On July 5th, I took a group of 35 North American Jews who were studying at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Israel on a study tour to the Israeli Arab town of Abu Ghosh to learn about ISLAM IN ISRAEL.

After our meeting with Issa Jaber, the director of education of the town (see blog posting), we walked to the community center for a session with women who have been undergoing training in women’s empowerment during the past few years.

Since the director of the community center, Haya Abdulrachman, was in the hospital with a broken leg, we met with four women who opened our eyes to issues confronting Israeli Arab women in a traditionally conservative town like this one.

The women, two of whom were wearing head coverings, shared with us some of the experiences that have enriched their lives and the lives of their families during the past few years since they have been participating in this empowerment program. First of all, they have been learning about women’s health issues. Many of the women in the town now go swimming once a week –for the first time in their lives and in the life of their town — at a nearby kibbutz swimming pool and others are learning to do other forms of physical exercise on a regular basis.

In addition, they spoke quite a bit about new developments in child-rearing. Many of the women—including the four women with whom we met — are now working outside of the home and are therefore developing new relationships with their children that are less authoritarian and more modern than in the past. As a result of this, they are giving their children more responsibility and they are discovering that they can be their friends.

The discussion in the room was electric. About half of the North American group was made up of women who asked many questions and were gratified by the honest and forthright answers of the Israeli Arab women, who seemed highly interested in sharing their experiences with this group. These Muslim women were seriously grappling with real-life daily issues of adapting to modern culture in an Israeli Arab town which is sociologically very “traditional”. It was fascinating to be able to engage them in a genuine dialogue about core issues in their identity as Palestinian Arab women living in Israel.

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