Late last June, a group of Global Ambassadors program mentors—Wendy Luhabe, Inez McCormack, Denise Menelly, Jennifer Taylor, and Ann Veneman—gathered with some accomplished Vital Voices Global Leadership Network members from Israel, Ghana, Argentina, Burma, and Afghanistan for a five-day forum in Cape Town. Trading stories of triumph and challenge, as well as advice and strategies on how to advance their gender in business, government, and civil society was only part of the exchange’s invaluable takeaway. Poverty-reducing schemes, ways to provide universal primary education, and discussions about how to enhance the impact of women leaders around the world rounded out the South Africa event’s agenda.
Two of the program’s mentees included Israeli residents Noha Khatieb and Liron Peleg-Hadomi, who are Palestinian and Jewish-Israeli civil society activists, respectively. They were mentored by one of the most influential civil rights leaders in Northern Ireland, Inez McCormack, also a longtime member of Vital Voices Global Leadership Network. Transcending geographic borders, the trio had a commonality of working in some of the most challenging neighborhoods in the world.
It was nearly a decade ago when McCormack first mentored Israeli and Palestinian women who had begun forging partnerships for peace and stability. She used to say, “Leadership means that when you take a step forward, you turn ‘round and pull somebody else into that space.” Working with women in the Middle East was just one of the ways McCormack inspired generations of emerging women leaders in Vital Voices’ network. Once asked why she chose to do this work, McCormack, who was honored in 2011 by Newsweek Daily Beast alongside First Lady Michelle Obama, Meryl Streep, and Cambodian Nobel Prize nominee Mu Sochua, responded in her characteristic soft brogue, “At the heart of everything, I desire to see the glint in a woman’s eye who thought she was nobody, when she realized she was somebody.”
Coinciding with Barack Obama’s first state visit to Israel as U.S. President, the Daily Beast spoke with mentees Noha and Liron. The two women commented on last summer’s program, as well as the privilege of their mentorship with Inez McCormack who lost her life to cancer earlier this year.
Q: Tell us about the Vital Voices Peace and Prosperity initiative and how you met each other.
Liron Peleg-Hadomi: Back in 2008, I was the co-director of an NGO called Galilead, a leadership development program for Jewish and Arabs; Noha was the principal of the school Hand in Hand. We were part of a Vital Voices delegation of Jewish and Arab women that went to Northern Ireland to learn more about best practices and conflict resolution. And she and I met on the train on the way to the airport. From the experience of meeting women from different backgrounds we felt we wanted to do more with what we had learned. In 2010, we became the local coordinators for a new extension of the Vital Voices Peace and Prosperity program for young women within Israel that meets monthly to foster the next generation of peace builders. Then, last year, with the Global Ambassadors program, we met with inspiring women from around the world…
Noha Khatieb: Being chosen by Vital Voices to join their seminar in Northern Ireland was a life-changing experience. It was the first time I realized that there is actual hope for a real peace agreement and that if they could do it then we definitely could, too.
Q: Your colleagues say you and Noha ‘complete each other’ and ‘set a great example of co-existence.’ Tell us a little about how this extends to the work you do with other Arab and Israeli women.
LPH: It’s a friendship for life. It’s a funny story that goes back to that train ride when we first met. I had confided to Noha that I was pregnant. Then afterwards she told me she found out that she, too, was expecting—twins. Our children ended up being born the same week!
Women have the ability to connect with each other on a personal level as women, as mothers, and as human beings, and it’s those abilities that are an important part of peace building. When we came back, Noha and I had also worked on the International Conference for Women that started in Israel in April of 2010 and our friendship became a partnership. We are working on a special two-day seminar of Israeli and Arab women this weekend in Tel Aviv to recruit women we worked with in order to help them choose joint advocacy projects.
Q: Explain how you felt when you heard you were being paired with Inez McCormack. How much did you know of her accomplishments at the time?
NK: I hadn’t heard of her before we met in Northern Ireland.
LPH: When we first met Inez we didn’t have an opportunity to get to really know her on any personal level. But we were very inspired by her work in civil society. She was for us like a hero. Just to hear her talk, her openness, honesty, and humility was so inspiring.
When we were selected to be her mentees in the Global Ambassadors program, it was like a dream come true. We couldn’t have thought of anyone else. Our communications were so strong; we felt as if we knew her for many years. We worked with her that week last June and talked to her one more time over the summer. Then she became too ill to continue. Our time with her was short, but so meaningful and powerful.
Bank of America Global Strategy & Marketing Officer Anne Finucane also shares some of her own thoughts on the widely lauded activist.
Q: You were aware of Inez McCormack before the Global Partnerships program began. What would you like to say about her formidable contributions?
Anne Finucane: I first became aware of Inez during the Northern Ireland peace talks. The country was locked in the grips of a conflict between Catholics and Protestants that had been nearly continuous since 1798, hit a violent crescendo in the 1970s and had barely abated by the late ‘90s. Inez was a Protestant who had married a Catholic activist and joined forces with a group of Catholic women who were demanding of their male political leaders that the Peace Accords, which had recently stalled out, be revived. When I heard her speak, I was inspired by her message on ending the cycle of violence: ‘Enough is enough—now it is time to have peace.’
