Despite double-minority status, television anchor Gadeer Mreeh defies stereotypes and bigotry
The folks at Israel Public Broadcasting Corporation must have had some concerns about seating Druze news anchor Gadeer Mreeh in a glass paneled broadcast set given her propensity for shattering glass ceilings. Originally assigned to the Arabic desk, Gadeer herself was the story when she became the nation’s first non-Jewish woman to anchor the Hebrew news broadcast.
Wife and mother of two young children, Gadeer has defied a daunting array of cultural, religious and political reasons legislating against her undeniable success.
[Gadeer spent time at The Media Line bureau speaking with colleague Felice Friedson about her journey and the barriers that remain. – ed.]
Felice Friedson, TML: Journalist, reporter, anchorwoman, nothing new so far…but within our profession, Gadeer Mreeh has gone where no one before her has. A Druze woman anchoring Israel’s television news on a main Israeli channel. Welcome.
GADEER: Thank you very much.
TML: Gadeer, to understand the magnitude of your achievements, let’s understand the community you represent. There are about eight million people in Israel, the Druze community is about 130,000 strong. Who are they?
GADEER: 140,00 exactly, it’s something like less than two percent of Israeli population. We are Arabic speaking, esoteric ethnoreligious society. Our faith originally developed out of the Islamic Shia and there are something like 1.5 million Druze members around the word. We live in the Middle East, also in the U.S., in Canada, Australia, Germany, even in South America. And we live in mountains. You can see in Israel there are sixteen Druze villages; including the Golan Heights’ four Druze villages. We believe that in that way in the separate villages, we can maintain our unique identity which is very different than the Arab society. We have internal marriages, which means a Druze female must marry a Druze male, that’s why I met my husband on an Internet chat, in a Druze room chat because I knew I needed to marry a Druze guy.
TML: Is there an exception to the rule?
GADEER: When I came back home and I told my mother we had a blind date she said “Oh, I knew his mother, we are relatives,” but I didn’t know it.
TML: Culturally speaking, is a career in the public eye with visibility to the masses something one would expect from your community?
GADEER: It’s important to say that in our religion we have equal rights for women and men and we are the only religion in which women can ask for and get a divorce without even her husband’s approval. But socially speaking, there are still a lot of limits on women. For example, religious Druze women in 2018 are not allowed to have driver’s license, which is absurd. The religious leaders want to protect us from accidents and unexpected things but we have made very good process toward equal rights.
TML: Gadeer, you drive?
GADEER: Yes, I drive and I remember at first when I started to work in media, eight years ago, people didn’t like the fact that I’m in media. I remember one day a religious member approached my parents and he told them that this is not appropriate for Druze women to work in media. You know, it is work that requires long hours outside the home. Sometimes even sleeping outside the home. Working with men, very high public exposure and he said that this is not appropriate and they put lots of pressure on me. I remember it was like a movie scene. It was a rainy day, I pulled my car over to the side of the street…I cried. I called my boss…I said “Ayelet, I decided to quit.” She was shocked! She told me, “No, you are a success story and you have huge potential in the Israeli media. Don’t make any brutal decisions!.” It was two weeks of rethinking about my goals, my purpose, my achievements. What do I want to do in my life? I decided to continue. Lucky I had and still have the full support of my parents and my husband, I decided to do it.
TML: Let’s go back…how did you get started in broadcasting?
GADEER: My mother remembers me as a child, sitting in front of the mirror and broadcasting news. I knew at a young age the huge power of this small screen and I knew that this is something that I wanted to do, but is wasn’t easy. People didn’t accept it even last year when there was the formal announcement of my appointment when I started to broadcast news also in Hebrew. I was the first non-Jewish woman to do that.
TML: So, you broke a glass ceiling or two.
GADEER: Yes, yes, another glass ceiling. So, I received thousands of blessings. People called me and were very excited about my appointment and the most touching one I received was from the spiritual leader of the Druze community in Israel, Sheikh Moafaq Tarif. He called me and I cried. He told me I’m proud of you and you symbolize the successful Druze woman who tried and succeeded in her career life, while continuing to maintain your unique identity and it set a precedent. People were shocked that he called me. It means I proved to myself that I did it, I helped to change the image of women and now our religious leaders also understand that they can trust us, they can trust women, not just in career…maybe one day to drive.
TML: Where did you start? You had to have been educated in the field.
GADEER: I have a BA which I finished at Bar Ilan University in medical imaging and I have a M.A. which I finished at the University of Haifa in International Relations where I specialized in negotiations and took practical courses. I finished everything with honors.
TML: Your Mom must be proud.
GADEER: Yes, very proud.
TML: What would you consider your biggest break?
