Israeli Arabi Yahya Mahamed calls himself a Zionist Muslim, two words that rarely go together but are vital parts of who Mahamed is.
The 20-year-old grew up in Umm el-Fahm, the third-largest Arab city in Israel, and he was raised to perceive Israel as an oppressive, evil regime. But after finding a job as a busboy in a Tel Aviv hotel and befriending the manager, he gradually changed his point of view.
“My experiences directly contradicted everything I had learned my whole life,” Mahamed told The Jerusalem Post in April. “I’d been told that Jews think they are G-d’s chosen people and better than everyone else. But bit by bit, I realized that what I had been taught simply wasn’t true.”
Mahamed now works with Israeli advocacy organization StandWithUs and travels to tell his story.
He has had speaking engagements in London, Helsinki and South Africa, as well as Dallas, Miami and New York.
On Monday, Oct. 30, Mahamed will speak to students at the University of Georgia for an event put together by campus group Dawgs for Israel. Two days later, he will speak to students at the Weber School and Woodward Academy.
It will be Mahamed’s first time in Atlanta.
“If you had told me a few years ago that I would be doing this, I would have laughed,” he said in a phone interview from Canada. “But there is a lot of misinformation circling Israel, and we have to spread education to counter the lies. The situation must change, and that’s what StandWithUs is doing.”
But speaking out in defense of Israel has led to problems for Mahamed.
A video he shot for StandWithUs was picked up by local Arabic news sources and spread around. False claims were added that Mahamed was taught English by the organization and that he was paid by the government. Umm el-Fahm became too dangerous, and he now lives in Jerusalem.
He has run into opposition at many of the universities where he has spoken.
At Wits University in South Africa during Israel Apartheid Week in March, Mahamed was scheduled to speak on behalf of the South African Union of Jewish Students. The union had made an agreement with the college administration that half the piazza would be for the Jewish union and half for supporters of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.
But when Mahamed showed up, the BDS supporters had taken the entire piazza, were stealing materials and were ripping up posters.
When it was his turn to speak, Mahamed told the crowd that peace is possible only through dialogue, even as BDS supporters attempted to disrupt his speech with loud chants of “free Palestine.”
When he returns to Israel after this trip with StandWithUs, Mahamed will enter service in the Israel Defense Forces as a lone soldier. Because military service is voluntary for Israeli Arabs, he chose to join an elite unit, the Givati Infantry Brigade.
“I’m Israeli,” he said. “I like it here. Here we enjoy full rights. I believe that Israel doesn’t only hold hope for the Jewish people; it holds hope for the entire Middle East.”