«Coffee? Chai? Vodka?»
I was on a private bus with a delegation of Bukharian Jews headed to DC. The mission was to visit the White House, Congress, and State Department, and discuss key issues concerning the community, such as spiraling antisemitism and support for Israel, with government representatives and elected politicians, which included the highest-ranking Jewish official, New York State Senator and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY).
The two-day trip, from April 9-10, 2024, was organized by the esteemed Boris Kandov, President of the Congress of Bukharian Jews of the USA and Canada, who plans these important visits every five years, with the help of the Friedlander Group, Brooklyn-based lobbyists with strong DC connections. This year was extra special, as it coincided with the 25th anniversary of the North American Congress.
«Vodka? Do you like vodka?» my editor Rafael Nektalov asked me. I nodded. A shot (of whisky) was poured and passed from hand to hand down the aisle to me. Leon Nektalov, President of the Bukharian Jewish Community Center, standing with a glass of his own, looked me in the eye and said, «Bottoms up.»
Clearly this was unlike any Chinatown bus experience I had before. (Texting with my cousin Stephanie who lives in DC, and who studied abroad in St. Petersburg, I learned that this behavior was pretty on par for «Russians.» «They love drinking on transportation,» she wrote.)
The drink calmed my nerves and made the five-plus-hour long ride, which originated in Queens, go by quicker. This was a joyous occasion, and a big deal—my first official excursion outside of New York with my boss Rafael Nektalov and the Bukharian community, not to mention my first time visiting the nation’s government buildings.
The bus was filled with a large cross-section of the Bukharian community: business moguls, rabbis, media, and non-profit workers. I chatted with my English-speaking neighbors, David Aronov of the UJA-Federation behind me, and Roman Kaykov of Kaykov Media and his wife to my left. Chagit and Greg Sofiev, of Leviev USA, were out of conversation reach, but within sight. We were all excited for the next 36-hour program.

Druze Defender of Israel: Gadeer Kamal-Mreeh

In lieu of visiting the Embassy of Israel upon arrival (our visit was canceled citing safety concerns; the grounds had turned into a protest zone, and there was no way to guarantee protection of any outside visitors), we were surprised with an incredible talk at the Washington Hilton by a trailblazing Israeli: Gadeer Kamal Mreeh, former member of the Knesset, and first Druze woman to anchor a Hebrew-language news program on Israeli television in 2017.
Gadeer now serves as Senior Envoy for the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI), which, from helping found and build the state of Israel, promotes Aliyah and ensures global Jewish safety. Not an easy job these days.
As Ezra Friedlander of the Friedlander Group introduced her, he said that Gadeer agreed to speak for free «because she is a strong believer in the Bukharian Jewish Congress and your mission. The only thing she asks us for is to buy her dinner. I think that’s okay, right?»
For the next 50 minutes, we quietly listened to Gadeer’s words and perspective, mesmerized by this enchanting woman: her unique story, and defiant defense of the State of Israel. She also shared some hard truths—that we cannot win this war by brute force alone.

A Complex Identity

«When people ask me who I am, I say: Hi, my name is Gadeer. I am 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, my religion is Druze, and I am a proud Israeli citizen. Good luck.»
Indeed. In a world where (most young) people, and pro-Palestinian protestors, are calling Israelis «white colonizers,» Gadeer’s identity — and job — matters more than ever.
In fact, Gadeer was told by the Israeli President to «bring the story of minorities to the US from a different perspective.»
Her upbringing in a Druze town, Daliyat al-Carmel, was colored by her father’s emphasis on active citizenship within Israel. «My father always told me, ‘You are not a minority in the Jewish State. No, you are an integral part of the State of Israel, and you must be an engaged and responsible citizen.’»
It’s a poignant reminder of the complexities inherent in her identity—a blend of loyalty to her country and allegiance to her heritage.

Druze in Israel: Loyalty and Service

Gadeer took us on a journey through the rich history and traditions of the Druze people, of which there are about 2 million people today, emphasizing their deep-rooted loyalty to the lands they inhabit, be it Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, or Israel. (There are about 150,000 in Israel alone, mostly in the north.)
«This is why at some points in the past, Israeli Druze soldiers fought against their brothers because you are loyal first to your homeland, which is very unique. The relationship between Jews and the Druze started even before the establishment of the State of Israel last century,» she revealed.
She shed light on their significant contributions, particularly their service in the Israeli army, underscoring a commitment that transcends cultural boundaries. Through personal anecdotes, she painted a vivid picture of the bonds forged between her family and Jewish counterparts—a testament to the power of human connection amidst diversity.
She also recommended everyone visit the Druze villages. «Take a good local guide and go to all of those places. Learn how our past is intertwined,» she said.

