Photo courtesy of Yoseph Haddad
Photo courtesy of Yoseph Haddad

Yoseph Haddad, founder of Israeli Arab changemaker group Together Vouch for Each Other, wins Begin Prize for extraordinary contribution to society.

By Abigail Klein Leichman, Israel21c

“I am proud to be an Arab, proud to be an Israeli, and proud to spread the Israeli truth across the world,” says Yoseph Haddad, one of three winners of the Menachem Begin Heritage Center’s 2022 Begin Prize recognizing people or organizations making an extraordinary contribution to Israeli society.

Such a statement, unfortunately, often leads to ugly threats.

Yet threats do not deter Haddad and fellow volunteers in Together Vouch for Each Other from making that statement wherever they can – on social media, on hostile college campuses, even at Auschwitz.

Haddad, now 37, founded Together Vouch for Each Other (in Hebrew, B’Yachad Arevim Zeh L’Zeh) in 2018 with other young Israeli Arab changemakers.

These Christian, Muslim, Bedouin and Druze citizens felt that the negative perception of their home country in Arab society did not reflect their feelings and experiences.

Yoseph Haddad has a social-media presence in Hebrew, English and Arabic.

“I’m proud to say we have a lot of Jewish volunteers. But we are, by definition, an Arab Israeli organization, not an Arab-Jewish organization or a Jewish organization that has Arabs in it,” Haddad tells ISRAEL21c on the phone from Taiwan, where he was on assignment for i24 News, his day job.

“The whole idea of this organization is to bring Arab society closer to Israeli society and to bridge gaps between Jews and Arabs in Israel.”

Silent minority no more

With only grassroots funding, Together Vouch for Each Other fosters personal connections, mutual respect, trust and solidarity between young people from both sectors through discussion groups, meetings, sports and volunteer initiatives.

“We do not believe that there is any contradiction between our origins or our religion and our Israeli identity. The State of Israel is a democratic state that presents equality to all its citizens, on the condition that this is truly wanted,” says Haddad.

“Our organization has taken on the responsibility of representing the sane voice in Arab society that is interested in being an integral component of the country.”

National service

The organization encourages young Israeli Arabs to volunteer a year of national service, which can be done in their own communities, and guides and supports them during and after their service.

Israel’s Arab citizens are not required to do military service. Haddad chose to enlist at 18 and was severely wounded during the Second Lebanon War in 2006.

During his year-long rehabilitation, he decided to dedicate his life to “showcasing the beautiful sides of the State of Israel and the true situation of Israeli Arabs.”

The organization is headquartered near Nazareth – the largest Arab city in Israel, where Haddad was raised in a Christian family — and sponsors activities across Israel.

“We make it very problematic for extremists to continue their agenda,” says Haddad, emphasizing that extremists on both sides are a “violent and loud” minority.

“We’re proving to Arab extremists that not all Jews are racists, and to Jewish extremists that not all Arabs are terrorists. And this is problematic for them, so they threaten me and my organization and my volunteers. I understand we are doing something right when extremists from both sides literally collaborate against us.”

Changing minds

Some of them are swayed by what they hear from Haddad and his volunteers.

“Lately I’ve been getting a lot of messages from extremists in both communities.

One guy told me that he [had always] hated Arabs, but I opened his eyes and changed his point of view. And a few days ago, someone from [the Arab village of] Sakhnin called me and said, ‘I thought all the Jews are racists. But seeing your work and how Jews are supporting you, really struck me.’”

One high school student sent a donation of 55.5 shekels – representing the good luck phrase 555, or hamsa – and apologized that he couldn’t donate more of his monthly allowance.

“This is the kind of thing we do,” says Haddad.

“And at the same time we work hard in Israel to do that, we work hard outside Israel to do that. We go, as minorities, and tell the reality about what’s going on.”

Fluent in English, Haddad and other volunteers speak to audiences, especially students, attempting to dispute advocates of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.

‘My name is Yoseph Haddad’

Last spring, a delegation he calls “a tapestry of Israeli society” under the umbrella of Together flew to the United States to speak at several campuses and communities about real life in Israel.

At one university, Haddad asked the event organizer to introduce him without disclosing his Arab identity.

“About 25 minutes into my presentation, a student got up and said, ‘I’m a bit disappointed, and not surprised, by what you’re saying because I expect any Jew to speak about Israel like this.’

“So in my most Arabic accent I said, ‘My name is Yoseph Haddad and I’m an Arab Israeli.’

“And the audience was in shock. Suddenly everybody realized what I’ve been saying came from an Israeli Arab perspective. That’s the big difference between us and Jewish organizations that speak about Israel. That’s our ‘X factor.’”

Arabs at Auschwitz

In January, a documentary will be released about Together Vouch for Each Other’s Holocaust Remembrance Day delegation to Auschwitz last April.

With 40 mostly Arab participants, it was the largest-ever Arab group to tour the former Nazi death camp in Poland.

Haddad predicts that the film “will leave everyone amazed and hopeful.”

He explains that Arab Israelis “don’t know much more about the Holocaust than that Hitler and the Nazis killed six million Jews. We learned so much and saw so much at Auschwitz.”

“One volunteer said, ‘Yoseph, now we are witnesses and we have an obligation to bring our testimony back about what happened here – not only to make sure it never happens again to the Jewish people but to make sure it never happens to any people.’

“The most unique story of all is how by combating antisemitism we are combating racism as well,” says Haddad.

He recalls one initially unpleasant incident at Auschwitz.

“A Jewish person heard us speaking Arabic and said to us, ‘We need to push you into the sea.’ We all were shocked, but we saw an opportunity to educate him. Ten minutes later, he hugged each of us and said, ‘I’m sorry, I spoke from ignorance.’ It was unbelievable.”

Next April, he expects to bring 70 or 80 people with him to Poland.

‘So many people like me’

Haddad received the Begin Prize on December 20 in Jerusalem.

“This is a huge honor for me to accept,” he tells ISRAEL21c.

“Menachem Begin was one of the most impressive prime ministers in Israel. He was very modest and always worked for the weaker communities in society. He protected and defended Israel strongly but also wanted to reach peace with our neighbors, and he signed a peace agreement with Egypt” in 1978.

Haddad doesn’t deny that his volunteer work takes courage, but he insists that he’s not alone.

“There are so many people like me. The problem is they’re not speaking out loud. We’re working on that, I promise you,” he says.

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