A steady stream of Israelis flow in and out of Philadelphia regularly throughout the year. Some come to educate and enlighten us, others to raise funds for their institutions or causes. Often they do both. They include scientists, students, academics, soldiers and agents of change in Israeli society. Some of these figures are high profile like Natan Sharansky, the renowned Russian-dissident-turned-Israeli-political-figure, who spent a day in the city this week meeting with community leaders and with students at the University of Pennsylvania.
In honor of the 65th anniversary of Israel’s independence, which is celebrated on April 16, we decided to spotlight two of the lesser-known Israeli figures who have visited recently. These individuals include a Bedouin who is the first non-Jewish president of an Israeli university and a woman pushing for greater female participation in political life. Here are their stories.
Ifat Zamir is a former television news anchor who decided she wanted to help change Israeli society rather than just report on it. As executive director of Women Electoral Power, or WePower, Zamir is on the frontlines working to elect women to political and decision-making positions.
She’s encouraged by the outcome of the Israeli elections in February, when the second-largest victor, the Yesh Atid party, took up her group’s recommendation to allocate 40 percent of its list to female candidates. In all, 27 women were elected to the Knesset, up from 23 in the last parliament.
As important as what happens nationally, Zamir said during a recent interview here, is what transpires on the municipal level.
WePower runs leadership workshops and helps train and support candidates for local councils, school boards and other positions. She sees her group as Israel’s version of the U.S. political action committee Emily’s List, which works to elect pro-choice female candidates — “but without the money.”
As a non-governmental organization, she explained, “we’re not allowed to give money.” Instead, they provide training and tools that women need to find their voice and get elected.
It’s an uphill battle, but Zamir, 44, who has been in her position for three years, is not giving up. Her 12-year-old organization is looking ahead to the October 2013 elections and working to increase the number of female mayors from the current six out of 265 municipalities to 30. She also wants to see the number of local council representatives increase from 350 to 1,000.
“There is still a lot of work to be done and, as they say — whoever walks the talk — wins the vote, and we intend to do so by proactively raising awareness to the need for more women in the decision-making positions in the political arena.”
“The hard part is to convince these women it is worth it,” Zamir said, citing the resistance and obstacles many female candidates face, especially in areas outside the main cities where more traditional customs prevail. But her group has already identified 30 women ready to step up and run, she said.
Her organization is supported by several American Jewish institutions, including the National Council of Jewish Women and Philadelphia’s Women of Vision, an arm of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, which provides a grant for a young women’s leadership training program.
“Women bring diversity of perspective to the decision-making process, and take a gendered approach in the social issues they address,” Zamir said, citing such concerns as gender discrimination, poverty and unemployment.
“When women are part of the discussion, they make essential strides against the root causes of the inequality and the challenges” that exist. “Democracy, by definition, cannot afford to be gender-blind. It must strive toward equality and representation of women in decision-making processes and in the opportunities to achieve both these goals.”
Professor Alean Al-Krenawi didn’t set out to become the first non-Jewish Israeli to head an academic institution in his country. But now that the Bedouin Arab has been appointed president of Achva Academic College, he’s determined to use his position to boost educational opportunities that often elude his and other marginalized communities.
“My appointment is a victory for diversity,” he said during a recent visit to Philadelphia, where he was hosted by the Israeli consulate and met with communal leaders, lawmakers and visited some local universities. “It sends a message to everyone in Israel: We are all equal and if you work hard enough, you can accomplish anything.”
Al-Krenawi knows something about hard work. He grew up in the Bedouin community in the Negev, part of a traditionally nomadic, desert-living people that now make up about 3 percent of the Israeli population.
The third of 15 children in his family, the young Al-Krenawi used to walk nearly an hour to school; at one point during his elementary years, he “upgraded” to a donkey for his transportation, he recalled.
With no local high school available to Bedouins, most of his peers ended their education as young teens. But Al-Krenawi had a different path in mind. Going against his communal norms — and even his family’s wishes — he moved away to attend high school near Tel Aviv. Then he landed at Ben-Gurion University, where, as a Bedouin Arab, he readily acknowledged, going to university with Jewish people wasn’t easy. “It was a shock socially, psychologically, culturally and economically.” He went on to obtain his Ph.D. in social work at Toronto and has been engaged in research about multicultural mental health and the psychological effects of political violence.
Now, at the age of 53, he’s back, not far from where he grew up, at the helm of Achva Academic College at the northern border of the Negev region. The school has some 3,500 students that include all major ethnic groups in Israel. Bedouin students account for about 12 percent of the student body. They are offered a special program in Arabic.
Al-Krenawi’s mission is straightforward: To upgrade the educational system for Bedouins and other economically disadvantaged Israeli communities, including the Ethiopians. To do that, he is trying to infuse a multidisciplinary approach to the academic program at the college so that the teachers that are trained there can go back into the communities and provide the emotional support along with the education that is needed to help young students advance.
“The biggest challenge,” he said, “is how to rethink the educational system” in a way that will propel young Bedouins and others to go on to college.
It’s not easy, he said. But that’s clearly not going to stop him from trying.