GADEER: Being in the media as an anchorwoman. As an anchorwoman, by my position, I can set the agenda, I can influence, I can change things. You know we talked about the driver’s license and on that day, last September when there was a formal announcement in Saudi Arabia about granting women the right to obtain a driver’s license, I broadcasted on that day and I discussed it with the news program, with my colleagues — and all of them are Jewish men — I talked about the importance of the issue. When I participate in conferences, in panels, when I give lectures, I talk about the importance of self-fulfillment, the importance of equal rights, because I face a lot of challenges in this way.
TML: Let’s go back to the reaction of your family, the first time they saw you on television.
GADEER: It was amazing. They saw that I did it and they were so proud. You know, my mother is a religious woman and it wasn’t easy for her at first. And also, as a sound technician, I worked with men, I worked in a medical field and she said OK, although they put pressure, but she said my daughter will study and she will achieve her goals and it doesn’t matter who or how, they are going to accept it. My father is a contractor and he was so proud of me. He always talked about my success and he looked at it as a success story.
TML: What does your success mean to the State of Israel?
GADEER: I think it is a success model of successful integration of minorities. You know, I faced a lot of challenges. First, being a woman in a conservative and patriarchal society, as I told you it wasn’t easy. The second one, you know I live in Daliyat al-Karmil, which is located in the peripheral of northern Israel. When I finished at Reshet, for example, at Channel 2, I finished with honors and they gave me a scholarship to start to work with them and I refused to accept it. I was so afraid to work in Tel Aviv and to travel every day from Daliyat al-Karmil, but today I understand that in order to be in high positions in the main companies, you really need to be located in the center of Israel, so you need to travel. So, I faced the fear, I faced the challenge. You know being a minority within a minority, being an Israeli citizen, but not Jewish, being an Arab, but not Muslim. Being the successful career, liberal, western woman and on the same day, the simple woman who participates in traditional ceremonies, funerals and weddings or even asking my mother-in-law how to cook traditional dishes or Druze pita. I’m accomplished, a mix of all these factors and it enriches me, enriches my identity, expands my opportunities and it helps me to deal with things differently. You know, it is a model of a success story for women, also for minorities – [both] can be in high positions in the Israeli media.
TML: Do Hebrew speakers expect you to champion Israeli issues and do Arabic speakers expect you to champion Arab and Palestinian issues?
GADEER: It depends how you look at this issue. At first, as in any news agency, you are loyal to your audience. You have to maintain your credibility to your audience…if you lose it, you will lose your audience. It’s very important in the new media era…think about it…look what is happening in Syria.
Any citizen could be a journalist today. You can take photos and send videos to the world immediately and reflective on reality. But as media, we have to reflect the reality in an objective way, a neutral way.
TML: But they aren’t really journalists, they are citizen journalists…there’s a training in journalism.
GADEER: They are not waiting for us, for the classic media to give them the news on 7:00pm or prime time.
TML: So, what do we do today to change that?
GADEER: Sometimes there are influences, sometimes there are external influences, they are political sometimes but you have to maintain your credibility. If you ask me as a woman or as a Druze, my identity, you know I am in the middle and when there was the formal announcement of my appointment, I received the blessing from the two sides, from the two worlds. On one hand from the right-wing Israeli community and on the other hand from the neighboring countries, including Ramallah, West Bank, we talked about my appointment…so I’m in the middle, but I need to separate. I’m not a Druze woman, I’m a journalist who must reflect the reality as is, in a neutral way. I’m not Israeli, I’m not Palestinian, I’m a journalist.
TML: Gadeer, the story that had the most impact…the story that hit you, both on an intellectual basis and that actually paved the way for the future, what was it?
GADEER: Any story related to this conflict…to the Israeli, Palestinian conflict touches me the most. We have stories sometimes, of innocent people, you know Felice, children, young generation…[who] really don’t want to be involved in this conflict but they are forced because of certain circumstances. I really don’t want to address this right now, the political aspect, but you know it is tough to see sometimes…a young generation experiencing tragedies. Look for example in Syria…we have millions of people, innocent people, families, children who are uprooted from their homes who are experiencing terrible tragedies and being exposed to horrific scenes and thinking about the impact, the influence of all of this on the young generation of the Middle East. These are the stories we need to stop and think about.
TML: Speaking of children, do you have?
GADEER: I have two wonderful children, they are almost four and nine years old but I try to separate because we are dealing with media, with news, with Middle East, there are very things, hard stories. I try not to talk about it with them, it’s too early for me to do it. I try to protect them now.
TML: Is there any topic that really bothers you that you feel doesn’t see the light of day here in covering stories in Israel?
