At the end of August, there was tension in the northern Galilee. Israel stopped Hezbollah from launching a drone from Syria by killing two terrorists, who had both been trained in Iran, before they could carry out the attack. Two drones crashed in Beirut, and the Lebanese blamed Israel, which denied involvement.
Sarit Zehavi, founder and CEO of Alma Research and Education Center, a think tank in the western Galilee focused on geopolitics and security on Israel’s northern border, posted a video on YouTube on Aug. 27, briefing viewers on how Israel foiled an Iranian attack from Syrian territory, and Lebanon’s connection to the incident. On Sept. 1, Hezbollah shot several rockets into northern Israel.
Zehavi’s son Mor was supposed to have his bar mitzvah several days later in their hometown, just a short drive from Israel’s border with Lebanon. But now, the plan looked like it was going to be a bust, and it reminded her of an entirely different bar mitzvah story—her father’s.
Nov. 29, 1947, was a joyous day in Israel, because the U.N. authorized the partition plan that was meant to split Mandatory Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state. And it was supposed to be a joyous time for the Zehavi family, who were refugees from Syria, because Moshe Zehavi—Sarit’s father—was supposed to have his bar mitzvah. His parents invited plenty of guests and his grandmother cooked up a feast.
The next day, about a third of a mile from the Zehavi family’s Petah Tikva home in central Israel, the first hostilities in what came to be known as Israel’s War of Independence took place when Arabs ambushed two buses full of Jews. Moshe’s bar mitzvah was called off.
When Moshe Zehavi turned 80, Sarit surprised him with a bar mitzvah at the ancient synagogue in Katzrin, in the Golan Heights. Moshe’s sister cried recounting the circumstances under which the original bar mitzvah date was canceled, Sarit said.
Five years after Moshe’s belated bar mitzvah, Sarit found herself wondering if another family celebration would have to be scrapped. “If Nasrallah ruins this bar mitzvah,” Zehavi said, referring to Hezbollah’s chief, “I’ll kill him myself.”
Luckily, history didn’t repeat itself. The escalation stopped soon after the thwarted drone attack, and Mor’s bar mitzvah went off without a hitch.
Zehavi still has her eye on Nasrallah, though.
Zehavi founded the Alma Research and Education Center after leaving the army at the rank of lieutenant colonel in the IDF Intelligence Corps in 2014. “Our Mission at Alma is to make in-depth geo-political knowledge about the Middle East accessible to English speakers,” the organization says on its website. That mission entails work that “addresses the changing cultural climate and current trends in Muslim societies in light of other events in Israel’s neighboring countries, while focusing on how they all impact the IDF’s security challenges along Israel’s volatile northern border.”
In practice, Zehavi’s organization publishes analyses of the ongoing protests in Lebanon, Hezbollah’s impact on the Lebanese economy, how the IDF is working to keep Iran away from Israel’s borders, Turkey’s role in Syria, and more.
At Alma’s headquarters in the Tefen industrial park in the western Galilee, researchers’ desks face a wall of seven screens showing Arabic news stations. With the press of a few buttons, the office can turn into a situation room, where visiting groups can play a war game, taking part in a simulation of how Israel would respond to a Hezbollah missile attack. Zehavi refused to provide any spoilers of how the simulation proceeds, but it’s an action-packed hour and a half putting participants in the mindset of Israel’s top decision-makers.
The Alma Center sees an average of 50 visitor groups a month, many of whom Zehavi or members of her staff take to locations on Israel’s northern border. These guided trips can come as a shock to people who have only visited the Golan and the Galilee as tourists and aren’t accustomed to the point of view Alma brings.
Outside Zar’it, a large farm called a moshav on the border abutting the site where IDF soldiers Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev were abducted in 2006, kicking off the Second Lebanon War, Zehavi pointed out the entrance to a tunnel Hezbollah dug from Lebanon into Israel. Last year, the IDF detected the tunnel, and markers that are still visible on the ground every 100 yards or so around it show where the military checked for underground activity. Sometimes she gets the IDF’s permission to take groups inside the tunnels, a dramatic demonstration of the situation.
