Shabibat AJEEC: Connecting Jewish, Bedouin youth

AJEEC-NISPED stands for the “Arab-Jewish Center for Equality, Empowerment and Cooperation, and Negev Institute for Strategies of Peace and Development.” This is its youth arm.

 BEDOUIN YOUTH benefit from precious opportunities to engage in safe outdoor fun and learning activities. (photo credit: AJEEC)
BEDOUIN YOUTH benefit from precious opportunities to engage in safe outdoor fun and learning activities.
(photo credit: AJEEC)

A few years back, I had a memorable encounter with a genial Italian Christian clergyman who taught Western classical music at the Magnificat Institute in Jerusalem’s Old City near the New Gate. I wrote an article at the time, probably about the approaching Christmas concert, and chatted with the gracious gent. Among the music-related topics that came up, he also noted that the institute provided a healthy after-school outlet for local kids who had nowhere else to go. “There are no parks or green open places where they can socialize,” he said. Despite having visited the Old City on numerous occasions over the years, navigating its often cramped alleyways, I had never given any thought to any acute lack of space there.

For many Arab and Bedouin youngsters around the country, most acutely in the South, it is not just a matter of getting the requisite elbow room to let off some youthful steam. As any parent will know, kids generally have bucketloads of energy which, if not expended and channeled in a constructive if not creative direction, can lead to trouble.

But, while many of us may simply be able to send our offspring out to the local park – that is, if we can drag them away from a computer or cellphone screen – Bedouin just don’t have that option. That goes doubly for people who live in unofficial villages strewn across the Negev region, in clumps of shacks cobbled together with corrugated iron, planks of wood and plastic sheeting, that often house large families.

According to information provided by Shabibat AJEEC, Arab children are six times more likely to have accidents at home compared to their Jewish counterparts. “For Bedouin kids, particularly in unrecognized communities in the Negev, there are problems of yards where they can play,” explains Sliman Al Amor, founder and joint CEO of the Shabibat AJEEC youth organization. “There is a very great danger of children being hurt by all sorts of objects. That is five or six times more likely to happen compared with an Arab or Jewish child in the north of the country.”

“For Bedouin kids, particularly in unrecognized communities in the Negev, there are problems of yards where they can play. There is a very great danger of children being hurt by all sorts of objects. That is five or six times more likely to happen compared with an Arab or Jewish child in the north of the country.”

Sliman Al Amor

If you’ve ever noted some of the ramshackle dwellings by the roadside, say, on the way from Jerusalem or Tel Aviv down Route 40 south of Beersheba toward Mitzpe Ramon, you’ll have some idea of what Al Amor is talking about. The statistics make for chilling listening. “We are talking about dozens of kids who die every year following accidents near their homes, and there are hundreds who suffer injuries.” Al Amor says he has seen the tragic results firsthand. “If you go to the Pediatrics Department at Soroka Hospital in Beersheba, you will see that over 70% are Bedouin kids. That is because there is no suitable infrastructure where they live, in unrecognized communities, and the lack of educational services.”

THAT IS where Shabibat AJEEC steps in. For two decades, it has been providing solutions for thousands of predominantly Bedouin children and youth, from elementary school through high school age, with a broad sweep of after-school activities that range from the definitively educational to pure wholesome fun.

 BEDOUIN CHILDREN and youth can broaden their physical and educational horizons. (credit: AJEEC) BEDOUIN CHILDREN and youth can broaden their physical and educational horizons. (credit: AJEEC)

Just to clarify linguistic matters, Shabibat means “youth” in Arabic and is the age-related arm of the AJEEC-NISPED Arab-Jewish organization which began operations in 2000 with a purview to address social change in the Negev. The first part of the uppercase title comes from the Arabic word that translates as “I am coming toward you” which, the organization’s background material notes, “is the driving force behind AJEEC’s mission of bringing Arab and Jewish communities together, to get to know and understand each other and advance the vision of a better future, together.” More about the coexistence and the cross-cultural side of things later.

To spell it all out in acronymic terms, AJEEC-NISPED stands for the “Arab-Jewish Center for Equality, Empowerment and Cooperation, and Negev Institute for Strategies of Peace and Development.”

AJEEC is one of the largest civil society organizations in Israel, with a salaried staff of 200 and 1,500 volunteers, including around 450 AJEEC gap-year high school graduate volunteers. Shabibat AJEEC is one of the first youth organizations of its kind in Arab society. It operates under the aegis of the Ministry of Education and has close to 7,000 members.

Al Amour says the venture aims to fill a yawning gap in educational facilities. “The organization was set up to address the severe shortage of informal education services in the Arab sector. We are talking [about] very low percentages of Arab youth who go to youth movements, compared with Jewish society, and we know that ultimately informal education shapes youths’ identity and the sense of belonging and personality of young people.” The alternative, says the CEO, is a downward spiral into negative behavioral patterns. “When you don’t have that possibility, of getting into an informal education framework, that leads to idleness. Idleness leads to vandalism and violence, and no hope of a healthy future.”

The AJEEC manifesto sets out four major goals that address the bigger picture and the more individual level. It says it aims to promote movement from conflict to conflict resolution, from dictatorships to democracies, from poverty and dependence to social and economic advance, and from marginalized and passive minorities to active and included ones.

There was clearly a pressing need to communicate with the youth in their own parlance, literally. “Shabibat is a youth organization that speaks the language and offers materials in Arabic,” Al Amour continues. It was not, however, just a matter of linguistic comprehension. “The organization offers content that comes from the community and takes into account the tradition and culture of the youth. That is a highly significant added value that we took into consideration. That is the strength of our organization, and there is great demand for this.”

