Join us for an exclusive conversation featuring three women leading transformation in the Middle East. Ayelet Nahmias-Verbin, Chairperson of the Israeli Export Institute, speaks to promoting Israeli exports and fostering economic growth; Gadeer Kamal-Mreeh, a Senior Envoy at The Jewish Agency for Israel, discusses fostering connections and supporting Jewish communities in the region; and Aviva Steinberger, Director of Innovation Diplomacy at Start-Up Nation Central, touches on harnessing innovation and technology for positive change. Led by AJC Abu Dhabi Program Director Reva Gorelick onstage at AJC Global Forum 2023 in Tel Aviv, this conversation offers valuable insights into the transformative efforts shaping the Middle East today.

*The views and opinions expressed by guests do not necessarily reflect the views or position of AJC. 

Episode Lineup: 

  • (0:40) Reva Gorelick, Ayelet Nahmias-Verbin, Gadeer Kamal-Mreeh, Aviva Steinberger

Show Notes:



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Transcript of Interview with Ayelet Nahmias-Verbin, Gadeer Kamal-Mreeh, Aviva Steinberger:

Manya Brachear Pashman:

The role women play in pursuing peace and progress in the Middle East is too often overlooked. But my colleague AJC Abu Dhabi Program Director Reva Gorelick is not one to leave such an important stone unturned. At AJC Global Forum 2023 in Tel Aviv she led a fascinating conversation on "Women Driving Change in the Middle East." This week’s podcast brings you a portion of that conversation with Ayelet Nahmias-Verbin, Chairperson of the Israeli Export Institute, Gadeer Kamal-Mreeh, a Senior Envoy at The Jewish Agency for Israel, and Aviva Steinberger, the Director of Innovation Diplomacy at Start-Up Nation Central. We open with Reva posing a question to Gadeer.

Reva Gorelick:

Gadeer, in your career, you have broken barriers in many ways. And I'm going to read because there's so many ways that I want to make sure that I get them right, as the first non Jewish broadcast anchorwoman here, both in Hebrew and Arabic, and then as the first Druze woman to serve as a member of Knesset, what have you learned about the appetite for change and for representation of historically marginalized communities in this part of the world specifically? And how did these trends track with what you're now seeing as an emissary for the Jewish Agency in America?

Gadeer Kamal-Mreeh:  

Good morning. So long story short, so much, I learned so much. I'm still learning, I'm still growing, I'm still listening. And I'm still amazed to see the social impact of simply our existence, simply of being or living or achieving or talking to each other. And look at us today, this morning. The first of us, each one of us, based in different countries, speaking different language, different religion, different fields, but we are social agents. And this is what my father told me, always, as a child, you are a social agent. You are not privileged to live your life in a way that you are consuming reality, you have to shape reality.

And I did social activism even without knowing that I'm doing social activism. I broadcasted my first TV show when I was 12 years old. I believe in people, I believe that we have the ability to change reality. And then being in those positions as first, as firs, as first, when you are how I always introduce myself by saying hello, my name is Gadeer. I am an Israeli but not a Jew, I am an Arab but not a Muslim, I am a minority within the Arab minority, my mother tongue is Arabic, married religion is Druze. I'm a proud Israeli citizen..good luck. So having such a unique identity, and being the first in those positions is something that a stranger would not understand the complexity and the beauty that you have. And so I started to write my book because I'm afraid that we cannot have, we don't have enough time to talk about it.