Becoming a Politician: Challenges and Triumphs

Transitioning from journalism to politics, Gadeer faced a new set of hurdles as a pioneering female Druze politician. Her journey symbolized not just personal ambition but a collective striving for representation and recognition within the political landscape.
She broke records in April 2019 as the first Druze female to be elected to the Israeli Knesset. «We had the second election because no one succeeded to form a government. Then we had a third election. I did three elections as a member of the Knesset. Then I decided to take time out after I saw the crisis. I saw that we were heading to the fourth and fifth elections. And then Isaac Herzog, the then chairman of the Jewish Agency, and now President of the State of Israel, told me, ‘Gadeer, come to the U.S. You are going to be based in D.C. Bring the story of the minorities to the U.S. from a different perspective.’»

War and its Lingering Echoes

Reflecting on the national trauma of October 7th, Gadeer then delved into the reverberations felt across Israeli and Druze communities. The war, she explained, served as a catalyst, reigniting memories of historical tragedies like the Holocaust for Jews and the Nakba for Palestinians. It’s a poignant reminder of the interconnectedness of collective traumas and their enduring impact on societies.
She shared a photo from October 3, 2023, which she believed was the trigger of October 7th. The image was of an Israeli man praying in Riyadh, during Israel’s official visit – they sent two ministers – to Saudi Arabia, a result of the Abraham Accords.
«People were proud that we have official delegation participating in the UN summit in Riyadh. And this photo [of a Jewish man praying] was published in the New York Times. He’s one of the officials of this delegation praying in his hotel room with the view of Riyadh. We felt, as Israelis in recent years, that for years we struggled. For years, we were so thirsty for this acceptance at the Jewish state in the Arab world,» she said.
She recalled in 1967, when Arab leaders convened and declared the «three no’s»: «No peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, and no negotiation with Israel,» she said. «So for years, we worked hard simply to be accepted, to be recognized in the region.» Israel may have had peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan, «but it was hard.»
However, in recent years, there has been a warming towards Israel with «dramatic rapid changes in the Middle East. Pragmatic, Sunni countries realized there are mutual goals, mutual challenges in the region, and they want to normalize relations with Israel,» she said.
While relations were normalized in 2020 with Bahrain, Morocco, Sudan and UAE, «Saudi Arabia is a game changer,» she said. «Saudi Arabia is the symbol of Islam with the two holiest cities of Islam. For us, it was the key for further normalizations with the Arab world, with the Muslim world. We have half a billion Arabs living in 22 countries, some of them sharing borders with Israel.»
In this moment, Israel was hubristic, she reflected, feeling it could bypass the Palestinian conflict and issues by normalizing relations with the Gulf States. «So regionally, Israel was thriving,» said Gadeer.

Israeli Society:
Divided to United

But internally, Israeli society was divided. During the 2020 election, the country was split 50/50 with Prime Minister Netanyahu clinching the election with just 30,000 extra votes.
Gadeer navigated the intricate social fabric of Israel, highlighting the stark divisions between Jews and Arabs, left and right.
But these disappeared after October 7th.
«Did you know that Israeli Arabs were donating money and supplies to soldiers? Because October 7th was traumatic for them, too. There were 25 Israeli Arabs who were killed, kidnapped or injured on October 7th,» she said.
She then analyzed how moments of crisis have the power to supersede disunity, briefly uniting Israelis — Arab Israelis, Druze Israelis, Christian Israelis, Jewish Israelis, left-wing Israelis, and right-wing Israelis — before laying bare the underlying fractures that persist beneath the surface: the crisis of trust in government, among the right, and the crisis of trust in the Palestinians, among the left.

Impact on the Region: Looking Forward

Peering into the future, Gadeer discussed the potential for further escalation in the volatile north of Israel. She raised probing questions about the trajectory of Palestine, grappling with the uncertainty that looms over the region.

Defeating Hamas:
Is it possible?

She also shared some hard truths—that radical Islamist terrorism cannot be destroyed solely by force.
«In a modern era, as a liberal democracy, Prime Minster Netanyahu is promising to completely destroy Hamas. But can you destroy a fundamentalistic radical Islamic terror organization? The answer is no.
«We succeeded to create great damage to Hamas, to their structure, to their political power, and to their status. But we are irrational social animals. You cannot destroy [ideas] or faith, especially when it is rooted.»
She then cited the example of Afghanistan. «What happened the day after the US withdrew from Afghanistan? A little girl couldn’t go to elementary school because they wouldn’t allow her,» said Gadeer. «So, when you are dealing with fundamentalism, you can’t destroy it completely. You cannot reach absolute victory militarily, which is problematic.»
Citing Robert Pape from the University of Chicago, she said you can defeat terrorism through «sustained selective attacks against identified terrorists» and «political operations that drive wedges between the terrorists and the local populations from which they come.»
During Q&A, she was challenged a Bukharian delegate who said, «If you don’t believe you can defeat Hamas’s ideology, then [you’re basically saying] we’re not going to win. You have to change that mindset as well to say that we WILL win and your mind will adjust to get to that goal. So, if you yourself are representing Israel and saying you’re not going to win, where do we stand?»
She answered, «It’s beyond Israel. It’s social psychology. You cannot defeat or have absolute victory when you are dealing with fundamentalistic radical thoughts because you are dealing with perceptions. And the hardest thing to change are perceptions. Literally, you can defeat destroying the structure. You can do that or the political power, but it’ll take time to defeat terror. You need to study terror to understand how terror works.»

