Jewish Agency’s First Druze Emissary Settles Into Her Role in Washington
Gadeer Kamal-Mreeh is bringing a hopeful but wider view of Israel to American college campuses
Before she became a politician, Gadeer Kamal-Mreeh was a storyteller. A groundbreaking journalist, Kamal-Mreeh was the first Druze woman to anchor a Hebrew-language news program on Israeli television.
She is still telling stories, now in a much different capacity, though no less seminal. In September, the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, in partnership with The Jewish Agency for Israel, welcomed Kamal-Mreeh to the DC region as a senior shlicha, or emissary. She is the first Druze to serve as an emissary for the agency, working in coordination with Hillel International to promote Jewish student interest in Israel on American college campuses. She splits time with the Jewish Federation locally in DC, along with other partner organizations and with lay leaders.
“I always open my meetings with the students and with my audience by sharing a story that happened with me when we just arrived here. We were hiking one day here, and I called to my son, Liam, in Arabic. I said, ‘Liam, shway shway.’ It means slowly, step by step,” Kamal-Mreeh told The Media Line.
“And a man who was nearby, he told me: ‘Ah, Arabic. You’re from Morocco?’ I said, ‘No. Israel.’ He said, ‘Wow, Israel. Don’t you say Palestine?’ I said, ‘No. Israel. There are Arabs living in Israel.’ He said, ‘What?’ He was shocked! He didn’t know that there are Arabs in Israel, and I told him, yes, 20% – almost 2 million – Israelis are Arabs. And then I looked at my husband, Shadi. I told Shadi, ‘You know what? That is why we are here.’ And seeing this position that we created, seeing the huge potential, seeing the work that we are doing on many levels, in many aspects with many audiences, is amazing, and I truly believe in our mission here,” said Kamal-Mreeh.
Kamal-Mreeh served in Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, for two brief terms from 2019 to 2021, making history as the country’s first female Druze lawmaker. After an especially tumultuous time in politics, she wondered what was next. Kamal-Mreeh said she had a number of job offers to select from, including in business and dealing with Gulf issues.
“But I realized how much my country is important to me. I realized how much I want to still be connected. And I see myself as a bridge. I speak three languages – Arabic, Hebrew, and English. I totally understand the nuances. I understand the Middle East culture, Arab people and I also can understand the Jewish community. And I speak with them, with my authenticity, with my unique identity, with my experience, with my knowledge, as a woman, as a minority, as someone who lived on the periphery, as a proud Israeli citizen,” said Kamal-Mreeh, who was born in the coastal mountain village of Daliyat al-Karmel and remained there all her life. Kamal-Mreeh’s mother and grandmother are religious, but she identifies as secular.
“That is why we developed this position. And I was amazed to see how much Hasochnut Hayehudit (the Hebrew name for The Jewish Agency) is thirsty for this new project, this approach, this shift of bringing other people, sharing new stories of non-Jewish people that come and represent and talk about the beauty, and about the complexity and about the potentials and about the challenges. It is fresh. It is new. It is required,” Kamal-Mreeh said.
Typically, an emissary serves, in part, to shine the brightest light possible on Israel. Kamal-Mreeh’s role is unique because it is so different. The Druze community typically has had a strong relationship with the state, with Druze proudly serving in roles in the Israel Defense Forces. There have been occasional fissures, though, such as with the 2018 passing of the controversial Nation-State Law, which declared Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, upsetting many in its minority community. Kamal-Mreeh, in fact, set a goal to amend the law while serving in the Knesset. The broader Arab community, of which the Druze are a sect, often has a much tenser relationship with the state and its Jewish majority. Kamal-Mreeh said that while she loves her country, she will serve to highlight its complexity, warts and all.
“I truly believe that we are brave enough, fast enough, strong enough, as a state, as a society, to go beyond to the next step, to talk about Israel. Last week, I was in New York City, and it was amazing sitting at Columbia University with students from different backgrounds to talk about Israel. Sometimes we open maps. Sometimes we talk about the conflict. Sometimes we talk about minorities, about shared society, about history, about background. And if you’re asking me, yes, absolutely, this is the time to bring it and to share and expand and extend our work. I always tell people, please next time when you travel to Israel, it’s not Disneyland. Come to the periphery. Go beyond Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and the Kotel [Western Wall]. Come to learn about Circassians in Kfar Kama. Go to Haifa and learn about shared society and about Christian people and go to Mount Carmel,” Kamal-Mreeh urged.
“Some people used to bring what I call the Kim Jong Un absolute advocacy: Look at us, we are perfect, please love us. And it doesn’t work anymore. People care. People listen and people here want us to listen to them and want to share with us what they think and what they believe. It’s important not just to bring the input from Israel but to take back home the input, to listen and to be aware of the differences and to build the bridges and to create the trust. And trust is about being honest.
“I found that my major challenge on campuses is to make people understand that there is always a room and a table to sit together, to think together, to agree and to disagree, and to have those meaningful challenges, meaningful discussions about who we are, how Israel will be or should be in the 21st century, how Zionism should be the 21st century. This healthy tension is our uniqueness, and we can live under this umbrella together and thrive in the modern era as a liberal democracy,” she said.
For Kamal-Mreeh, the starting point for a conversation is sometimes unclear. She cited a synagogue lecture she gave in which one woman told her of a visit to Israel during which, on a jeep tour, she saw from a distance Druze tents. The woman was almost certainly confusing the Druze for the nomadic Bedouin Arabs, who mostly live in tents in Israel’s Negev Desert.
But Kamal-Mreeh pointed to a lecture at Johns Hopkins University, in which a Muslim from Saudi Arabia approached her and said, “As-salamu alaykum.”
“I said, ‘Wa alaykumu s-salam’ in Arabic, in a real accent. He was amazed. You can read articles about unity, about the new Middle East, about new opportunities, about how we can create those bridges, but being there, seeing that we are shaping the connection between students, between leaders, between social agents, it’s very powerful. And I truly believe in the importance of our mission here,” she said.
What is a novelty today becomes normal tomorrow, though, and Kamal-Mreeh said she is already giving thought to expanding the pool of Arab emissaries.
“It is amazing to see how much our pasts are intertwined. And it is amazing to understand that we must play a major role together. And to understand that our diversity is our social resilience. We celebrate this diversity. Israel can be proud of this diversity to have different people from different backgrounds and share – although there are differences – common values. This is the beauty that we talk about,” she said.