But Inez was more than a peace and human rights activist. She was a powerful trade union leader, the founder of an influential human rights organization, a lifelong fighter for and defender of women’s equality and for equal rights for all. As a founding member of the Vital Voices Global Advisory Council, she inspired a new generation of emerging women leaders from all over the world. I am honored Inez participated in the Global Ambassadors program, a Bank of America—Vital Voices partnership, and I know her impact will be felt for generations to come.
Q: From your perspective, why is it so crucial to have female leaders in politics?
LPH: They bring a different perspective to the table, different capacities. Their communication and listening skills are different. They are capable of connecting and building relationships and making connections that are needed.
Q: What is life like for women in Israel now and what are the biggest challenges they face?
LPH: Fifty-one percent of the population in Israel is made up of women. An optimistic side of the story is that since January, Israel’s legislative branch, The Knesset, now has 26 women members [out of 120]. It’s the largest representation women have ever had. There are many women who work in civil society and are directors of NGOs; some women are in the business sector and a few are mayors. But when you go to the top level of companies and government there are more men than women, not unlike in other countries. There’s still a lot yet to wish for.
NK: I agree. In my opinion the real challenge is entering politics, especially local politics in the cities and villages, as well as governmental politics.
LPH: I would add that what’s unique is that our lives are shaped around war and a feeling of security is not existent. In a way you don’t think about it because it’s a way of life. Every year men and women are going off to the army—either your husband, brother, sister-in-law… It’s also important that people know that it’s not a feeling of war and insecurity in everyday life. Life in Israel is generally peaceful and fine; it’s just the feeling that war can happen any day. This is why it’s so important to work on peace building and finding common ground, so people will understand that peace is possible. Inside Israel we still need to work closely with all our different communities.
Q: How critical is it for women to work together?
LPH: For some it’s a first time they are meeting other women outside of their community. You can live in such a small country like Israel all your life and go to Jewish schools and never have a relationship with an Israeli-Arab, which is how stereotypes are formed. It’s a lot about developing trust and having a safe place to share beliefs openly. That’s not easy. Noha and I believe there’s a way to do that. It’s developing a capacity for empathy. It’s important to have a space where we can agree to disagree and for listening and learning; to arrange site visits to other villages, for example. You also learn how to listen differently. What we have realized is it can work if you work on common interests like healthcare, children’s education, poverty… And you learn not to be afraid of disagreement.
NK: Exactly. It’s critical for women to work together in order to meet on the simplest basis as women, and then lead change in their communities.
Q: What is the percentage of Israeli-Arabs living in Israel?
NK: Only twenty percent of Israel’s entire population of nearly eight million is Israeli-Arab. If roughly half of that percentage is women, it’s truly a minority within a minority.
Q: As an Arab educator in Israel, describe your work with Israel’s Ministry of Education and the curricula you developed.
NK: I believe that our schools are the best way to ‘raise’ new generations, with less prejudicial ideas and hate. It’s the only way to look at each other as equals and as human beings. To see others without masks and by personal experience is the best proof that we are all equal and able to meet on shared issues and see differences as strong themes of identities.
I work on building projects of dialogue between Arabs and Jews in Israel; working with all levels—school principals, teachers, students, parents… And especially building a curriculum that reflects the multiculturalism of the country.
Q: Name some specific skills or strategies you learned from your mentorship, and what it was like working with a hero of yours.
LPH: It’s still very much in my mind and my heart. Something Inez would say that was also her driving force: ‘Always look for who is not at the table and who is marginalized…’ This is a major topic in Israel for us, whether it has to do with the economy or our security, women are not at the table. In Israel those who are building gaps in bridges, women in civil society groups, either you don’t hear about them or their voices can’t be heard. I’m a community organizer and the question is always, ‘How do we bring more people and help them be heard?’
In one meeting, Inez had the ability to see you and know you as a person. I remember her looking in my eyes and telling me, ‘I think you don’t realize how strong you are and how important the work you are doing is.’ I’m working [in this field] for twelve years and I never really saw my strength. Inez got me to appreciate and acknowledge my own leadership skills and the ability to mentor others. Also, her ability to cross lines and bring together different sectors in such a humble way was truly inspiring.
NK: We had a very meaningful connection with Inez. She had great impact on both of us as an amazing leader and woman fighting for her beliefs and values.
Inez was a great mentor and she taught me one very important lesson: You don’t do peace with your friend you do it with your worst enemy. And that made me realize that I can never say ‘I don’t talk to…’ I will talk with my worst enemy to tell him my opinion and why he needs peace as much as I do.
Q: Talk a little about the power of mentorship and how it widens perspectives.
LPH: With a global network and friendships that have been formed with women from places like Egypt, Argentina, India, and Africa, it really helps when you realize you are not at the center of the world. You are part of a big picture that gives you hope to continue with your mission. It prompts you to say ‘OK, I can’t stop now’ when you hear all the amazing things that women are doing, and you get inspired all over again to go back to your own work and then pay it forward. It’s a very empowering experience. This lesson you take from other women is very strong. It also makes you want to broaden your own network. The power of these social relationships has the capacity to create change.
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