Salam Kedan is no ordinary 23 year old. Despite her young age, she has already acted as a Model United Nations representative for the past seven years, stood as a delegate for OPEC at the Hague International for the Model UN and founded her own non-profit organisation. But Kedan is also unusual in another way. When she was 17, she found out that she was not Israeli as she had believed all her life, but actually Palestinian.
“I was born with an Israeli passport, I was raised under Israeli rule, which means the education I got in high school, and middle school was all determined by the Israeli government. I never got any education about Palestine, what is Palestine, my identity. I had no idea.”
As an Arab Israeli whose parents had also been born in Israel, Kedan never had cause to question the narrative put to her: that the establishment of Israel granted equal rights to all citizens, whilst Palestinians were a small group that perpetrated terrorist attacks. Growing up in in the Arab neighbourhood of Baqa Al-Gharbiyye with strict media censorship, she had rarely heard the word ‘Palestine’.
“I never really had any questions about what Palestine is because you never hear the word Palestine. There is a word that we use in Arabic which is called Ad-Duffa and they use that to refer to the West Bank and usually it’s referred to a lone people, not who we are and I never really understood anything about it.”
It was only when Kedan joined the Model UN, an initiative aimed at giving young people experience in diplomatic issues, that she was able to discover the truth about her identity from those in countries abroad.
“Through travelling, I met international students when meeting them for the first time and actually talking to them, I got asked where I was from and who I was … So I said Israel and the reaction was very shocked from many Muslim and Arab students abroad. I started to think, there’s something wrong, I’m not Jewish Israeli, this can’t be my identity.”
For the first time in her life, Kedan started researching about Palestine, and as she discovered the many facets of her Palestinian identity, she also realised how much had been kept a secret from her.
“I realised it was so shameful that we’re living in a big ignorant community that is disconnected from their identity,” she recollects. “When I did my research I realised that to be Israeli means to be Jewish, it’s a Zionist idea and it only recognises the Jewish majority of the country. I realised that this is not right and that we need to raise awareness about it through any way possible. “
Kedan decided to stand against the information war being waged on her community, and on her return informed her relatives and local community about her discoveries.
“My family also used to consider themselves as Israeli and this was the only thing they could identify with growing up. So when I told them “You can never say you’re Israeli, that’s not your identity,” they were a little doubtful in the beginning and they said “How can you say these things, where are you getting all this information from?”
“And I showed them, I showed them my research and I showed them everything they found out. My father, in the beginning, was a little against me doing all these things that I’m doing, but eventually I had him travel with me to one of the conference to meet people that I’ve met and he came around.”
Now as an Arab Israeli aware of her Palestinian identity, Kedan has been more able to identify discrimination against her, particularly since she chose to wear the headscarf, making her visibly Muslim.
“I’ve been travelling a lot recently and every time I go to the airport, I always have to step aside and give my ID and tell them where I’m going at the first door, at the entrance to the airport. And I can see all the people are passing and it’s only for me that I have to step aside. And it’s not only at the airport, when entering many buildings I always get the extra security treatment.”
But Kedan says that Israel presents itself as a model for the Arab world, and tells its citizens to be grateful for the Zionist state providing its citizens with a higher standard of living.
“You are always taught to believe that you have a great life here, you should look at the other Arab countries and you should be grateful for living in this country. It’s that mentality that they keep feeding to our generations which is very bad.”
Since realising the secret of Palestinian oppression that was happening on their doorstep, Kedan has dedicated her activism to raising awareness about the Palestinian identity in Israel. In 2017 she founded the Salam Centre for Peace, an organisation dedicated to promoting understanding and awareness between different countries. In the past year alone they have arranged for over 90 students to travel to international conferences, where they are made aware of global issues and possible solutions.
“We’ve also started an inter-cultural programme in my hometown to welcome international students and teach them about the Palestinian culture. I want to do that in an elementary school and teach them about Palestinian culture which is something a lot of people have already forgotten about.”
Through the Salam Centre for Peace she comes into regular contact with students from Russia, India, and China, spreading awareness of the plight of Palestinian people abroad.
Although Palestine has occupied many media headline following US President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem, when looking ahead, Kedan says that she does not view the incident in the same light, given it makes little difference for people on the ground.
“It’s a decision from one country to do that and it’s definitely not right … But in Israel, Jerusalem has always been defined as the capital, although it wasn’t recognised by other countries.”
“If Israel defines itself as a Jewish country, Jerusalem being its capital means that Jerusalem is a Jewish capital. But it is home to all three religions and it can never be Israel’s capital in my opinion,” she emphasises.
She is also sceptical of the peace process, echoing the sentiments of many Palestinians who have felt let down by the Trump Administration’s take on the issue. “I definitely do not believe that a two-state solution would ever work to be honest. It’s just a matter of time; I’m not sure what’s going to happen. I just don’t see that there is any peace agreement,” she muses.
However Kedan is also critical of the Palestinian Authority (PA), for mismanaging relations with Israel and sacrificing the demands of the Palestinian people.
“It [the PA] can work; it just needs a lot more stronger leaders,” she says. “Young people should be also more involved in political decision making and Palestinian issues.”
For now, the 23 year-old’s activism is focused on raising awareness about the Palestinian identity at home but also the reality of Arab Israeli communities abroad.
“Many times when I travel to conferences abroad, when I meet Arab Muslim students and they hear about my story, they are shocked. They don’t even know we exist, this is news to them. So this is part of us making difference.”
She also seeks to fight against Israeli efforts to eradicate the Arab identity: “The country is doing a lot to work to make Arabs feel like the Israeli identity is theirs.”
“They recruit some Arab members of the community here, who are brainwashed I would say. They even recruited an Arab group to fight the BDS [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions] movement … This is totally wrong and the Arab community was very against what they did. But they [the Israeli government] recruited a member of each different community … and they said we want them all to say that Israel is a democratic state, that they love to be Israeli and this is their identity,” she explains.
Kedan’s discovery has completely changed her life and her mission is now to spread awareness about Palestine to as many people as possible. Crucial to her motivation is that no Palestinian child will ever grow up as she did, ignorant of her identity and that through the preservation of her culture, the dream of a free Palestine will stay alive.