But I learned so much the most important thing that I learned is engage, engage, engage. It doesn't matter where it doesn't matter how it doesn't matter with whom. Engage as a social agent and activate your role in shaping public opinion. I had so many stories in my life, Reva, in which I was amazed and telling myself, Yes, we can. Yes, we can. Being the only woman in so many rooms, I'm sure that Ayelet and Aviva also understand what does that mean to be the only woman. Nobody asked you if you want to represent women, you are a representative of women. So talk, represent, share their stories. And two weeks ago, we were in DC and we initiated some of the prestigious forum that you will hear about, and we were 18 successful leaders in Washington DC, but guess what? I was the only woman. And I told them guys, I got used to this in my villages in the Druze community, we are still a conservative community. Okay, but in DC in the 21st century, I am the only woman? Hey, wake up. Then I understood that okay, we did so much, we achieved so much in the last decades, last century, but we are not there yet. You know, like reminding ourselves in some countries we have no ability to vote, we have no ability to even, no right to be elected. Okay, we did, we promoted, we leverage our skills we went, we learned, we achieved. But even now today, we are not there. We don't have yet absolute gender equality.

Look at the numbers. In our current government, there are zero CEOs of ministries, five of 33 ministers are women. 25% of MK members of parliament today are women. We are talking about 30 from 120. So the up-bottom policy is also, you know, reflecting the atmosphere. There are huge ramifications of who we are, who is working with me, who are my colleagues. So we are trying to lead. We are the head, the CEO, the founder, but we need to work much more hard to achieve. And this is our role.

So the most important advice, in my opinion, that I can share here is lead. Don't wait for opportunity, take the opportunity, and I am really trying to target here, women, especially young women, excuse me, men, you have your exclusive club, you take care of each other. I believe that behind every woman, there is no man. There is a circle of women to support her, to give her the chances, to help her, to leverage her skills, to teach her. And I believe that it is our role as leaders at first, to empower women to be there for each other and to take the number much higher.

Because so many researchers found that and it's proven that our ability to read reality is much better than men. We see the macro perspective, the empathy, the way of dealing things, the multitask. And all those things affect the atmosphere in our companies, in our organizations, in politics, in the Knesset. So do it, engage and lead and don't wait for the opportunity. Take the opportunity and lead.

Reva Gorelick:

Thank you. I want to just follow up on one point that you brought up, Ayelet, I'm gonna go off script a little bit and just ask, you brought up a question about representation in government. And we're not there in most parts of the world, we're not nearly anywhere where we where we need to be and where we should be at this point. When we're looking at government representation and gender parity in government, what should we be striving for? And how do you see that gender parity and representation as a barometer for social change and policy change?

Ayelet Nahmias-Verbin:

I think it is a little bit frustrating to admit the truth. We felt that we were going forward, and then we were kind of pulled back. And it's really up to us. I've got to say something, and I've got to be very frank about it. Politics is a shitty business. I worked with Yitzchak Rabin when I was 20 years old. And at 25, I had so much political power, I couldn't believe it. And I still didn't run for the Knesset, because of the men around me, you know, for them. I was 25 years old. Why should I run for the Knesset? Nowadays, it's much more reasonable to do so, to make such a crazy decision.

But then I decided to go to the Knesset only after I already had three kids, a full career, a lawyer and board member and owner of a company, everything, that's when I decided, okay, now I'm gonna bring everything into the home, you know, and run to the Knesset. And it's a very, very difficult and non rewarding life. Even today, I tell people, I'm a politician, because I don't want people to think that politics is such a bad thing, you know, it's so important to understand, Gadeer, forgive me, she's also a politician, you know, this is not a bad thing.

You know, this is, you know, the kind of my IP, you know, that's what I bring to the, to the table, my ability to speak to people and my ability to solve problems to, to do a lot of things, you know, that probably people with, with different skills, other people will be scientists and doctors, I really, really wanted to be an MD, but that's for another session. But what we need to do is make sure that from the very, very start at kindergarten, I'm not educating my daughter, I'm educating her brothers. Her brothers need to know that she can be Prime Minister, if she would like. That she could do anything that she could want. That's the idea. Because we used to say, once upon a time for socialization, okay, so let's take care of the girls. Nuh-uh. We need to take care of all of them, of both genders, because this is what we need to do.

