Yahya Mahamid grew up in Umm el-Fahm, one of the largest Arab cities in Israel, where he was instilled with a strong hatred towards Israel and its people. Following a series of positive interactions with Jews, Yahya began discovering a new reality for himself as his perception of the world he knew altered. Now, at twenty years old, Yahya can be found on a worldwide tour as an Israeli activist and educator with the organization StandWithUs. On November 20, Yahya spoke with the Yeshiva University community about how his yearning for the truth led him from being an avid anti-Zionist, to proudly speaking out in support and love of the State of Israel and the Jewish people.
Yahya opened up to The Observer about his journey to becoming a self-described Muslim-Zionist.
Talya Hyman: Growing up, how did you define “Zionist”, and how has that definition changed for you now?
Yahya Mahamid: The term growing up meant “demonized”, an insult people used. I have realized that Zionism means something completely different. Even pro-Israel Arabs tend to avoid the term “Zionist” because they don’t know what it means. Now, I define Zionism to mean the future.
TH: What makes Israel so special, and why do you love the country so much?
YM: There’s so much diversity, which is something that is lacking in the Middle East, a place of conflict in the world. We are a young country of only 70 years old, but our achievements have not been done by other countries that are older and even of higher population than us.
TH: Has being an Israeli activist changed you as a person?
YM: Absolutely. Going from campus to campus and following the political scene, and realizing what a lot of people say against what we stand for as Zionists–I don’t think they realize why we are here today. You have to be strong to stand up against these people. 15 Arabs showed up at my session at another college, and they were coughing during the presentation, and one guy was messing with the slide presentation. These are the kinds of people that we’re standing against, but you have to learn how to fight back.
TH: Do you think Muslims and Jews are similar in any ways?
YM: The Muslims and the Jews are so close together, closer than other religions. We share the same traditions like Halal and Kosher, and we have the same values.
TH: What do you think is the most common misconception anti-Zionists have about Israel and the Jewish people?
YM: They don’t know the history, the story. They think that the Jews came from Europe, and that there is no connection between the Jewish people and the land. The Palestinians don’t want to hear from the Jews, “We were here for thousands and thousands of years, but then we were expelled.” It’s a big challenge for us, because we need to change the Palestinian narrative. I believe that we should emphasize this, because it’s not emphasized enough. A lot of it is ignorance, and not knowing the true facts.
TH: Have you received any support from Muslims or Arabs who approve of what you are doing?
YM: Definitely. I get messages from all over the Arab world who say, “We’re going to support you, we like the messages that you carry.” This makes me feel great.
TH: Has there been any point where you wanted to give up because of negativity you were receiving from home?
YM: No, I never want to give up–that word isn’t in my vocabulary.
TH: What’s been the most surprising thing you have learned on your journey so far?
YM: That Twinkies can be fried!
TH: If every single anti-Zionist was listening to you right now, what would you tell them?
YM: I would tell them about the treatment of the Jewish people, because they are a minority too. The Palestinians would be more accepting if they realized this, because to them, the Jews are the bigger guys. But the Jewish people are a minority in the Middle East.
TH: You are in a unique position because you have seen and experienced both sides of the story. So from your position, what’s the only way peace will be possible?
YM: The only way to pursue peace right now is through education because there’s a lot of ignorance and misconception circling in the world. We have to counter it with the facts, we have to counter it with proper education. Everyone is entitled to their own opinions in this world, but unfortunately some people have created their own facts–which is wrong. So we have to correct those lies and counter them.
TH: What’s your next step?
YM: My next step is the army. The Israeli Defense Force is a big part of the culture in Israel for Israelis. My message is to normalize Israeli culture, so how could I stand in front of people, trying to normalize the culture, without I myself being part of their society?