Belonging to four minority groups certainly would have a formative effect on anyone. It could turn a person in any number of clearly logical directions, depending on who that person is at base.
The direction that Lian Najami, who will speak at Temple Emeth on September 21, about a week after she turns 25, took is toward inclusivity, realism, clarity, and hope. As an inspirational speaker who talks about her county as an Arab Israeli, as a Muslim, as a woman, and as someone with a physical disability, she is uniquely situated to be able to talk about Israel with clear-eyed love.
And also with formidable brains.
Ms. Najami also is Israel’s first Arab Rhodes Scholar. She’s going to Oxford in October, to begin work on both an MSc in comparative social policy and an MBA, in Oxford’s two-year One Plus One program. “I want to research inclusivity policy, knowing that there is an academic lacuna in that area,” she said. “I want to focus on the workplace, in public places, and in the university.
Ms. Najami’s speaking career “started with my desire to bring to light the voice of the Arabs inside Israel, which is neglected, and not represented abroad,” she said. When she was outside Israel, “I’d say where I was from, and people would assume I’m Jewish. People don’t know that a quarter of the country is not Jewish. That’s where I began. I look at it as my responsibility to bring awareness of the minority groups in Israel, and to educate people about who is Israel in the 21st century. About what an Israeli identity is.
“I don’t want to bore people with statistics, but I try to bring the perspective of the Arab Israeli to light.” So she tells personal stories, “both from my life as an Arab Israeli in Haifa, and also about people in the villages.
“I feel that I have a huge responsibility, because I often am the first Arab Israeli people meet, and I don’t want anyone to think that my feelings are everyone’s feelings.”
Her feelings are that her country, like every country, is complicated; that her society, like every society, is complicated, and that her country’s image, generally presented as black and white, is not accurate because generally it is not shown to be complicated.
“I am proud to be an Israeli citizen,” she said. “I try to explain that we need to differentiate between the people and the government.” When she spoke to a group of pro-Palestinian students on a college campus recently, for example, she said, “I tried to explain that it’s like Trump caging the kids at the borders.” Donald Trump is those students’ president, but they are not responsible for his actions, she said, and they love their country. The parallels are not exact, but they are clear.
“I pride myself on not showing a perfect image of Israel, because that is not reality,” she said. “I am a citizen of Israel, and I believe that I should be able to criticize it. I am a freelancer. I am not sponsored by the government. I am not on a diplomatic mission. I don’t think that I could let go of that freedom.”
Part of Ms. Najami’s story is her refusal to be a victim, and the way that Israel helped her reject that status.
When she was 12, she was diagnosed with a nerve problem in her legs that have left them more or less useless from the knees down; she can’t walk long distances or up and down stairs, and she undergoes frequent surgeries. “My illness is something that it was assumed would hold me back, but instead it pushed me to be the best version of myself,” she said. “I was a very active kid, and suddenly I had to let go of everything. All of a sudden, all my extracurricular activities were gone, and I had to find something else.
“Instead of letting me feel sorry for myself, my grandmother registered me for a young leadership program in Haifa. We had a life coach for about a year, and he changed a lot of my perspective.”
Israeli culture helped her. “In Arab society, you are made to feel that you are burden, both financially and emotionally, if you have a disability,” she said. “But growing up in Israel, you are told something different. You are encouraged to be part of society.” Recently, members of the disability community in Israel have been protesting because they feel that the stipend the government gives them is too small. She sympathizes with them — she wasn’t bothered personally because she lived with her parents, who gave her both love and support — but she feels that overall, “I was very fortunate to have grown up in Haifa.”
Ms. Najami knows a lot about other Israeli communities; she went to a Christian high school, and she volunteered at the Leo Baeck Education Center in Haifa.
“I realized that I do not want to be a victim of my illness,” she said. “I do not want to play the victim card.
“I know that life is short, and I want to live it.”
That’s how she developed the courage that allows her to say what she says, to confront Israel-can-do-no-wrongers and Israel-can-do-no-righters.
“I don’t care what other people think,” she said, then revised that to be more accurate. “I have learned not to take it personally. Not to be hurt by it. That’s what pushes me to speak honestly and truthfully.”
That sounds abstract; her life is anything but.
“I know that my needs, as an Arab in Haifa, are not the same as they would be if I were an Arab in a village, or in Jerusalem.”
So, some specifics.
“I’m not only an Arab from a Muslim family, I’m also a female in Israeli society,” she said. “In Israel, being a woman in the job market is not such a big deal, but it is in Arab society. Eighty-three percent of Jewish women are employed, including a high percentage of Orthodox Jewish women; on the Arab side, 36 percent of women are employed. I can point to governmental barriers, such as the lack of transportation in peripheral areas, and the lack of job opportunities, but one of the major barriers is the mentality of Arab society, and mainly of the men and the elderly.” All those factors work together, she said.
But it is tremendously helpful to the whole society when women work, she continued. “What we have learned is that once you invest in a woman, she invests it back in her family, in her social circle, in her community. That’s sometimes unlike men, who sometimes tend to act a bit more selfishly.”
After she graduated from Haifa University, Ms. Najami went to Washington as a Lantos-Humanity in Action Congressional Fellow; the Lantos part of the name comes from Tom Lantos, the Hungarian-born Jewish Democratic representative from California who escaped the Holocaust. That’s where she met her husband, Joe Ryan-Hume, a Scot (and a descendant of the 18th-century Scottish philosopher Thomas Hume) who was there representing his country, as she was hers. He’s now a Ph.D. historian in Boston College on a Fulbright; the couple will continue their long-distance marriage for at least another two years.
“Joe grew up in Glasgow,” Ms. Najami said. “It’s no secret that there is a lot of pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel feeling there. I try to emphasize when I speak on campuses that you can be both pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian.”
When they started getting serious about each other, Dr. Ryan-Hume decided to move to Israel for a few months. “He had never imagined that he ever would even visit Israel,” Ms. Najami said. “But when he moved to Haifa, he got to know Israel from a different perspective.
“His whole family worried. They said that he’d be moving to a war zone. But he was like, ‘It’s heaven here. You can experience heaven on the beach in Haifa.’”
At Oxford, she plans to study ways to create inclusivity. “It’s something I strive for in today’s society, and I really hope that it exists,” she said. One of the cultures she plans to study is Israel’s.
She does not, however, want to talk about diversity. “Inclusivity, at the end of the day, is realizing that every person and every group has its own needs.” Instead, her work would be aimed at coming up with a template that could help “with the mindset that would realize that there are differences, and can tailor” that template for different cultures.
At Emeth, as at her other talks, Ms. Najami does plan to speak, but she also looks forward to listening. “I encourage people to come with open minds,” she said. “And to come not only to learn about Arabs in Israel, but also to tell me their points of view.
“I don’t talk for 50 minutes, and then leave a few minutes for questions,” she said; instead, she leaves a big chunk of time for dialogue with the audience. “That’s how we move forward,” Ms. Najami said.
Who: Lian Najami
What: Will talk about “Minority Groups in Israel & Arab-Israeli Relations.”
When: On Saturday, September 21, at 7:30 p.m., as part of Selichot services
Where: At Temple Emeth, 1666 Windsor Road in Teaneck
For more information: Call (201) 833-1322 or go to emeth.org