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How an Israeli Arab scholar finds ‘pieces of peace’

In a webinar for the Stanford community, an expert on Jewish-Arab relations in Israel shared what he and other scholars have found works – and doesn’t – in advancing peace between the two communities.

Speaking to the Stanford community Jan. 31, 2024, on the impact of the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israeli Arabs was Mohammad Darawshe (bottom), an expert on Jewish-Arab relations inside Israel. Amichai Magen (top left) and political scientist Larry Diamond (top right) moderated the discussion.

Speaking to the Stanford community on the impact of the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israeli Arabs was Mohammad Darawshe (bottom), an expert on Jewish-Arab relations inside Israel. Amichai Magen (top left) and political scientist Larry Diamond (top right) moderated the discussion. (Image credit: Courtesy FSI)

For Mohammad Darawshe, an Israeli Arab scholar living in Israel, the Oct. 7 terror attack by Hamas was a personal tragedy for him and his family: His cousin Awad, a 23-year-old paramedic who was working at the Nova Music Festival when the assault occurred, was killed as he was trying to save lives.

In an online event hosted by the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI) last Wednesday, Darawshe shared what it was like waking up to the news of Awad’s disappearance. For six days, Darawshe and his family did not know if Awad was dead or alive. It was not until DNA testing confirmed that a body found among the carnage – with bandages still in his hand – was Awad.

Darawshe said his story is similar to many other Israelis and Palestinians whose loved ones sacrificed their lives going into the war zone trying to help others, regardless of political or ethnic backgrounds.

“We have tens of stories of Arab citizens that during this crisis remembered their humanity and not their ethnicity,” Darawshe said.

Studying Israeli Arab attitudes

Darawshe, who is the director of strategy at the Shared Society Center of the Givat Haviva Educational Center and a faculty member of the Shalom Hartman Institute, has dedicated his life and career to understanding relations between Jews and Arabs in Israel and working on ways to promote peace through dialogue, understanding, and coexistence.

Darawshe went on to share insights from his scholarship, including some of his most recent findings from a survey he conducted examining the attitudes of Jewish and Arab Israelis toward each other following the Oct. 7 attacks.

“It’s difficult data,” Darawshe stated frankly.

Mohammad Darawshe portrait

Mohammad Darawshe is a faculty memner of the Shalom Hartman Institute and director of planning, equality, and shared society at Givat Haviva Educational Center. (Image credit: Courtesy FSI)

For example, one finding to emerge was how trust has eroded between Jewish and Arab citizens.

Darawshe noted that prior to the Oct. 7 attacks, trust between the groups typically hovered between 65–75%. His most recent survey found that now 34% of the Israeli-Jewish population said they trust Arab citizens and 50% of Arab citizens say they trust the Israeli-Jewish population.

“Almost one-third of both populations have lost trust in the other just within a period of three months – that’s how dramatic the situation is,” Darawshe said.

Darawshe said he has also seen a “significant rise” in the percentage of those who want to see Israel defined as solely a Jewish state – a belief that he believes diminishes the status of Arab citizens in Israel. However, a large percentage of Israeli Jews – some 61% – still believe that Israel defined as a democratic state that provides full equality of citizens is possible.

There were other aspects of the data that gave Darawshe hope, particularly around the willingness among Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs to work and study with one another.

For example, some 83% of Arabs surveyed said they are willing to share a workplace with a person who is Jewish or study with them at university, either now or perhaps in the future. Among the Jewish community, 71% and 67% said they are willing to work together or study together at a university, respectively, with a person who is Arab either now or maybe in the future.

“These are what we call islands of success,” Darawshe said. “Relations between the communities have not collapsed completely.”

“Pieces of peace”

Darawshe’s talk was part of a series of events FSI is hosting throughout winter quarter that explores various aspects of contemporary Israeli politics and society. The event was moderated by Amichai Magen, a visiting fellow in Israel studies at FSI, and Larry Diamond, the William L. Clayton Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and the Mosbacher Senior Fellow in Global Democracy at FSI.

In the discussion portion of Darawshe’s talk, Diamond asked him to share practical steps to “knit” Jewish and Arab societies together.

Darawshe pointed to small changes that can make a big difference in a person’s life. For example, administering a test to an Arab student in Arabic improves the scores they need to get into a university, and during Ramadan, a period when Muslims fast from dawn to sunset, scheduling exams before 1 p.m. also improves grades.

What these shifts do, Darawshe said, is make it possible for Israeli Arabs to be successful.

“These are the kinds of working solutions that we’re looking for,” he said, adding: “I’m not sure we can call it peace, but it is definitely pieces of peace.”

What works, and what doesn’t

Darawshe also opened up about what he has found worked – and not worked – in maintaining and building Jewish-Arab relations in Israel.

Darawshe shared some of what he learned from putting strategies, rooted in the social sciences, to the test.

For example, one approach he examined came from “social contact theory,” the idea that trust can be built through intergroup contact: Stereotypes get broken down, problems become humanized. But he found that this only goes so far and works for a limited period because eventually people retreat to their in-group.

“Over time, it does not really withstand tensions and conflicts because people have what we call ‘the returning home syndrome’: People get sucked back to their stereotypical, old way of thinking, which is easy to happen when you live separately, and 92% of Arab and Jewish citizens live separately,” Darawshe said.

Darawshe also talked about successful programs he implemented to reduce racism between Israeli Jews and Arabs where participants undergo an educational process of getting to know one another. He discovered nuances in this approach as well – for example, three separate days of programming with breaks in between each day are better than three consecutive ones, as it gives participants space to consider topics discussed on their own terms and contemplate further within their own communities.

Darawshe closed by reflecting on how his deep ties to the region make him committed to helping make Israel a peaceful place for all its citizens.

“Behind my house, there’s the graveyard in which 26 generations of my family are buried. This is home and this is my homeland,” he said. “My job is to make it my country and to make it become more democratic, more inclusive, more just, more equal.”

Diamond is also a professor, by courtesy, of political science and of sociology in the School of Humanities and Sciences.