I saw off armed Be­douin gang. Now I am shap­ing them into Is­raeli lead­ers

The Jewish Chronicle - - WORLD NEWS - BY JOSH JACKMAN

FIVE YEARS ago, Matan Yaffe was con­fronted by a gang of Be­douin youths, armed with metal bars and in­tent on steal­ing the mo­tor­bike he was rid­ing through the Negev desert.

To­day he is run­ning a lead­er­ship pro­gramme for teens just like those who threat­ened him.

The in­ci­dent woke Mr Yaffe up to the dif­fi­cul­ties en­dured by peo­ple he ad­mit­ted to know­ing noth­ing about while grow­ing up in Jerusalem. It also prompted him to start an ini­tia­tive which has been so suc­cess­ful at teach­ing lead­er­ship and tol­er­ance that the gov­ern­ment is seek­ing to repli­cate it else­where.

And it all be­gan with a mug­ging. He said: “I tried to talk my way out of it; I wasn’t look­ing for trou­ble. It didn’t work so well — two of them went back to the jeep and brought back metal bars.”

But the group failed to ac­count for the for­mer

Matan Yaffe IDF cap­tain — who spent five years in the army and served as a tank pla­toon com­man­der — be­ing pre­pared. “What they didn’t know is that when I travel alone, I carry a gun. So I pulled out my gun and said: ‘Guys, if you want to be vi­o­lent, I can prob­a­bly do it bet­ter than you can.’”

His threat worked, but the at­tempted theft left Mr Yaffe re­sent­ing not just his at­tack­ers, but their whole com­mu­nity. “They weren’t bad, but when I got home, I hated all of them.” Mr Yaffe even­tu­ally re­alised that a bet­ter so­lu­tion for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions was to take pos­i­tive ac­tion. “Af­ter a few weeks of hat­ing them, I thought: ‘What kind of fu­ture will I give to my kids?’ Whether I like it or not, whether we like each other or not, they are my neigh­bours, they are part of my re­al­ity, and we can’t live in an im­bal­anced world. If they suf­fer, I will suf­fer.” Mr Yaffe spent eight months with­out pay set­ting up the Desert Stars project, which brings to­gether Be­douin youths from dif­fer­ent tribes to learn about lead­er­ship. The need for lead­ers and ed­u­ca­tion is clear in a com­mu­nity with the low­est em­ploy­ment rate in Is­rael.

For­mally es­tab­lished in the Negev in 2012, the ini­tia­tive teaches Be­douin chil­dren in­de­pen­dence and life skills — but only af­ter an ex­ten­sive vet­ting process.

Once po­ten­tial lead­ers have been iden­ti­fied, the 17-year-olds em­bark on a course in­volv­ing hikes, sur­vival train­ing, cook­ing and com­mu­nity work.

Af­ter the young adults graduate from school, they spend 11 months away from their fam­i­lies in a board­ing com­mu­nity known as “the in­cu­ba­tor”, to de­velop men­tal, phys­i­cal and communal skills.

The pro­gramme now has 11 staff, a bud­get of £1.8m and is on the verge of open­ing a high school. With help from the JNF, the new school will pro­vide lessons from 8am to 6pm and free meals.

Sev­eral Desert Stars grad­u­ates have gone on to study in Is­raeli uni­ver­si­ties.

“When the kids see th­ese lead­ers from dif­fer­ent tribes work­ing to­gether, it takes down their mis­con­cep­tions about bar­ri­ers. I was dream­ing big, but re­al­ity got big­ger,” said Mr Yaffe.

PHOTO: JNF UK

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