‘Dive deep’ to understand Israeli diversity, says BJE speaker
By Shannon Levitt | Staff Writer, Arizona Jewish News
Photo: Fay Henning-Bryant
In July 2018, Israel’s controversial nation-state bill established Israel as the historic home of the Jewish people with a “united” Jerusalem as its capital and declared under law that the Jewish people “have an exclusive right to national self-determination.”
The fact that this Basic Law made no mention of equality or democracy was a primary motivating factor for Gadeer Kamal-Mreeh, the first Druze woman elected to Israel’s Knesset, to join the Israel Resilience Party and stand for election under the umbrella of the Blue and White Alliance.
“I know that this is the homeland of the Jewish people, and I respect it. I have a problem with what was not written in the law: equality,” Kamal-Mreeh told two separate gatherings sponsored by the Bureau of Jewish Education of Greater Phoenix’s Passages series on Sunday, March 5. She spoke at Temple Beth Shalom of the West Valley (TBS) in Sun City in the early afternoon and at Temple Kol Ami in Scottsdale later that evening.
“Are we, the State of Israel, afraid of ensuring equality for all our minorities — the Jewish people, who experienced what they experienced in the last century?” she asked a rapt audience.
Her question was not simply a rhetorical device to keep her listeners interested. Given that she personally embodies what the law excludes — “My name is Gadeer. I am an Israeli but not a Jew. I am an Arab but not a Muslim. I’m a minority within a minority” — it was an entree to a much bigger question: “After 75 years, what is Israel’s identity?”
Kamal-Mreeh began her talk by sharing a bit of her biography as well as a succinct breakdown of Druze history, religion and largely positive relationship with Israel, both before statehood and since 1948.
She was raised to be a social agent. Her parents told her, “If you have something to say, say it, and if you have something to change, go and change it,” she said.
Growing up, Kamal-Mreeh loved interviewing her friends, classmates and teachers because she liked talking to people to learn about them. At 12, she even went to a local TV station and convinced the manager to give her her own small interview program.
To be an involved global citizen, something she encouraged in all her listeners, one must play an active role, she said. Her natural inclination was to engage her country and the world through journalism. In 2012, the Israeli Public Broadcasting Corporation hired her to present in Arabic. Then in 2017, she became the first Druze woman to anchor a Hebrew-language weekend news program on Israeli television’s Channel 1.
She was happy with her career until one morning in January 2019, while washing dishes, she was called by a member of the Blue and White Alliance to consider entering politics.
“It took me one month to say yes because Druze women are still not equal socially,” she said.
Her campaign caused a sensation in the Druze community, and though initially her staffers were male, she soon found many women eager to join her cause.
“They were thirsty for the opportunity because when we talk politics, it is beyond politics. It means I have an equal voice,” she said. Equality continued to be her touchstone through a tumultuous period of quick consecutive elections. Her first term in the Knesset lasted only 29 days until a second election was called in the country.
When Kamal-Mreeh was offered a minister position after the third election in March 2020, she declined because it was clear there would be no amendment to the Basic Law ensuring equality for all Israelis.
“I said, ‘No, thank you. I prefer not to be a minister because I want to work for the opposition and fight for those values,’” she said. Thus, she went to work for the Jewish Agency as a special liaison to the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. She also works with Hillel International to promote Jewish student interest in Israel on American college campuses.
Since traveling the world in her new role, she has had the opportunity to meet a wide variety of people who hold misperceptions about her homeland. Education is the only counter to ignorance; to learn about the country, people need “to dive deep and learn what the challenges are,” she said.
She challenged her listeners to get to know Israel’s “rich mosaic of people.”
“The next time you travel to Israel, go to the periphery, meet minorities and see how much our path is intertwined. Go and see how much we shaped our life together,” she said.
Kamal-Mreeh’s mantra is: “Don’t talk about them. Talk to them.”
She highlighted the heterogeneity of Israel’s various sectors, saying the only way to know the reality of the people on the ground is to meet and talk to them.
“Get to know the differences and the uniqueness of each sector and Israel — warts and all,” she said.
Passages’ speakers are hosted in different locations across Greater Phoenix because “the Bureau wants to service the whole Valley,” said Myra Shindler, BJE’s executive director. One goal of the series is to present a wide variety of speakers with different viewpoints.
TBS Rabbi Dana Evan Kaplan, who introduced Kamal-Mreeh, was impressed with her forthrightness on a tough topic.
“Usually, these kinds of speakers tend to speak in platitudes and say a lot of words about nothing — she was the opposite,” he said.
Fay Henning-Bryant, TBS’s president, was inspired by Kamal-Mreeh’s commitment to Israel.
“I think she’s very seriously thinking about going back into politics because she’s having a very hard time doing what she’s doing instead of being involved in trying to change things,” she said.
During the Q&A, Larry Dworkin, a snowbird from Toronto, asked Kamal-Mreeh about the direction of Israel, which he feels “is a really tough situation” and said that he doesn’t “like the direction it’s going as a Jew.”
Kamal-Mreeh responded that she had cried that very morning about the ongoing demonstrations regarding the judicial reforms in the country.
“We are heading toward a hard future,” she said. JN
To learn more about Passages, visit bjephoenix.org.
Photo: Dana Evan Kaplan