Let Us Work Together

Samah Salaime delivered a commencement speech at a graduation ceremony of the Open University:

Distinguished guests

Dear Graduates, proud parents and families,

Good evening. Twenty-three years ago I stood at the gates of the Hebrew University with tears in my eyes, waiting for my parents who were on their way to attend my graduation ceremony for my BA in social work.

Unfortunately, their old car had broken down on the steep climb to Jerusalem. My partner and sister were there, but that wasn’t enough. In those moments I wanted my mom and dad, who had raised me, to be there by my side.

Two of my teachers, Hassan and Fatma, had insisted that we girls would get the opportunity to study at university — against all odds, with the cost of all loans and mortgages looming over my family.

My parents believed in a different fate for the daughters born to them

In those days, when it was mostly young men who were encouraged to go on to higher education — and when so many young women remained at home, waiting for redemption — my parents believed in a different fate for the daughters born to them.

When I wanted to work after high school, to relieve some of the financial pressure on the family, my mom told me: “Understand this, dear daughter: we are refugees. Your father is from the village of Sejera and I am from Kafr Sabt. We lost our land, our house, our money and our most of our clan. But you must never lose yourself, your intelligence or your hope. You and I were born as women in a world of men. Your father and I will work; you will go to study. With a diploma in hand, you will be able to succeed in this world.”

I did work for a few months in a textile factory, just until the results of the matriculation exams arrived. Then I packed my mother’s suitcases and cardboard boxes, and I landed in Jerusalem.

There, like many young Arab women, I first met the Jews I had learned about in our history books about the Jewish people. A score of 93 in Bible studies turned out not to be of much help in speaking modern Hebrew. I came to realize that most of the people around me couldn’t grasp at all where I had come from, why I fasted a whole month during Ramadan, and how come, if I was a Muslim, I didn’t wear a hijab. Some of them were afraid of me and some of them slowly drew closer to this “quiet enemy.” In fact, I knew more about Jews than they knew about me.

By the end of my first year, I had already decided that the separate educational system in this country does not do a good job of preparing us for any real encounter between people — between Palestinians and Israelis, between Arabs and Jews, between citizens who are supposed to be equal but are not so. And so, I decided that this kind of education would not be good enough for the children who had not yet been born to me.

I knew more about Jews than they knew about me.

I was the first young woman in my family to get a university degree, and with this BA came an appetite for more…

Thus I chose not to return to the small Galilee village of Turan, and so I remained in the holy, conflict-ridden city to study for a master’s degree. By the time that graduation ceremony came around, my father had replaced his old car, and both my proud parents were there beside me. It was to them I have always attributed my success.

I left behind me in the village hundreds of young women who did not have the opportunity that my family gave me; it took me many years to realize that the gates to academia, employment and advancement were blocked to so many women – to Arab women especially. The reality of their lives was different from mine. I thought of the hundreds of textile workers – I myself had been one of them for a few months.

It took two another decades for the about-face to come — for any significant number of Arab women to begin entering university. But today, dear graduates, about 60 percent of you are women. We women — especially Arab women — need to dissolve barriers, knock down walls and break through ceilings of all shades. Come let us take our fate into our own hands and choose the walk of life that suits us!

Since my graduation, I have found myself in the midst of many more difficult and fundamental social struggles: the battle against gender violence and the murder of women in Israeli society. I have come to learn what a heavy price women are paying for their struggle for freedom. In this country, ladies and gentlemen, 25 women are murdered each year, half of whom are Arab women. These women have been deprived of their basic right to live in freedom and safety, whose lives have been extinguished too early by the machinery of oppression.

Come let us take our fate into our own hands and choose the walk of life that suits us!

For these women, for the sake of our sisters belonging to all of our religions and communities and societies, let us work together – not just pray – for the day when our society will become more egalitarian, more gender-adjusted and much more diverse. Our work as women cannot stop until fifty percent of the senior faculty here are women, until the number of judges, doctors, researchers and artists is gender-equal, and until the legislature is home to many more feminist law-makers who pursue justice and who are true warriors for the equality and peace that we so much deserve.

Ladies and gentlemen, dear graduates, on this day that is so special for you, I have brought along my son. He was born in divided Jerusalem, but since we were unable to find any school there that could teach him both the story of his people and that of his neighbors, where he could learn both Arabic as his mother tongue and Hebrew as the language of his cousins, it was for his sake that we chose to live in the Jewish – Arab village of Wahat al- Salam, Neve Shalom. This was the first place in the entire region to establish a binational, bilingual school. There, he was educated by an Arab teacher working alongside a Jewish teacher: they sang, taught, and celebrated every day their hope for peace and the end of war. And all this began 35 years before the disgraceful “Nation State” law came into effect.

This is the education system I chose and which I have the honor to serve today: a moral and ideological education system that is not ashamed of such simple and banal values as peace, justice and democracy – words that have come to be used disparagingly in contemporary Israeli society.

Our dream is to build a bi-national bilingual school in every district, in every city and in every area where there are Arabs and Jews who are deeply aware of the simple reality and the unshakable fact that here live two peoples who both wish — and are able — to live together in peace. They should begin to meet in first grade of elementary school, rather than first year of university – on a mixed campus, for their mutual benefit.

Dear Graduates,

I struggle because I decided I care – because I am part of what is happening here today and part of what will be here in the future.

Tomorrow the sun of a warm day will rise in this land we have all shared for so long, in this place where Arabs and Jews both thirst for life. This is your place, your society and your common space. About 4,000 graduates, 4,000 new academics. As an incorrigible optimist, I see 4,000 success stories on the horizon, which starting tomorrow you will begin to put together, chapter by chapter.

In conclusion ..

There are those who label me a “social activist.” If I have struggled and still am at the heart of the storm, it is not because I have superpowers. I’m just an average woman. I struggle because I decided I care – because I am part of what is happening here today and part of what will be here in the future. I have an obligation to make myself heard, to write my opinion in any language and not to let anyone ignore what I have to say. I don’t have the privilege of giving up or moving on.

You will be surprised to find you are not alone.

I urge you to join in, to take an interest, to read and to study and to write about the social, political, economic and universal struggles that people like you and me are involved in. It doesn’t matter which career you develop or what your bank account holds. It doesn’t matter what field you choose, whether it’s a fight for the environment, or for public housing, a fight against the cost of living, on the issue of workplace accidents, refugees, public transportation or animal welfare. The important thing is to choose a value that is important for you to struggle for, and then make your voice heard.

You will be surprised to find you are not alone.

You will be amazed at how powerful you are and how much this society needs engaged and caring citizens like you.

You will be the change that you want to make… Because you are the great future that can begin right after this lovely ceremony.

To your success!

Samah