'I was banished for attending Israeli college'


Guests at UJIA's women's lunch on Monday were moved by the story of a Druze woman who was excluded from her community for pursuing an academic career in Israel.

Dr Randa Abbas told the 220 guests that she had been placed under a "religious ban" for attending the UJIA-backed Western Galilee College in northern Israel. She went on to become the first Druze woman to receive a PhD from Bar-Ilan University in 2007.

"For the Druze, women have a special position," she said. "They are mothers, sisters, teachers. The men have more rights than the women. Every Druze woman who chooses to leave her village to seek higher education and a career is banished.

"I decided to become part of the modern world and, at the same time, to keep my tradition and culture. I decided to focus on the academic path, towards a doctorate and education, in spite of the social risks. For this decision, my family and I paid a heavy price.

"For five years, most of our family members and friends didn't speak to us. I will never forget the day my oldest daughter - who was seven years old - came home from school and told me her friends didn't want to speak to her. [They] named her 'Godless'."

Shadow Health Minister Luciana Berger also addressed the central London event, which raised £100,000 for UJIA's Opening Doors higher education campaign in the Galil.

In conversation with journalist Lord Finkelstein, the Liverpool MP talked about her Jewish identity, the man who fuelled her interest in student politics, and antisemitism on social media.

Ms Berger, who was raised in "a very Zionist household" in Wembley, recalled having been "really involved in BBYO", even though her mum was an FZY leader. Her first trip to Israel was with RSY.

She also spoke of her "dear friend" Alan Senitt, the former UJS president who was murdered in Washington in 2006. Mr Sennitt had encouraged her interest in student politics.

Another speaker was British war veteran James Johnson, 30, who was paralysed in Afghanistan on his first tour of duty in 2012. The Mancunian expressed gratitude to UJIA for giving him a ReWalk suit, which enables those with lower spinal cord injuries to walk. The charity has also donated a ReWalk to Druze soldier Zohar Gn'aim.

"I would just like to thank UJIA and the Jewish community for this amazing opportunity I've been given," Mr Johnson said. "The ReWalk suit is completely life-changing. It's been an amazing journey and it's just the beginning."

Women's committee chair Jacqueline Fine said the lunch proceeds "will ensure that people living in the Galil have the opportunity to benefit from a higher education, something that is still sadly out of reach for far too many in northern Israel".

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