SWAMPSCOTT – For Yahya Mahamid, the Abraham Accords opened up a portion of the Middle East previously shut to Israeli Arabs like him.
The accords, the Jerusalem peace activist told a local audience at Congregation Shirat Hayam on Aug. 3, came as a complete surprise to the Arab-Israeli community.
The Abraham Accords, a joint agreement between Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States reached on Aug. 13, 2020, was another step in normalizing relations between Muslim and Jewish nations.
“The Abraham Accords happened,” Mahamid said, “peace was at work, and every single person that I had on Facebook was in Dubai.”
“It really warmed my heart to see that we managed to break through the stereotypes and I’m talking about Israeli Arabs who went to Dubai straight away and managed to break through the stereotype and we went there to experience it.”
Sharaka, the Gulf-Israel Center for Social Entrepreneurship, is a relatively new nongovernmental organization working to connect young leaders in the Gulf and Israel to strengthen peace and cooperation between the nations while attempting to shatter stereotypes.
Mahamid, who grew up in the Arab city of Umm al-Fahm southeast of Haifa, was part of a diverse delegation from Sharaka (which means “partnership” in Arabic), whose members hailed from Israel and the UAE, with some who were born in the U.S.
The delegation was hosted by Congregation Shirat Hayam, and they took part in a discussion moderated by Rabbi Michael Ragozin.
Mahamid described growing up with a negative image of Israel, which he said he later found to be a lie. He has since dedicated himself to Israeli advocacy and peace. After serving in the Israel Defense Forces, he joined the first delegation of Israelis to visit Dubai, he said.
“That was an honor, honestly, to be part of that delegation,” Mahamid said.
“It’s so exciting to know that there are now these understandings between the UAE and Israel, and Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan,” said Ruth Kaplan, director of community relations for the Consulate General of Israel to New England.
“It will take time,” said Saudi-American journalist and researcher Najat Alsaied about peace and a fuller understanding among those in Israel and the Gulf states. “We have to be realistic, something that has been ingrained for seven decades won’t be erased overnight.”
“But I believe nothing is impossible,” she added. “After these Abraham Accords, I’m so optimistic. Everything can happen and peace will come. And this is the right thing to do,” said AlSaied, who grew up in the U.S. before her family moved back to Saudi Arabia. She returned to the U.S. to complete her education, and now lives in the UAE. She writes columns in an Emirati newspaper and in Israel Hayom so those in Israel “can see an Arab woman from Saudi Arabia talking about peace in an Israeli newspaper.”
“Because I see peace as the first step to fighting extremist ideologies, through using the media,” she said.
Sharaka USA Deputy CEO Omar Al Busaidy said he comes from the UAE and came to the United States in 2019 to earn a master’s degree in international affairs at Florida State University through the Fulbright program.
When the accords were signed, Al Busaidy was interviewed by various media outlets, attracting Sharaka’s founders to recruit him to represent the group in the U.S.
“This is our first delegation here and we are honored to be with you,” Al Busaidy said. He noted that the Abraham Accords have led to 86 agreements between UAE and Israel, and about $700 million to $800 million in trade. About 200,000 Israelis have traveled to the UAE in the past year, and there’s hope more two-way travel will happen once the pandemic subsides.
Boulder, Colo., native Sumaiiah Almheiri moved to the UAE when she was 8. She said she found the country to be diverse, with 200 nationalities living there. She serves as the cultural and social manager of Sharaka in Dubai. She spoke about being on a cultural delegation to Israel where she visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial.
“We are here to set an example,” Almheiri said, “an example of peace between Israel and a country or countries from the Middle East.”
Dan Feferman, a Jewish researcher, writer, and podcaster in Israel, said he was tapped about a month ago to be Sharaka’s director of communications and global affairs. He grew up in Indiana in an Israeli-American household. He made Aliyah in 2005, and served in the IDF in various national security positions.
“We need to work together,” Feferman said. “The governments get that. The problem is … decades and decades of an antisemitic and anti-Israel narrative in the media has conditioned the minds of people.” Feferman said what Sharaka hopes to do is build people-to-people relationships.
For more information about The Gulf-Israel Center for Social Entrepreneurship, visit www.sharakango.com.