Heni Bizawi, 30, moved to Milwaukee last month, to serve as an Israel fellow for Hillel Milwaukee. She will work with students at campuses of the greater Milwaukee area.
Bizawi is enthusiastic about the location of her new job: “I’m glad to be here because, first of all, it’s a beautiful place. Beautiful city… feeling good vibes for the people.” As a lifelong basketball player, Bizawi says lightheartedly that she is glad to live in a place where “the basketball is good.” Most of all, she is excited about the Jewish culture of Milwaukee and the opportunity to have challenging conversations.
Bizawi grew up in a neighborhood south of Tel Aviv, called Holon. She started playing basketball in grade five and went on to coach basketball at 15. When she turned 16, Bizawi began coaching for an organization called “Peace Players,” which worked in conflict areas to bridge the divide between communities in conflict.
As a leader in East Jerusalem basketball, Bizawi was able to play with Muslims, Christians, and Jews, both boys and girls. Bizawi befriended a couple Palestinian teammates, who would invite her to dinner in East Jerusalem and have deep conversations. While she enjoyed going against the grain, her family was scared for her.
“I was a troublemaker,” Bizawi admitted.
While in the Israel Defense Forces, she joined a leadership program where, for three years, she trained soldiers who sought to become commanders. After the army, she rejoined the PeacePlayers as a project manager.
Upon returning from the IDF, Heni’s Palestinian friends wouldn’t look her in the eye when she’d go to the local gym. When she confronted them, they revealed their concern that Heni would be anti-Palestinian after her experience in the IDF. She assured her Palestinian friends that the army didn’t send them back a different Heni. “The army just made it clearer to me that we need to be friends. The experience in the army just showed me how important it is to build relationships with Arabs and Palestinians.”
It wasn’t until she moved to Jerusalem that she started really paying attention to the conflict, when she was 23 years old. Through a scholarship from the organization Impact, she went to school to study political science and sociology in Tel Aviv and made her way up to first division women’s coaching. Bizawi now sees basketball as a tool for social change in Israel.
“When I love something so much, I want it to get better,” Bizawi said, describing her criticism of Israel’s government.
“Education and economy are the two tools that people should look at but get the least amount of money,” Bizawi said. She also believes that change is most effective at the interpersonal level. “If each person will look at themselves and have healing progress, that is where the good values will come up.”
“People just want to live life quietly and safely,” Bizawi said. “When you have a good life, you’re not going to be running after me; the opposite.”
“I really believe in seeing people as people,” Bizawi said.