He’s an effective and appealing speaker who advocates for Israel, the country that he is a proud citizen of. But unlike other presenters for the Israel-advocacy organization StandWithUs, Yahya Mahamid is not a Jewish Israeli. Instead, he’s an Israeli Arab, from a Muslim background.

I met with Yahya at the StandWithUs Leaders of Tomorrow gala in New York City. He’s trim and neat and stylishly dressed, and it’s clear right away when you meet him that he’d do well as a public speaker for Israel.

And Yahya has been doing plenty of stepping onto stages recently, as part of a StandWithUs campaign involving its American, British and Canadian offices.

Yahya has been working for StandWithUs since January of 2016, but he had volunteered for them for a year prior to that, and it’s clear that he has deep determination to promote Israel and defend it in the public arena. That’s even clearer from the fact that he will soon be leaving the organization to join the IDF in a combat unit.

What causes an Arab Muslim from the village of Umm al-Fahm—a stronghold of the anti-Israel Islamic Movement in northern Israel just south of Haifa and Nazareth and the largest Arab city in the area—to take on these challenges in defense of Israel?

The anti-Israel atmosphere in Umm al-Fahm was so strong. So I grew up very anti-Israel.

“The anti-Israel atmosphere in the town was so strong. There were swastikas; we got no education on Jewish history, and the only line I got about the Holocaust was Hitler did a good thing. That was from my religion teacher. So I grew up very anti-Israel.

“When I was in high school, I walked into this new class and there was a map of the entire world and it didn’t have the state of Israel on it. Instead it said Palestine. This was an Israeli school. Even though I was anti-Israel I didn’t find it justifiable not to be there. So I took a picture of this map and publicized it, and two days later the map was gone. That was the first step I took on this path without even realizing what I was doing.

“What really made it happen was when I went to work in Tel Aviv. I was very nervous because we were taught we’d be treated in a racist way and the Jews were not going to be nice to us and we’d be second-class citizens. I didn’t speak Hebrew at the time. Every day I’d come back home and be like, what just happened? They were nice to me. Why are they nice to me?

“The big thing happened just before Sukkot. I had finished a 12-hour shift and was dead tired and went to wait for my bus to go up north. This Chabad guy approached me and asked if I can put on tefillin in the morning. Before I could answer, he starts telling me how important it is to shake lulav and do the blessings.

“I had a big smile on my face and said to him, ‘I’m sorry to waste your time but I’m not Jewish.’ What he said to me remains with me until today.

“He said, ‘It doesn’t matter if you’re Jewish or not; it only matters if you’re a good person.’ Very simple words but it kind of contradicted everything I was taught growing up.

My first interaction with a Jew was when I was seven.

“From that moment on I started developing my own opinions. I worked in the hotel for a year and during this period I began recalling different episodes. My first interaction with a Jew was when I was seven. I was in the hospital in Afulah visiting someone. I ended up going to the waiting area and see this big religious man with his wife and kid. I was very nervous because I didn’t speak Hebrew and my mother wasn’t there. I just cowered in the corner of the room without saying anything.

“He turned to me and said in a deep voice, ‘Mah, lo omrim shalom? What, you don’t say shalom?’ It clicked in my head: Was he waiting for me to speak to him?

“My mother once came back home shaking in 2003. I learned she was about 20 meters away from a suicide attack by a Palestinian woman that left about 70 Israelis injured. If I remember, six were dead instantly. I was afraid that those people who carry out those attacks just target everybody. These memories came flooding back during this year.”

And in June of 2014, when the three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped, Yahya was shocked.

Someone had to stand up and condemn what happened. I couldn’t be silent about this.

“I said to myself that someone had to stand up and condemn what happened; I couldn’t be silent about this. I participated in the Bring Back Our Boys campaign. I took a picture with the Israeli flag. That picture went viral. In my town, there was a lot of hatred for what I did. I had to quit my job and miss graduation because walking on the street was just a dream. Family members and friends stopped taking to me. I was in my house for two months.”

He said that the situation with regard to his family was complicated.

“My mother’s mother is a Palestinian. She was born and raised in a refugee camp, and I have family in the West Bank. Most of them work for the PA. Some have high ranking positions. We don’t speak with them anymore. My family in Israel was a different story. Some were very supportive at first, but as the years went on, there was a lot of social pressure that turned to them. Bit by bit communication started reducing.”

He eventually had to leave home.

