Gadeer Kamal-Mreeh, The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington’s shlichah, or Israeli cultural emissary, pointed to herself and declared that she is an Israeli, an Arab, a Druze and a former Knesset member.
Israel is a country full of diversity, and the only way it will succeed is for people to talk to each other and get to know each other as more than a stereotype, she said during an hour webinar with Federation CEO Gil Preuss. “Don’t talk about them. Talk to them.”
Mreeh, who came to The Federation this summer, is an eighth-generation Israeli whose family’s roots began in Syria. Breaking barriers as both a Druze and a female has been her modus operandi as a television reporter, Knesset member and now the Washington-area Jewish community’s first Druze-Israeli shlichah.
As Kamal-Mreeh explained, everything she has done is part of a journey leading to what she hopes someday will be an Israel that believes in pluralism and equality, even while declaring itself a Jewish state.
There are 150,000 members of the Druze community who call Israel home. About 1.5 million Druze live in the world, mostly in Syria. A unique religious and ethnic group, Druze speak Arabic. The Druze religion grew out of Islam, but the Druze do not identify as Muslim.
“We don’t believe that one day we will have our own state. That is why you are loyal at first to the country that you are born in,” she said of the Druze people. “Today, we are very well integrated in the Israel domestic society, but there are domestic challenges that we have.”
Eighty-two percent of the Israeli Druze community serve in the Israel Defense Forces, higher than the percentage of Jews who serve the Jewish state, according to Kamal-Mreeh.
“We all respect our country. We all respect the symbols of my country. I respect the flag. I sing our national anthem, ‘Hatikvah,’ even though I am not mentioned there,” she said. “But refusing to ensure equality as an important value, like in other democracies in the world, is wrong.”
During her journalism career, she worked for the Israeli Broadcasting Corporation, where she hosted a program in Arabic. Later, she anchored its main Saturday evening broadcast in Hebrew.
As a Knesset member from 2019 to 2021 with the Yesh Atid party, Kamal-Mreeh served in three different governments. But the law declaring Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people concerns her so greatly that she decided to step away.
“They put a lot of pressure on me to be a minister in the unity government. I refused. I prefer to work in the opposition,” she said.
Now she speaks out in an effort to educate Israelis and people throughout the world on how diversity is actually a plus.
“How I believe my society should be in the 21st century, how Israel wants to be in the 21st century,” is important, she said, “Do I want it to be a limited club or a leading democracy? We are still a vibrant democracy. We are still the island of stability” in the Middle East. “Israel today, as a state, is a strong state in this crazy neighborhood called the Middle East,” she declared.
Rather than accept stereotypes, Kamal-Mreeh urged everyone to seek out people who are different than themselves and ask them questions, taste their food. “Don’t talk about them. Talk to them.”
“We are suffering from a crisis. We don’t know enough about each other. We care less about each other,” she said, recalling a recent hike with her family at Great Falls in Maryland. When the hike got a bit steep, she said to her son in Arabic, “step by step, slowly.”
A nearby hiker heard her and asked if she was an Arab. She replied in the affirmative. He asked if she was from Morocco, and she told him she was an Israeli. He asked if she was a Palestinian, she said no. He was shocked, she recalled, and said he didn’t know Arabs could be Israeli.
As part of her job here, Kamal-Mreeh works with college students through Hillel International. She called it “a major challenge to make [college students] understand, if you disagree, that is OK. There is always room at the table.
“Agree, disagree, challenge one another,” she said. “You criticize when you care.”
But make sure comments are based on knowledge and not propaganda.
The goal, she said, is “to build a stronger community here, and a stronger state in Israel.”