the Dheisheh Refugee Camp, just a few miles from the old city of Bethlehem. He is now actively involved in non-political community organizing and urban planning research. At Al-Quds University, Hmeedat is majoring in media studies. “The elections won’t change anything,” Hmeedat adds. “I am Palestinian and will remain Palestinian. Whether I live in Palestine, Israel, or in Europe. This won’t change my identity.”

Rabbi Arik Ascherman, Gush Etzion

Rabbi Arik Ascherman, the founder of Torat Tzedek (Torah of Justice) and previous President and Senior Rabbi for Rabbis for Human Rights, is recognized around the world for his commitment to human rights and social justice in the region. He is originally from Pennsylvania, but he moved to Israel in 1994. “I identify as a human being,” he says, “and my Jewish identity and faith are not my wall with the rest of the world, but my bridge.” Ascherman is committed to inter-faith dialogues, and has previously been on trial for acts of civil disobedience. “As a human rights leader,” he adds, “I don’t tell anyone how I’m voting and I don’t affiliate with any political party, but I will vote and I will ask others to vote for a party that is honoring God’s image and every human being.”

Jonathan Harounoff is a master’s student at Columbia Journalism School, an alumnus of the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard, and an incoming FASPE Fellow. Some of his work has featured in The Jerusalem Post, Religion News Service and The Harvard Gazette.

Leah Feiger is a religion, gender, and culture writer living in New York City. She is currently an intern at The Forward, and was previously a freelance writer based in Kigali, Rwanda. Her work has appeared in Ozy, Fodor’s, and Culture Trip, among others. Follow her on Twitter @leahfeiger.

Leah and Jonathan reported this story during a trip to Israel as part of a Columbia Journalism School religion reporting class that is sponsored by the Scripps Howard Foundation.

This story "16 Israelis and Palestinians Talk Identity, Before Elections: A Photo Essay" was written by Leah Feiger and Jonathan Harounoff.

Photographs courtesy of Leah Feiger.


After the Israeli elections, the only halfway house for Arabs in Israel faces an uncertain future

This article was published in America magazine.

HAIFA – The two are unlikely neighbors. On one side of the cobblestone courtyard there is a modest halfway house for prisoners convicted of serious criminal offenses like murder, arms dealing and drug trafficking. On the other side, built with the same pale yellow stone, is the chandelier-adorned Church of Our Lady, a place of worship for Melkite Catholics.

The halfway house, known as the House of Grace, is the only such facility in Israel designated for Arab offenders. It may also be the only rehabilitation program in Israel that offers Divine Liturgy.

Salah Akoul, 53, said that without House of Grace, he would be back in prison. After spending 26 years in and out of prison for drug- and arms-trafficking offenses, Akoul has now completed his residency and is living on his own. He said that the experience changed his “primitive” way of thinking and taught him how to be part of a family. “It’s important for me to let people know that this place does really help,” he said.

Almost 1,000 prisoners were released early from prisons in Israel in December due to overcrowding, including those convicted of sex offences and domestic abuse. So in some ways rehabilitation for former inmates is needed now more than ever.

The recent elections in Israel will directly impact House of Grace, since as a service provider for the government, the new government can now alter or decline to renew House of Grace’s annual contract, valid until the end of the year, or even decide to grant additional funding.

Under Prime Minister Netanyahu, who was re-elected as Prime Minister on April 9, House of Grace has been fighting for more funding. The government only covers about a third of its operating costs, said Elias Sussan, the director of the halfway house services at House of Grace.

“We’ve had a lot of disagreement with the government about financing. It’s not reasonable to raise funds from Europe or from the [United] States—or from wherever—for prisoners that the government should be taking care of,” said Sussan.

“For us rehabilitation for ex-convicts is the goal; it is not a business,” said Sussan,

But House of Grace is accustomed to facing uncertainty.

After more than three decades of work, House of Grace’s prisoner rehabilitation program almost closed in 2015 when the government canceled its contract. “House of Grace is facing new struggles as we strive to continue our striving to serve the ‘least of these,’” Jamal Shehade, director of House of Grace, said at the time. After widespread outrage from community members and civic leaders, including the head of Israel’s Anti-Drug Authority’s program for Arabs, the contract was renewed.

House of Grace has been providing rehabilitative services for incarcerated Palestinian citizens of Israel since it was founded by Shehade’s parents, Kamil and Agnes, in the 1980s. Inspired by Jesus’ call in Matthew 25 to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and visit the prisoner, they transformed the premises of a then-abandoned church into House of Grace. Shehade grew up on the property and did not realize until much later that his “uncles” were “ex-convicts, recovering addicts and runaways.”

The program can house 15 men at a time. There are currently over 3,500 Arab citizens of Israel being held in Israel Prison Service facilities, according to government statistics. Arabs make up only about 20 percent of Israel’s population but approximately 40 percent of its prison population. (These statistics do not take into account about 5,000 prisoners in Israeli prison facilities from Gaza and the West Bank, according to B’Tselem, The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories.)

“15 beds are not really lot for that,” said Shehade.

Since 2011, the Israeli government has contracted with House of Grace to rehabilitate Arab prisoners. Following an interview process with the facility, residents live at House of Grace for nine months while they receive group therapy and one-on-one counseling and are accompanied by staff 24/7. House of Grace staff focus on community-building, helping residents find jobs, pay their bills and learn how to live together.

Once their nine-month stay is complete, they are required to visit House of Grace periodically over the following year, and former residents must submit to further counseling and drug-use checks. Additional programs at House of Grace include support for the families of the incarcerated and an after-school program for children in the community. These programs aim to curb recidivism by former inmates who are under pressure to provide for their families once they leave prison and to prevent children from getting involved in criminal activity as they grow up.

In the past, House of Grace served both Israeli and Arab prisoners and offered support as well as to the local homeless population and to women. In 2011, the Israeli government stipulated that House of Grace’s residential rehabilitation program work exclusively with Arab offenders.

Shehade says that although House of Grace has a Christian mission and is based on church property, it is not an evangelical enterprise. Its residents, like Akoul, are mostly Muslim, and don’t use the church located on the facilities of House of Grace.

Shehade is a Melkite Catholic and Palestinian living in Israel. Melkites are the largest group of Christians in Israel, but Christians are still a very small minority, making up about two percent of the overall population, according to a 2018 report from Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics. There is an even smaller percentage of Christians in Palestinian territories—the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics puts Christians at 1 percent.

Although Shehade has Israeli citizenship, according to Israel’s Nation-State law, passed in 2018, Israel is the “historic homeland of the Jewish people” and “the nation-state of the Jewish people.” These new stipulations suggest to many Palestinian citizens of Israel, whether they are Muslim or Christian, that their status is considered secondary.

This puts Shehade and other Palestinian Christians living in Israel in a unique, often difficult position. “For Jews, we are Arabs; for Muslims, we are Christians; for the Arab world, we are traitors,” he said.

But Shehade says that House of Grace shows that Palestinian Christians in Israel have a “special role” because of their intersecting identities and in showing paths toward peace on a local level.

“As a Christian I have a message in this world. And that message is to be a good Christian as Jesus told us, and to serve the other—it doesn’t matter for what reason or who he is, even if he is my worst enemy and he needs support, I will try and help him,” said Shehade.

“This message is very needed in the Middle East where you have conflicts between every ethnic or religious group that you have here.”

Article reprinted courtesy of americamagazine.org