Because till today, and especially in a very, very complex society, like Israel, where we have both very, very strong liberalism, alongside in spite of you know, in spite of the situation in the Knesset, still very, very strong Bible values that, you know, the values that we share, and conservatism, that is not only Jewish, okay. I mean, there's no, no doubt there is, you know, is there a strong draft of conservatism from the Jewish part, but also we know well from the non Jewish parts. So the idea is, you know, people like Gadeer, I never heard you speak about what your father told you, that you should change reality. But that's exactly it. It's up to us to shape reality and shaping reality, from Facebook, from Meta, that Sheryl Sandberg used to say, speak at the table. You know, when you go through board minutes, you see that the women don't speak as much as the men. It's not only Okay, so we got to the table, but do we speak there?

And I noticed once you know that Shabbat dinners, my daughter doesn't speak as much as her brothers. She's kind of reluctant. Maybe she'll make a mistake. Maybe she'll make it out and I'll correct her. God forbid I'm a terrible mom in these things. You know, I never have patience. So I say to the boys, I say, now you sush. And I give her the front seat. And this is so important to do. And up until, you know, we'll realize that and act on it, we will unfortunately, especially in such a divided society, like our own, we’ll stay in the same situation. 

As long as people for instance, in primary parties, people still vote for one woman, you know this like, that's like the one token woman that we vote for. Now, on the other side, on the left wing, it's not as much as that. But again, we don't see as many women. I think in Yesh Atid actually, Yair [Lapid] made a huge effort. Also, Benny [Gantz] made a huge effort to bring more women on board. But these are different. You know, these are different kinds of parties. By the way, if you ask me, what's better for women? Nowadays, primaries or non primaries, you'd be surprised to hear: non primaries. Non primaries. Primaries are not necessarily the best way to bring women to the front seat.

Reva Gorelick:

Thank you for sharing that. And bringing that into the conversation of you, I want to come back to you. Aviva, you hold the role of Director of Innovation Diplomacy. It's not a phrase that I had heard much before we started having these conversations. And I'd love for other people to hear about it some more. From your experience in Israel's tech and startup world. Can you talk to us about the cascading effects of empowering women to be agents for change in their respective fields?

Aviva Steinberger:

Yeah, so innovation diplomacy is a made up term. And you know, if you think about science, diplomacy, or economic diplomacy, that's generally diplomacy that's meant to further goals around science and economics. And in this case, you're looking at focusing on innovation to further diplomacy. The idea is leveraging what's coming out of Israel in the tech sector, leveraging this brand that we have as the startup nation, to build ties. So with the signing of the Abraham Accords, really created the opportunity for normalization, as we know, and countries in the region are investing a lot of money, billions of dollars, to create their own innovation ecosystems. 

And they're looking at their neighbor, Israel, and Israel as a now welcome citizen of the region that everybody can play with. And saying, How can we learn from the Israel journey, Israel's journey over the last 30 years going from a resource economy where our main export was oranges, to a knowledge based economy where our main export is anyone know? Tech. Yep.

So digital, we call it digital oranges, right? The drones flying over the citrus fields and around the world, measuring the health of the fruit in the trees, etc. So really this journey and what went into building an ecosystem? What did the government do 30 years ago that enabled and incentivized foreign investment, where's the academia, where is tech transfer happening both at the university level, also in hospital levels, where what is the role of incubators and accelerators and investors. So looking at the whole ecosystem, sharing that knowledge and using that, as what I call a frictionless tool to engage with our neighbors in the region, because if you're talking about some of our shared challenges, I mentioned before, water security, and energy security and the impacts of extreme weather. Those issues don't know geographic boundaries. 

And so we are all dealing, especially in the region, one of the most vulnerable to climate change, for example. By the way, in America, climate change is very politicized. In the region, it is not at all because if you don't pay attention to the impacts of climate change in the region, your people aren't going to have clean water, they're not going to have food, they're not going to have energy, electricity. And so these are not political issues. These are what I call frictionless issues, that we can sit around the table and say, we must collaborate in order to find solutions. 

