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


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 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.

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