GADEER: Stories related to the Arab community. Last summer there was a child who was kidnapped by a crime family and no news agency opened the news with this item because he was Arab and his name was Karim Jumhour. He wasn’t a Jewish boy and I imagine that if he was a Jewish boy, maybe all the media would cover his story 24/7. So sometimes, stories related to the Arab community is not reflected in the proper way in the Israel media.
TML: Do you feel you have impact in changing that?
GADEER: Yes, of course and this is what we do; We belong to IPBC, Israeli Public Broadcasting Corporation, and we have our daily Arabic news and our Hebrew news. It means we broadcast from Israel, to Israel and the Middle East, but we concentrate on the stories of the local Arab people, society, their stories, the issues they are dealing with, because they are our audience, the local Arabic community.
TML: Prejudice, bigotry, it exists on a global scale but how would you rate it in Israel?
GADEER: I can tell you by my story that the acceptance of me was amazing. People were thirsty for something else. For a new face on-screen. I remember when I started to broadcast the Hebrew news, I was afraid and I confronted with colleagues, with Arieh Golan for example, he is a guru in Israeli media. He told me that the Israeli society is thirsty for a new face. They understand the importance of journalism, of having people from different minorities because it is important. In globalization, everybody works with everybody and also in the IPBC I have colleagues from all other religions, we work together and this is our power. It means every reporter can look and think in a different way because he’s coming from other communities, so it will enrich us as a company, as a news media agency.
TML: Should the Arab community become more politically active?
GADEER: It depends how…sometimes people ask me why there are not enough female journalists or Arab journalists in the Israeli media. Sometimes I think there is a problem with our image, the image as in the Arab society. We don’t dare to dream. We don’t work enough to overcome the challenges. Sometimes, I see females from my society who are very smart and very clever and can work in any company, but they prefer to stay the simple, Druze or Arab woman, so sometimes we should work harder in order to succeed, in order to integrate into the Israeli society. But we can see that we are in the right direction. I can tell you as a Druze in my community, for example, I think we are a success story or a success model of minority in our integration into the Israeli society. We have the highest percentage of people enlisting in the army which is eighty percent, it’s higher than the Jewish community which is 74 percent. We have people who are holding very high-ranking positions in security units, in IDF prison service, in Border Police. Even today the coordinator of government activities in the territories is Druze. We have a Communications Minister who is a Druze. Even women today, we have one thousand Druze females who serve in the National Service which is the maximum number of jobs that the state can offer. So, we have integrated very well as Druze and I think that the Arab community, or on the other hand, maybe the state of Israel, could use us to its advantage to send a message to the other minorities that we are a success story of integration.
TML: Have you ever considered following a number of other journalists into politics?
GADEER: I never say never. Who knows where we will be in five years. We believe in destiny. Sometimes things are predestined. But maybe, yes, because as a politician you can influence more, you can set the agenda much easier when you are in the political arena. Although this is a patriarchal atmosphere, look what happened [with the municipal and mayoral elections] …women in Israel made history by a record number. We have eleven Israeli women who were elected to help cities and be members in the local council. It is five more than the previous election and one of them, I don’t know if you know, was Sameera Emran from Ein Qinya, a very brave woman. She nominated herself, although she knew she had no chance and the religious leaders put lots of pressure on her to remove her candidacy but she said no, and she got one vote, her vote and even her husband didn’t vote for her but she said it doesn’t matter.
TML: So Gadeer, let’s say for argument sake, you take the plunge. Minority and woman, it’s an amazing combination…what would be your first act as Prime Minister?
GADEER: I think I would choose the idealization to seek an Israeli, Palestinian peace agreement, but unfortunately, I don’t think that this will happen. You know there is a standstill today, there is no negotiation. We have the right-wing government which prefers, in some way, to keep the status quo and on the other hand, the Palestinian leaders are not doing enough in order to seek peace. But who knows, maybe we could bridge this peace one day. Maybe Trump will be the U.S. President who will give us a peace one day.
TML: And on a local level, looking at your community, if you had to pick something that really needs more help in the Druze community, what would it be?
GADEER: To work on women, to strengthen women in my society. This is something that I take very seriously. This is something that I talk about in every conference or panel that I participate in, because I believe in them. I started at first to educate myself. It was the hardest challenge for me being a woman and I said to myself, I will start with myself as a woman. To educate myself, to educate my inner circle, my family, my partner, my children, my parents that women have to get equal rights. And when you see women who succeeded in their life, who enjoyed the self-fulfillment, she will be also a better member, a more successful, social member and you know this is a win, win situation…this is a circle of success in any society, not just in Druze society.
TML: Gadeer Mreeh, thank you for breaking glass ceilings and for joining us at The Media Line.
GADEER: Thank you very much, Felice.