Information War: The Battle for Narratives

In an era dominated by information warfare, Gadeer shed light on the challenges posed by misinformation and fake news, and how that is shifting the narrative in favor of the Palestinian cause. Israeli is losing the PR war.
«We are losing legitimacy among our best allies here in DC in the U.S. We always enjoyed that bipartisan support. Now it’s not happening. [Editor’s note: There was bipartisan support for the $95 billion aid package to support Israel, Ukraine, and Taiwan, which passed last week.] The humanitarian crisis in Gaza is succeeding to attract the global attention. This is an opening item on almost every international media outlet, not Russia or Ukraine anymore. So, Hamas has succeeded big time in terms of public relations and the media,» said Gadeer, a former journalist herself.
She also underscored the pivotal role of social media and artificial intelligence in shaping narratives, emphasizing the need for vigilance in discerning truth from falsehood.
«How can you guarantee that this child was killed, by whom? And was it a real child?» she questioned.

Lessons Learned and a Call to Action

Drawing from her experiences, Gadeer offered a critical analysis of Israeli policy towards Palestinians, calling for a reevaluation and the emergence of strong leadership. She emphasized the imperative of rebuilding trust between Israelis and Palestinians, urging both sides to engage in self-reflection and pursue realistic solutions.
«They need to do some soul-searching,» she said, regarding the Palestinian people’s pipe dreams of regaining all their pre-1947 territory. «Are they robust enough, strong enough, evolved enough as a nation? Do they have real leadership? Are they thinking about how to survive in the next century?»
Amidst the tumult, her voice resonated with hope—a vision of a future where coexistence paves the way for shared prosperity and peace. «We need to heal, and we need resolution,» she said, which necessitates getting Saudi Arabia back. In Gadeer’s narrative, we find not just a story but a roadmap—a testament to the power of individual agency in shaping collective destinies, and of a strong minority voice offering a glimmer of hope that Israeli democracy is intact and thriving.


After her talk, Gadeer was gifted with a beautiful Bukharian robe. She posed for photos with delegates, and then joined us for dinner at a nearby glatt kosher restaurant. She sat at the same table with Chagit and Greg Sofiev.
Meanwhile, I sat with Gabriella Friedlander of the Friedlander Group, Rafael Nektalov, Uzbek journalist-academic Rafael Sattarov, Leon Nektalov, and Rabbi Baruch Babaev. Rabbi Babaev led prayers over the meal, and at the end of the evening, broke out in song.
Rafael, clapping along, turned to me, and said, with a wide grin, «This is maqom!»

Day 2: White House – Addressing Antisemitism

The next morning, our first stop was the White House, specifically, the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, which was adorned with U.S. and Japanese flags ahead of the Prime Minister of Japan’s U.S. visit.
During our White House meeting, which was off-the-record, we engaged in extensive discussions with a team dedicated to combating antisemitism. The team, split between the State Department and White House, which included Aaron Keyak, Melissa Rogers, Special Assistant to the President and Executive Director for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, and Jessica Huber, Director for Human Rights, National Security Council, Deputy Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism, delved into the concerning global rise of antisemitism, reflecting on incidents both before and after October 7th, and expressed grave concerns about Holocaust denialism.
Throughout the dialogue, they emphasized the crucial distinction between legitimate criticism of Israel and antisemitism, highlighting actions that unfairly hold Jews collectively responsible or instill fear within our community.
Our conversations also focused on strategies to confront antisemitic attacks, including protests outside synagogues, and explored avenues for fostering relationships with diverse religious and ethnic communities to combat bigotry. In particular, Rafael Nektalov made a poignant address, asking for assistance in fostering interfaith harmony, citing how Bukharian Jews have always felt close to their Muslim brothers, but these days, there’s a Red Sea between them.
To bolster Rafael’s point, I shared how the World Congress of Bukharian Jews recently hosted its annual congress in Baku, Azerbaijan, a Muslim-majority country, and that it went swimmingly. The White House team appreciated the feedback, and said we should share this with the State Department.
Government responses to antisemitism were a key point of interest, with discussions spanning diplomatic efforts, funding for security measures, and the complexities of addressing hate speech on social media platforms. Despite recognizing the challenges of social media censorship, Bukharian delegates stressed the imperative for platform owners to play a more active role in countering hate speech.
Furthermore, our meeting underscored the significance of international collaboration in the fight against antisemitism, advocating for the use of artificial intelligence and the formulation of national strategies.
Additionally, delegates emphasized the importance of embracing our Jewish identity and finding joy within our community amidst adversity.
Overall, the discussions ranged from grassroots community engagement to long-term global strategies, as we sought to confront the multifaceted challenges of antisemitism head-on.
This article will be continued next week, with more details about our visit to Congress and the State Department.

Erin Levi