Nineteen-year-old Yahya Mahamid proudly declares himself to be a “Muslim Zionist.” For Mahamid, that descriptor comes after a decade of self-reflection. In a recent interview with JewishBoston, Mahamid pointed to milestones in his life that culminated in a photo of him posing with the Israeli flag in 2014. The picture went viral, and Mahamid had to contend with charges of treachery and death threats. “All the gates of hell opened up,” he said.
Mahamid is currently on a speaking tour in the United States sponsored by Stand With Us, which describes itself as “an international, non-profit Israel organization—inspired by our love for Israel and the belief that education is the road to peace.” The organization was founded in Los Angeles in 2001 over the concern about anti-Israel bias in the media during the Second Intifada. The group is also committed to offering college students the resources to deal with misinformation about Israel on their campuses. Today Stand With Us has 18 offices in five countries and over a hundred employees. Thousands of volunteers are also involved in “developing creative ways to tell Israel’s story.”
no posts foundA couple of months after Mahamid’s photo went public, Stand With Us reached out to him. At first, Mahamid was reluctant to join forces with the group. But after researching the organization, he was impressed that it worked with people representing 18 languages with English and Arabic as the largest cohorts. “I’ve been on both sides of the conflict and realize how important education is to the Arab community who have been misled for years,” he noted.
Mahamid said his anti-Israel indoctrination started when he was growing up in Umm al-Fahm, the third-largest Arab city in Israel. According to Mahamid, the municipality was corrupt. “I was taught all of the classic anti-Israel tropes,” he said. “We were told we were not Israelis but Palestinians, the Jewish people oppress us and Israel has no right to exist. You constantly hear Al Jazeera and other news sources that are anti-Israel. You hear cherry-picked politics from the community. It all adds up to white noise.”
By the time he was in high school, Mahamid said he had been brainwashed against Israel. The turning point for him was when he started working in a hotel in Tel Aviv. He said the job was “a big transition where I spoke directly to Jewish people for the first time instead of hearing about them from my teachers or Al Jazeera.” The experience was life-changing, and he became close to his co-workers. “It led me to wake up from the reality that I came from,” he said.
The following year three Israeli boys were kidnapped and murdered. The tragedy led Mahamid to view the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from a different perspective. “Waking up to the news of the kidnappings in 2014 shook me to the core,” he said. “I decided that someone had to condemn this. I realized I didn’t want the Arab communities to be misled anymore. That’s when I took the picture with the Israeli flag.”
Soon after, Mahamid became involved with the “Bring Back Our Boys” campaign, building bridges between himself and Israeli Jews. His involvement with Stand With Us ramped up and he spent a year of intensively training with the organization. His decision was controversial with his family, but Mahamid said he sees his new job “as a mission to bring change. My aim is to normalize Israel. I have as an individual, but I’m trying to do the same for my entire community. Hopefully, one day we’ll have a relationship with the Arab world.”
In addition to touring the United States, Mahamid has also brought his message of Israeli-Palestinian peace to London, Edinburgh, Toronto, Montreal and Winnipeg. In March, he said he will be drafted into the Israel Defense Forces. “I want to serve my country,” Mahamid declared. “Israel is fighting on two fronts. First, we have to keep our borders secure, and second, we have to keep Israel’s image elevated around the world. We have to stop being demonized and attacked in the international community.”
Yahya Mahamid will be appearing at Temple Sinai in Marblehead on Sunday, Nov. 19. Find more information here.