At the edge of the moshav, where mushrooms are grown, Zehavi handed over binoculars and started pointing to structures on the Lebanese side: a lookout tower built by the Lebanese Army that has Hezbollah activity inside; a U.N. outpost, with a poster of Nasrallah right outside; an antenna painted to look like the golden dome of the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Zehavi said the antenna was used for Hamas propaganda broadcasts, with Hezbollah lending its fellow Iran-funded terrorist group technical support, even though Hamas does not have a presence in southern Lebanon.
Zehavi took note of a new development, a light blue flag with red writing in Arabic that she could not decipher, and called one of her researchers with the news.
“When we see new information on the border, we go right to work to look into it,” she explained.
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Like most Israelis, Zehavi comes from a family that has survived historic upheavals to live in the modern State of Israel. She has come to realize those stories have informed her work.
“It’s in my DNA. I wasn’t aware of it at first, but I became aware of it along the way, that this has influenced me. You don’t always know why you’re doing what you’re doing,” she said.
Zehavi’s great-grandfather and a great-aunt and uncle were murdered in Beirut in a case of mistaken identity. Her grandmother Miriam, left without a father, was married off at age 16 to an older man in Damascus, and that is where her father, Moshe, of the canceled bar mitzvah, was born.
When there was unrest in Syria in the 1940s, Jews were seen as being on the side of the French, and the Syrian Arabs targeted the Jewish community with violence. The Jewish Agency and Haganah decided to rescue 1,000 children, smuggling them out of Syria and into Israel on foot, in small groups at night. Moshe and a brother were among those children; the family was reunited two years later, after Miriam arrived in Israel with two more of her children and found her sons living on a kibbutz.
On her mother’s side, Zehavi’s grandmother Sarah survived the 1929 Hebron massacre at age 7, when Muslim friends of the family hid them in a box of linens.
“Those massacres ended the Jewish presence in the West Bank. The British decided it wasn’t safe for Jews anymore, even though they lived there for centuries,” Zehavi explained.
Sarah’s family went to Jerusalem, but seven years later, the Arabs in the city revolted against the British, and her family escaped to Beirut. When they arrived, there was a famine there, so they turned back.
“They said, ‘if I’m going to be hungry, I would rather be hungry at home, in Jerusalem,’” Zehavi recounted.
Zehavi said she gets frustrated when people ask her “why do you live here?” whether they mean Israel or the Galilee.
“My father ran away from Damascus. My grandmother ran away from Hebron. I’m not running away. This is my home and this is where my children will grow up. I choose to live here,” she said.
When she was 16, Zehavi’s personal connection to Israel began to develop into the passion that led to her current work. She studied honors Arabic in high school in Petah Tikva in the days of the Oslo Accords and had a lot of questions about the Middle East: Why is Israel the only democracy in the region? Why do Arabs hate Israel so much? Why is the Palestinian issue still unresolved?
Her mandatory army service had nothing to do with her current mission; she was a liaison officer for reservists. “I learned about relationships and people and the difficulties of life, but nothing about geopolitics,” she said.
After then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated, she was one of the IDF Officers Course cadets at his funeral. The tragedy only added to her questions.
Immediately after serving in the army, Zehavi enrolled in the Middle Eastern studies program at the University of Beersheba in the Negev, fully intending to have an academic career. That changed, she said, when she became “uncomfortable with the narrative we learned.” Even in Beersheba she was learning the standard black and white narrative preached in American universities that treats Edward Said’s Orientalism as the gospel truth. Zionists and Islamophobes were on the same side, she was told, to her chagrin.
“I felt like something was missing in what I was being taught,” she said.
So Zehavi answered an ad for a job with the IDF’s Research and Analysis Division, and reentered the army thinking that she could “do something” instead of just discussing things in an academic setting.
“I really loved that my research reached policy-makers and feeling that I was making a difference,” she recalled.
Zehavi began her work in the IDF in Tel Aviv, and was relocated to the Galilee as she moved up the ranks.
She was later diagnosed with Crohn’s disease and realized that she could not work at the intensity the IDF demanded. She was discharged in 2014.
