"Where are you from?"
Where are you from? This is such a common question, and it sounds so straightforward on the surface. But for some, it can be more complicated to answer. On August 14, Lobna Agbaria shared her story at Remnant Brewing in Somerville’s Bow Market. Agbaria is a Palestinian citizen of Israel, who grew up in the Israeli city of Be’er Sheva. After studying law, she managed her own law firm in Tel Aviv. She now directs Our Generation Speaks (OGS), a fellowship program and incubator that brings Israelis and Palestinians together on the Brandeis campus each summer to form start-up companies together.
Someone hearing this might have several questions, perhaps the first being what it means to be a Palestinian citizen of Israel. To understand this, it helps to know some Israeli and Palestinian history and Agbaria’s own journey. The Palestinian people originated from the area of Palestine from the Ottoman Empire. Agbaria’s parents grew up in northern Israel, and like many other Israelis, met while studying at Ben-Gurion University. Many people (including the Israeli government) use the term “Arab-Israeli” to describe people like Agbaria – Arab people who have citizenship or residency established in Israel.
But Agbaria didn’t relate to Israeli society, often feeling like an outsider. She explains, “Some people don’t have the privilege of not letting their identities define them.” Although about 20% of Israel’s population is Arab, it is a minority community in the country. When many people in Israel – Jews, Arabs, Christians, or otherwise – meet someone there with her background, they may choose to use “Arab” or “Palestinian” as one label. And when she’s visited family who live in the West Bank, people she meets recognize that she never lived in the Palestinian Territories. She explains, “I just started to identify as a Palestinian citizen of Israel.”
Understanding ourselves can be complicated. It can be even more challenging to describe our identity for others. This can be particularly true for many Arabs and Palestinians who live in Israel – and even for those who have moved elsewhere. Agbaria shared that, “The question of identity was always part of my life.” But she had a realization -- once she left the region and joined Our Generation Speaks as a participant.
At OGS, Agbaria felt that for the first time her identity was not the first thing people wanted to ask about. Even though the program involves bringing together Israelis and Palestinians, everyone’s focus at OGS is on sharing ideas and collaborating to grow start-up ventures. After Agbaria spoke at the Boston Partners for Peace event, many audience members asked about the day-to-day interactions in a program where people work together this way -- and how the program worked so well. It’s not new for Jews and Palestinians to live and work together peacefully, and many businesses in Israel and around the world have been co-founded by people from these different backgrounds. But across the world, people experienced with startups will attest that it’s not easy. Startups frequently fail -- and often when their teams are formed of people with similar backgrounds.
Is it a coincidence that OGS fosters such successful graduates while bringing these people together? Agbaria believes that program participants are selective when they decide who to join forces with on their projects -- but that they’re looking for people with skills that will compliment theirs. They’re not looking for people who come from the same place. She believes that if you present a diverse group with a problem, they will focus on the problem.
At its core, Our Generation Speaks is a unique incubator, but Agbaria makes it clear that its unique goals are much of what grows the success of its ventures and alumni. OGS aims to create change by bringing together future business leaders from different backgrounds who will hopefully later hire employees in Israel proper and the Palestinian Territories. She proudly explains that this is the organization’s theory of change: that when driven people with open minds come together for a truly shared cause, it’s not just cliche that their differences will be an asset. Everyone’s understandings will change, and this allows them to improve their communities in ways that would otherwise be impossible. Negative associations of identity become irrelevant. It’s easy to see why this was freeing for Agbaria.
Our identities should never be forgotten. They can coexist better in the most difficult circumstances, if people come to the table with a true interest in creating change that benefits everyone. Perhaps the most important factor that decides what can happen is how we respond after someone answers where they’re from.