Shagi Beer Sheva – a Unique Model Integrating Dialogue and Volunteer work

The end of the semester has arrived; therefore we sat down in order to examine our achievements since the beginning of the academic year. And we won’t lie – we were filled with pride. Pride for Mabat, which has become a home for quite a lot of people in the last 12 years, pride for our dedication and stability, but mostly – pride for the students that are participating this year in our diverse programs.

Certainly, we have great pride in our programs. However, we discovered that there is one new program that we haven’t really told you about yet. That is why today we’ve decided to share the story of our fabulous program in the south – the Shagi initiative in Beer Sheva. 

‘Shagi’ (a Hebrew acronym meaning “brothers dwelling in unity”) is a unique social project whose purpose is to heal the wounds that divide and separate the diverse groups that form the society of Israel. It does so by creating an open-minded discourse on the main issues that inflict this divide between the sectors of society – sectors that maintain tremendous amounts of stigmas, prejudice and even sometimes hate towards one another.

Talking Identities

In Shagi, there is an admirable focus on language as a key to multicultural communication. Therefore, a big part of the annual program is mutual language tutoring, intertwined with dialogue sessions that occur twice a month. In most of the branches Hebrew-speaking students assist Arab high-school students with their Hebrew studies, while the high-schoolers teach the Hebrew-speaking students to speak Arabic.

The program in Beer Sheva is unique because it’s the first center in which this method is working both ways. The Jewish students volunteer in the school ‘Om Batin’, assisting in Hebrew studies and learning Arabic, while the Arabic-speaking students arrive every other week at a local Jewish school in Beer Sheva to assist the students with their Arabic studies. 

The facilitators of the meetings, Hadas Barzilai and Amin Hardan, are both graduates of our dialogue program at Beit Berl College and are currently working as teachers in the Negev (a desert region in the south of Israel) – Amin teach English in the village of Arara, and Hadas initiates social projects at a school in the southern town of Meitar school. Hadas and Amin are our first program graduates that came back to work with us as facilitators, and we are very proud of them.

We interviewed them in order to hear about their experiences with the group. We’ve asked them to talk without filters about the challenges they face, their perception of their roles as facilitators and about the issues that are discussed in the group.

What cultures are represented in the group?

Hadas: “In our groups, we have participants from all over Israel – Druze, Christians, Muslims and Bedouins. The Jewish participants are diverse as well and are ranging from secular to Orthodox. The diversity within the group is very interesting and shapes a fairly complex discussion.” 

How does the discourse in the group occur? Is the inequality between the cultural groups noticeable?

Hadas: “It certainly is. What’s happening in the group usually reflects the power dynamics in the general society – the first ones to talk are always the Jewish men, after them some Jewish women tend to talk, and lastly the Arab men speak. In order to hear some of the Arab women, I usually must address them specifically. Even when they do speak, they will always try to talk in Hebrew, even though Amin acts as a translator. 
We haven’t managed to disrupt these norms yet, but I’m certain we will eventually.”

What are the topics? What interests the participants?

Hadas: “The discourse that falls under the definition of Identity Politics is very tense in the group. They almost immediately retreat to their original cultural groups. The ‘Breaking the Ice’ phase in multicultural groups is usually very long, however, from the start, this group dove into the most serious and controversial topics, while constantly debating whether to address political or the personal factors in those topics.” 

Amin adds: “They always bring in some controversial topics – but it is always to the point. There are no limitations and no avoiding the conflicts – they prefer to talk about the issues that matter to them.”

Hadas continues: “We’ve talked about workplace discrimination, we dedicated two sessions to the Druze recruitment to the army. One of the Druze participants served in the IDF with one of the Jewish participants. We asked whether the recruitment of the Druze gives them an easier entry ticket to the hegemonic society, or rather are their privileges denied while they’re asked to take part in the civil obligations? We’ve asked if the Druze recruitment is creating a class divide within Arab-Israeli society.

What is your goal for these groups?

Hadas: “We intend to initiate a dialogue, to moderate these discourses, to create familiarity that will allow us to silence the stigmas, crush stereotypes and build a better an understanding of one another.

Amin: “The Participants in the program care deeply about change, and they came for the right place for it. They started to teach their language to the other cultural group in order to create a shared space for ideas, thoughts and even some shared problems. They are the social change-agents of the future. They aren’t seeking immediate change – they started to work with school students – they’re seeking a change in the long-run.

A dialogue session in the group

We also interviewed two students from the group, in order to write their thoughts on the program.

Amir Abu Kahf, an Arab participant, told us:
“Tutoring Arabic to the students is an amazing experience, mainly because I feel that what I teach them is far beyond language – I teach them about a whole culture. They love to ask me questions about culture as well. For example, they’d ask me about the Hijab that Arab women sometimes wear. It makes me happy that I can teach them about my culture, and we sometimes even talk on the phone.”

Karin Hajaj, who came to us through Rothschild’s Fund, also shared her positive experiences from the volunteer work she does with the students:
“This is my second year in the program. I got to know ‘Shagi’ through Rothschild’s fund, through which I assisted students with English and Math studies. The discourse in the group is always fascinating, and the work I do with the students is very satisfying. I can’t wait for the next semester!”

We are very proud of our program in Beer Sheva, and we are glad we got to tell you about it. 
See you next semester. We miss you already!