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

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.