Isolation? The Coronavirus Crisis Brought These Arab and Jewish Experts Together

A new Israeli think tank is addressing a glaring omission in a state panel trying to combat COVID-19 – the lack of female and minority representation

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
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Fida Shehada, left, Michal Manheimer and Efrat Yerday from the Crisis Experts panel.
Fida Shehada, left, Michal Manheimer and Efrat Yerday from the Crisis Experts panel.
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

Fida Shehada and Michal Manheimer have never met in person. Both are women and Israeli citizens, but until recently there was little chance their paths would have crossed.

Shehada, 36, is an Arab councilwoman in the mixed city of Lod, while Manheimer, 40, is an ultra-Orthodox social activist from Bnei Brak – the country’s largest predominantly Haredi city – who runs a movement aimed at pushing more members of her community into local politics.

In recent months, Shehada and Manheimer have spent many hours together on Zoom putting together recommendations, based on their own personal and professional experiences, on how to use local government more effectively in responding to the coronavirus crisis.

The two women are part of a new initiative that aims to provide a platform for voices that often don’t get heard during times of national crisis. Shehada and Manheimer are co-chairs of a team focused on local government that’s part of a pop-up think tank called Crisis Experts. A 20-page policy paper, now available on its website, in Hebrew and Arabic, represents the fruits of their intensive brainstorming sessions of recent months.

“We decided to focus our work on Arab and Haredi localities because those are the ones that tend to be overlooked by the government,” Shehada explains. “What I found most surprising were the similarities in these two communities. They both fell between the cracks in the crisis because the government didn’t provide them with information in a way that was accessible to them. And in both these communities, you find a real lack of trust in the establishment.”

Nihaya Daoud. “With this forum we’ve created, we’re providing some balance,” she says.

Manheimer says she found her first-ever collaboration with an Arab partner to be eye-opening. “I had already been aware of the similarities between the Haredi and Arab communities, but the health care crisis made it all the more obvious,” she says. “There is a lot more to do and to discuss, and it’s not going to end with this one policy paper.”

Crisis Experts was founded by a group of Israel academics and social activists in response to what they saw as a huge flaw in the panel of experts assembled to advise the government on fighting the pandemic: the underrepresentation of women and minorities. The panel advising the government, set up by the National Security Council, consists of 31 members, including eight research assistants. All 23 of the experts are male, and only two of the research assistants are female. There is no Arab representation on the panel.

“With this forum we’ve created, we’re providing some balance,” says Nihaya Daoud, a senior lecturer in public health at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Be’er Sheva, and co-chair of the Crisis Experts health care team.

“Not only does our group of experts provide a better picture of Israeli society,” she adds, “but unlike the National Security Council, we’re not operating under the wings of the government and, therefore, are at greater liberty to express our views.” Daoud, an Arab woman, co-chairs the health care team with Prof. Nadav Davidovitch, director of the School of Public Health at Ben-Gurion University.

Prof. Arie Arnon

The forum’s primary mission is to present recommendations that address the socioeconomic challenges created by the pandemic.

“We all felt that the main decision-makers in the country were taking a very shortsighted approach to the crisis,” says Arie Arnon, a professor emeritus from the department of economics at Ben-Gurion University and co-leader of the project. “They were focused mainly on the economic issues but not on the social challenges.”

Helping shape policy

The forum is broken down into nine teams of experts and, as well as the abovementioned areas, also focuses on such fields as welfare, planning, education, women, and housing and transportation. Each team has two leaders – one Jewish, one Arab – and at least one head of each team is female. The policy papers produced by each team are published on the Crisis Experts website and distributed to lawmakers and public policymakers. Almost all the work is being done on a voluntary basis.

“I wouldn’t go so far as to say that our recommendations have been adopted at the highest levels, but they have definitely helped shape policy,” says Arnon, who runs the project together with Prof. Mona Khoury-Kassabri, dean of the School of Social Work at the Hebrew. She was the first Arab woman ever to be appointed dean at an Israeli university.

Mona Khoury-Kassabri.

During the social justice protests in the summer of 2011 – initially sparked by the rising price of cottage cheese, a staple product in Israel – a similar forum was created. “That’s where we took our inspiration from,” Arnon says.

Daoud, who was also part of the previous group, notes that “many of our recommendations from back then are just as relevant today.”

Leading the team on police-citizen relations are Efrat Yerday, chair of the Association of Ethiopian Jews, and Abed Abu Shehadeh, a prominent Arab social activist who until recently sat on Tel Aviv-Jaffa City Council. They represent two communities that often complain about racial profiling by the police.

“Initially, we debated about whether we should present recommendations on society as a whole or limit our scope to our own communities,” Yerday says.

“We decided to focus on our own communities because these are communities you rarely hear about on the nightly news,” she adds, “and we thought the coronavirus might actually present an opportunity for the police to make amends for the past and show that they can also serve Ethiopian Israelis and Arab Israelis.”

A roundtable in Ramle in August 2011 following a summer of protests around the country calling for social justice. The roundtables were the inspiration for Crisis Experts. Credit: Nir Keidar