“I understood that I have a gift, that I can speak to various audiences and explain complex situations in simple terms. People came to me with zero knowledge and only 40 minutes, and I had to make them understand a little,” she recounted, saying she wanted to do the same in civilian life.
And that is how she founded Alma, named after her daughter, a baby at the time.
At first, the Alma Center was a small business of giving lectures to make a living.
But Zehavi had bigger goals: “I knew that to be successful, I couldn’t just speak. I had to be a researcher, an expert who knows what’s happening in Syria and Lebanon. I continued to read and publish articles in addition to giving presentations on the border.”
Despite all that learning, Zehavi says she still doesn’t have all the answers to the questions that inspired her as a teenager: “The more you learn, you realize the less you know. I understand things better, but I don’t have answers. The changes in the Middle East since I began are amazing.“
With that goal of educating more and more people, Zehavi quickly received funding from the Galila Foundation, which supports social initiatives in the North. The contributions allowed her to expand and hire 10 employees to work toward a goal of “making knowledge about what is truly happening here accessible.”
Even though Alma’s growth and success have been “far beyond anything I imagined,” Zehavi said, it’s still a reprieve from the pace of military life.
Zehavi left the IDF for health reasons, but she immediately felt the benefits of running her own organization: “I can’t take it for granted that I founded this center, but I still have sanity with my family. That I can be present in their lives is exciting for me, because it wasn’t like that in the army. I created a balance in my ability to be a mom.”
Once Zehavi got funding to set up Alma’s headquarters, she built it one town over from the home she shares with her husband and their five children in her blended family, a single-family house with a basketball hoop out front right by her children’s schools in a small, tree-filled village five minutes from the office.
“Balance is the most important thing for moms with careers,” she remarked. “It’s not what someone else says is balance, it’s what you feel inside. And you need a husband who can accept your balance.”
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In the office, Zehavi hires only residents of the North to ensure that her staff has the same personal connection to the work that she does.
“Only people who live here can understand,” she said. “Something happens here every day. It’s a part of our life.”
That’s the unique message of Alma, Zehavi said: “There are tons of think tanks doing excellent work either in Washington, D.C., or Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. But we see the borders every day. We see the changes. Everything that is happening affects us and our family and friends.”
Zehavi’s employees are a diverse group of Israelis, religious, secular, Jewish and Arab. One of the researchers, Ibrahim Abu Ahmad, a “nonbelieving Muslim,” as he calls himself, said he considers Avraham, an Orthodox father of 10 who grew up in the settlement of Kedumim and now lives in the Golan, his best friend.
“That’s the story that isn’t told,” Zehavi said of her staff. “We have complex, fruitful discussions between the members of the staff and we bring that vibe to our groups.”
Which is why Alma has added another element to its usual geopolitical activities. The organization now holds panels with northern residents of different backgrounds, not necessarily Alma employees but people chosen to reflect Israel’s “diverse mosaic,” as Zehavi calls it. They talk about everyday life in Israel, from army service to the way men and women are treated in society or anything else the audience asks about.
Abu Ahmad participates in a lot of these panels, and his grandmother has played a role, too, telling her story of displacement and survival as a child during Israel’s War of Independence.
“This is my country and I’m not changing that, but this place lets me present my part of society and I don’t take it for granted,” Abu Ahmad said. “They put it at the core of their story and give me a platform. If people in Arab society won’t bring their story to the public, we won’t get closer [to Jewish Israelis], and people won’t see us. To accept the other, you have to understand them, which means you have to listen.”
Zehavi chimed in, saying it’s not always easy for her to hear stories like Abu Ahmad’s family’s story, because she is “totally in the Zionist framework.”
“Israel is the homeland of the Jews and it is a democracy. There are some contradictions, but we can live with both principles, side by side with the Arab population, with mutual respect. I don’t hide the criticism, but it’s all inside the framework of Zionist values, of Israel as a democratic homeland for the Jews,” she added.
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Lahav Harkov is the diplomatic correspondent for The Jerusalem Post. She tweets at @LahavHarkov.