Community Day School students learned last week what everyday life is like for an Arab-Israeli, thanks to an extended visit from Mamoun Assady, an educator from the village of Deir Al Assad, located near Karmiel, Pittsburgh’s Partnership2Gether sister city.
Assady, a 72-year-old retired teacher who spent his career educating both children and adults in Israel, taught the CDS students Arabic songs and vocabulary, and showed them photographs of his village while describing the benefits and challenges of living as an Arab in Israel.
Assady was born in Israel in 1944, and has lived his entire life there. This was his second trip to Pittsburgh and to CDS.
“Dedicated to inspiring positive relations between the Arab and Jewish communities in Israel and abroad, Assady offers our students a rare, cross-cultural point of view that is informed by his position within both communities,” CDS head of school Avi Baran Munro wrote in a prepared statement. “His mission is simple but aspirational: to share his personal story and to build bridges leading to our two cultures growing our understanding of each other for a better future.”
CDS was first introduced to Assady through Munro’s friendship with the former head of Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, Md., according to Jennifer Bails, director of marketing and public relations for CDS. Smith brought Assady to visit day schools in the United States, including CDS, two years ago. CDS funded this return visit in partnership with several schools in the Toronto area, including other Jewish day schools.
The seventh-grade class had lots of questions for Assady following a presentation about his village, including how people make their living, where they shop and whether or not Christians live there as well.
Assady showed the children a photo of the ruins of a 100-year-old Christian monastery in his village and offered his vision of an ideal coexistence.
“This is a Christian site with Muslim citizens,” he explained. “How nice it would be if Jewish people could preserve this site. It’s a symbol — three religions together.”
Assady raised “a series of problems” with the children, including the overcrowded neighborhoods of his village.
“There is no space,” he said. “It’s difficult. It makes a person nervous and impatient. I would like to enlarge the area that we are permitted to build.”
Chaim Steinberg, the seventh-grade social studies teacher of the class, explained that Assady’s village is in Israel proper and not in the Palestinian territory.
“There is a difference between being a Palestinian and being an Arab-Israeli,” Steinberg noted.
Assady stressed that he considers himself to be an Israeli.
“I have been there since the establishment of the state in 1948,” he said. “I grew up with the state. We have our difficulties and problems, but we can manage as a minority. We have good things in Israel that we value.”
Those good things, he noted, include “insurance allowances,” which are similar to social security and welfare protections, and a good health care system.
“If I’m sick,” he said, “and a Jew is sick, we are at the same hospital with the same physician and the same food.”
The public transportation system is also good, he later noted in an interview, as well as the low prices for produce.
“But there are things we want better,” he told the children. “Like the budgets. We are 20 percent of the population, but as Arabs, we don’t get 20 percent of the budget. That would enable us to develop the village and the towns.”
Assady explained that as for the conflict between the Jews and the Palestinians, “we are not part of that. We have tied our fate with the fate of the country. If there is tension, we don’t like it. If there are steps toward peace, we like it very much.”
Elana Kolko, a seventh-grade student, said that she enjoyed hearing Assady’s presentation.
“I learned that Israelis and Arabs, everyone is in a community together,” Kolko said.
Assady’s visit helped to expand the students’ views of Arab life in Israel, according to Steinberg.
“I think that they see one specific story about the experiences of the Arab population in Israel, and they don’t get to see the experience of Israelis who happen to be Arabs,” Steinberg said.
While in Pittsburgh, Assady also addressed groups at Temple Sinai, J Line and the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh’s adult current-events class led by Moshe Baran.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.