The terminology and vocabulary the Shabibat staff and volunteers use with the youngsters is only part of the story. “We need to adapt ourselves to the needs of 2022. The youngsters of today are not the youngsters of 10 or 20 years ago. We have to get into social media and use it correctly. We have to address all the challenges of today, with regard to employment, and the shared domain, and interaction between young Arabs and Jews. When you prepare them for all that, you prepare them for the next generation, for their future, for the job market.

“It is not just about informal education. It is informal education that provides us with all the values we are missing. The values you can’t get anywhere else.”

REALLY? AREN’T schools supposed to help prepare our young for adulthood?

That is, of course, in addition to pushing them through their Ministry of Education-required exams to achieve ever higher grades in an increasingly competitive social milieu. “Of course not!” comes the retort. “What schools do is get the students to manage exams, get good 3-, 4-, 5-unit [Bagrut] grades in mathematics and Hebrew. And that is basically it.” The grades may be there, Al Amour observes, but he says that doesn’t stand the test out there in the real world. “They get the results, but the Arab students still come out of school unable to speak even two sentences in Hebrew. They only teach them how to get through their exams.”

In a country where the dominant language is Hebrew, if kids want to get by and, specifically, achieve a breakthrough in the challenging socioeconomic cycle, they simply have to obtain street-level smarts and that, necessarily, means gaining fluency in Hebrew.

Al Amour says that applies across the board with regard to everyday logistics, in the academic and professional spheres, with the knock-on effect for opportunities on the professional bread-winning front. “If you want to buy yourself a falafel in Beersheba or Tel Aviv, you need Hebrew. Knowing Hebrew is essential for academic studies and for employment.”

There are also rewards to be reaped, he adds, in basic harmonious human living terms. “Language is part of the shared public domain [between Arabs and Jews]. At the end of the day, I want to arrive at a situation whereby Arab youngsters know Hebrew and Jewish youth know Arabic.” Wouldn’t that be a fine thing?

That worthy objective is being facilitated by regular gatherings of Bedouin youth and their Jewish counterparts in the Tzofim youth movement, as well as other activities. Ariel Daloumi applauds that development. As joint CEO of AJEEC, he is keenly aware of the discrepancies in Israeli society and the ramifications that has for today’s youngsters who are, after all, tomorrow’s adults and, possibly, leaders of society. “Shabibat AJEEC is the first youth organization in Bedouin society. It began in the South and, in recent years it has spread to the Center and North of the country. Today it operates right across Israel.”

The nationwide agenda takes in a range of programs and events designed to broaden the youths’ knowledge base, in academic areas and life skill-related fields, while fostering a deeper reciprocal understanding of Arab and Jewish societies in Israel, and nurturing the next generation of society-changing pacesetters in the process. “Our belief is that in order to create partnership, first of all we need to narrow gaps and establish a partnership between equals,” says Daloumi, adding that it was initially very much a matter of breaking new ground. “I was in a youth movement, as were my parents and their parents. For me that is natural, but for the Arabs it is something new. Now we feel we have a solid organization we are starting to build collaborations with, for example, the Tzofim in the madatzim (young counselors) age group, the transitional age range of 13th grade.”

Quite a few Jewish youngsters opt to defer their army service and get involved in all sorts of projects, both here and abroad, as part of the Shnat Sherut (Service Year), aka shinshin for the initial double letters that describes the program year, with the young participants known as shinshinim. “This year we had around 40 shinshinim and around 100 madatzim,” Daloumi says.

The geographic reach of the AJEEC synergies is gradually spreading. “There are joint activities [between Arabs and Jews], such as at Lehavim and Rahat, Omer and Beersheba, and Kuseifa and Arad. During the course of the year they have joint activities for the young counselors. We also have four shared communities, which are called Shnat Kehila (Community Year), with around 10 young Jews and 10 Arabs who spend a year together. That’s 13th graders. For the shinshinim it is called Garin Bamidbar (Desert Group). There are two in the Negev, one in Lod and one in Ramle.”

It is a year of earnest community-oriented endeavor and a bonding experience for all concerned. “They spend part of the week working at Arab schools and part at Jewish schools. And time is devoted to study and to [identity-based] dialogue.”

The idea, says Daloumi, is to get to know and accept each other. And there is no skirting around potential minefields, either. “They lay all their cards on the table. They dig into the tough and painful topics, too. But it is about connecting the ‘talking’ and the ‘walking,’” he states. “It is about volunteering and working together, and also about sitting down and discussing things. This is a life-changing experience.”

Some Jewish Israelis may be on friendly speaking terms with Arabs, and we may have Arab work colleagues, but the vast majority of us do not socialize with our Arab counterparts, who may also be close neighbors. Basically, we live side by side without either crossing the ethnic lines. Daloumi believes collaboration through AJEEC can spark lasting change on that score. “We would like that to start before high school age. We would like it to start earlier. That would make it more natural, with less fear and anxiety, and would engender more familiarity. That, we feel, is the way to go.”

AJEEC MARKS its 20th anniversary with a gala event in Jaffa on November 10 with much to celebrate but also with the knowledge that there is a long road still to navigate. “We have to plan for the long term,” Al Amour notes. “You can’t just put effort into a year or two. You have to invest, across all age groups, with sustained effort and continually broaden the scope and subject matter. We have to appeal to as many youngsters as possible.”

Still, with the second decade of comprehensively rewarding work behind AJEEC, Al Amour says a brief pat on the back is in order, too. “The early years were very hard. It was a very small organization back then. We became a national organization around eight years ago. That helped us get budgets, and we just took off from there.” It may be tough going, but Al Amour says he derives a lot of satisfaction from his work.

“I love what I do,” he laughs. “And we are making real progress.” 

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