“I made a short video for Stand By Me where I said my goal is to normalize all the Arab communities with Israel, I want to be like any other Israeli, and that I want to serve in the IDF and give back to my country. In my town, they took the part where I said I want to serve in the IDF and used it as the headline of the local news. The police called me and said, ‘You have to move; we can’t protect you anymore.’ I moved to Jerusalem.”

He had gotten involved with StandWithUs after he had posed with the Israeli flag. “They reached out to me and asked if I want to volunteer,” Yahya said.

One of his first trips abroad on behalf of the organization (he’s made five so far) was to South Africa for Israel Apartheid Week, where he spoke on the Wits University campus. The StandWithUs team was met with violence.

“On the very first day we got assaulted by BDS. One delegate was pushed. Our posters were ripped. The banners were cut with knives. It was very stressful,” he said.

But the violence by the BDS activists led to their unpopularity. On the last day of the StandWithUs activities, the BDS groups didn’t even show up.

“I didn’t understand how important our work was until I had a conversation with a leader of the Jewish student union. He said he’d been there for three years, and every year during Apartheid Week the Jewish students on campus would take off their kippah until they go to their classes. This year during the march, all the Jewish students were with us. The amount of support was absolutely amazing. The Jewish community supported us. The alumni of the university pressured it to get back on course, and not to let BDS do whatever they want.

“The student union leader said that whenever we were there the situation completely changed. And you could see on the faces of the students they’d been suffering.”

Yahya has also been working with StandWithUs’ Arab outreach program. The security issues have meant that in-person talks are rare, but there is a robust online outreach effort by the organization. And he said that he believes that there are strides being made, both among Israeli Arabs and among Palestinians.

What about the anti-Arab racism that exists in Israel? What is it like to promote Israel when such aspects of its society exist?

He told me that he never denies that Arab Israelis face challenges. He himself, he said, has faced them.

“For example, when I moved to Jerusalem, it took me two months to find an apartment. I couldn’t live in the Arab neighborhoods because of the security situation, but I couldn’t find a room in the Jewish areas because who would take an Arab from Umm al-Fahm?

“I have been in situations where people shouted racist things at me. But the debate here isn’t racism; it’s how you deal with racism. If somebody shouts ‘Death to Arabs!’ in Tel Aviv, somebody’s going to stop him; it’s not going to be accepted. Someone will stand up and say something.

“Sometimes we also face indirect discrimination. You’ll see ads in the newspaper saying they’re hiring people who have served in an IDF combat unit. It’s not discrimination exactly, but it’s leaving out people who didn’t. That’s why I feel reaching a point where we are a normalized functioning part of society, where we say we are Israeli and proud and we served in the army, is very important. You can’t change the culture of a majority to fit a minority.”

I asked him whether there has been any identity conflict for him, promoting Israel, which has a strong Jewish character, as an Arab Muslim. “Coming from Israel I face a lot of identity issues. It was just how do I feel? How do I feel standing about singing about hanefesh hayehudi – the Jewish soul [in Hatikvah] and a 2,000 year dream? How do I feel if my flag has a Star of David? I feel proud.

“I felt confused at one point and then I said, ‘I live in a country with a Jewish majority. We’re going to sing Hatikvah about the Jewish dream with a flag with a Star of David.’ That’s what it is. It’s not something bad.”

Doesn’t it feel exclusionary?

“It does and it doesn’t. If I’m standing next to a Jewish person while I’m singing Hatikvah, he’s not going to shush me or something. If I’m in the IDF wearing the uniform and saluting the flag, no one’s going to push down my hand. But at the same time, it isn’t where I come from. That’s not a feeling 24/7, just when I think about it.”

When I queried Yahya about whether he’s ever been surprised by something during his trips around the world to advocate for Israel, he laughingly tells me that the biggest surprises have been his exposures to Diaspora Judaism, which he really hadn’t been acquainted with before.

“My first time out of Israel to a Jewish community was to Finland. On Shabbat, before the big event we had, I said, ‘Shabbat Shalom,’ and they responded with ‘Gut Shabbos.’ I was like, what is that? What is ‘Shabbos’?”

And despite his fondness for his home country, he’s found at least one aspect of Jewish life in the Diaspora that is better.

“I think gefilte fish tastes better outside of Israel,” he said, with a smile.

Reprinted with permission from Ami magazine.

Photo credits: StandWithUs.com