So innovation diplomacy is really about focusing on the role that innovation plays to create these relationships. As it relates to women. I think women play, can play and do play a unique role into driving this forward. First of all, you know, we spoke about it a little bit and Gadeer, you mentioned this idea of women being social change agents. There's something I mean, I don't think this is unique and exclusive to women, but it's definitely emphasized in women and when we walk into a room, as professionals, we are wearing a lot of hats.

You might not see them, but I think everybody on this stage is wearing a number of hats. Some of us are politicians, we're leaders in our communities, in our societies, in our companies, on boards. But we're also daughters and sisters potentially and mothers, some of us and friends, and maybe the head of a kindergarten parent group that has to worry about making sure everybody has the cake for the end of the year party. I mean, these are all things happening at once in our heads. And that’s just my own. I'm sorry. I don't mean to project.

Gadeer Kamal-Mreeh:  

The Sarah Jessica Parker cloud.

Aviva Steinberger:

Yeah, exactly. And I think the invitation that we're putting out to women and the engagements that we have is, bring all of those hats with you into a room. I mean, sometimes they're not necessarily relevant but the engagement at the personal level, at the business level, at the values level, sharing ideas for the vision of what the future, the region could look like. That's really where the connection I mean, I witnessed and sorry, I'm going to share I witnessed and embrace between these two friends who hadn't seen each other in a long time. And I overheard Gadeer say this is the hug of two strong women. That's something unique to women.

And, I think if we create the space where that happens, those ties, then feed into trusting networks, where I know that my friend, who I just met last month and spent two and a half days with, who is running a business in Nigeria, and is looking for funding. And I'm connecting with a funder in the UAE who's looking for women-led ag-tech businesses, I'm suddenly making that connection and putting them in touch. And you create these networks of trust that create opportunity. And so it's an opportunity that leads to more women sitting around the table making decisions on investments, more women sitting around the table making decisions around what kind of solutions to pursue, and where these cross regional, cross border synergies could happen.

And that I believe in my heart of hearts, is where we're charting a path to a new future for the region. I don't think it's naive to say, we are on the cusp of a new dynamic in the Middle East. Because of these opportunities, and because of these opportunities to engage. I will also say just in terms of numbers-wise. Globally, women representation we spoke about in politics, but women representation, as CEOs and founders of companies, is an abysmal 8% cap, no matter where you go, you're gonna hit that 8-9% number. When I first heard this, I immediately started checking our stats in Israel, because I was like, that's, that can't be in Israel. Israel is just hovering around 10. And we are a global leader.

This is an improvement. And you're talking about after seeing efforts. And if you look at the numbers coming out of the universities, women are very well represented today at the academic level and computer sciences. You're talking about graduates that are hovering around 50%, if not more at some university. So you think, okay, you know, we're charting a path for a better future. But that doesn't translate. The reality doesn't translate into seeing more women, founding companies, leading companies. And that is a gap that needs to be addressed. And the jury's still out on what's the silver bullet to get there. But I think it is in creating opportunities.

And Ayelet also spoke about this, this mentoring, I think, in particular in the region. I mean, from the United States, I'm American, living in Israel, for the last 25 years, I have not had a challenge finding women to model, women to reach out to and say, you know, I can track this path. And this is where I can see myself being as a future leader. But women in the region don't necessarily have that network, and creating these networks where you can access a vision for what future female leadership looks like and see it and get there and not be the only woman in the room, that has tremendous power. And that's really what we're driving to see in the business and tech community.

Manya Brachear Pashman:

If you missed last week’s episode, be sure to tune in for our live recording from Tel Aviv with one of Israel’s top podcasts, Israel Story. Host Mishy Harman and I joined the grandson of Moshe Kol, one of the 37 signers of Israel’s Declaration of Independence as part of Israel Story’s latest series, “Signed, Sealed, Delivered?” Don’t miss it.