'India the playground for Israel innovation': Fleur Hassan-Nahoum

She is special envoy for innovation, Israel foreign ministry


Fleur Hassan-Nahoum, the deputy mayor of Jerusalem with links to Kolkata, is the first female face of the American, Emirati, Israeli and Indian partnership (I2U2). She is co-founder of the UAE-Israel Business Council. And, recently, Foreign Minister Eli Cohen gave her a new role in his ministry: special envoy for innovation.

For India, Israel and the Arab world, Fleur is bringing together Jewish, Arab and Israeli women to be part of policy initiatives in the region where the political space is dominated by men. She calls Jerusalem the laboratory of the future of Israel as the demography of the city today represents the demography of Israel tomorrow.
She was born and raised in Gibraltar, where her father, Sir Joshua Abraham Hassan, was the first mayor and chief minister. Fleur studied law at King’s College, London, where she met her husband, Adam Nahoum. Adam's father, an Iraqi-Baghdadi Jew, was born in Kolkata. Iraqi-Baghdadi Jews moved to Kolkata almost 170 years ago and the lack of anti-semitism in India opened doors for a new life for many. Adam's family opened the famous Nahoum and Sons Bakery—one of the oldest surviving shops in Kolkata owned by Jews.

In 2022, Fleur visited Kolkata with her children. “The triangulation between India-Israel and Gulf countries is extremely important,” she says. “India and Israel are great partners; India has huge human capital and there are 3.5 million Indians in the UAE. This regional partnership is a game changer for all.’’ Edited excerpts:
How do you see the role of women in politics in Israel? What are the challenges?
It is ironic that India and Israel, born a year apart, also have had their third and fourth prime ministers as women and they are the only ones till now. We have not had a female Prime Minister since Golda Meir. In fact, people call it the Golda syndrome, where the exception proves the rule! I believe that we live in an unbalanced world and we won’t restore that balance until women are 50 per cent in decision-making positions. The more diversity around the decision-making table, the better the decisions.

In Israel, in the Knesset (Parliament) we have gone backwards. We were almost 30 per cent four years ago, but now we are 25 per cent women legislators. In the local government, we have become better, but the numbers were so bad to begin with that nobody should be patting themselves on the back. Women formed 13 per cent of local government which has increased to 19 per cent after a campaign by the government. We have elections in October, so let us see what happens.

Female mayors in this country are again 9 per cent to 10 per cent. A big part of the problem is that women don’t want to go into politics. In Israel, leaderships styles are very male oriented. When people compliment each other, they say he or she is a bulldozer! But is that the style of leadership we want? I think the need of the hour is more a female style leadership focused around listening, consensus building and empathy.

Israel has seen protests against the judicial reforms. Your views?

I am part of the Likud party which is the ruling party and I personally believe there is a real need for some judicial reforms. We cannot have a situation where the president of the supreme court is more powerful than the democratically elected government. However, I believe the programme could have been presented differently, maybe with a longer consultative process. We hope compromise talks yield a result everyone can live with.

I have been the head of key committees in Jerusalem and I always aimed to pass decisions with consensus. I am co-founder of Gulf-Israel’s women’s forum because I believe that women can make peace in a more sustainable way.

In the Jerusalem city council, one of our main problems is that the ultra orthodox parties who form a big chunk of it do not allow female representation. So out of 31 city council people, there are only six women. Out of eight deputy mayors, there are only two women. The main problem we have with the ultra orthodox is not borne out of religious beliefs but the ethos. For example, exclusion of women in the public space is a problem as they won’t allow pictures of women in newspapers. So there is a built-in advantage for men which makes it harder for women to come up to top leadership roles.

How do you see the coexistence of different religions and communities in Jerusalem today? Are there concerns?

The main issue in this city is that the secular are feeling threatened by the ultra orthodox and vice versa. Sometimes both complain they are not being allowed to live freely in their neighbourhood. The mayor and me try to balance the different interests and be as equitable and equal as possible. But it is not simple. We have a population that is growing exponentially in Israel. The average birthrate for ultra orthodox is 6.5 children and the Israeli average is 2.6 to 3 children, which is even higher than many developing countries. So we have an incredibly high birth rate. The demography is changing. I don’t like the word coexistence any more. It is about shared space and shared society.

Jerusalem is the lab for shared society initiatives in Israel because the demography of the city today reflects the future demography of Israel when the Arab and ultra orthodox population will grow. Because we are the lab for the future, I believe the solution will also come from Jerusalem. So I am involved in many shared society initiatives involving Jews, Arabs, secular and ultra orthodox. I also believe the solution has to come from the grassroots and cannot be imposed from the top down.

How do you see India’s role in the success of the Abraham Accords?

I visit the UAE a lot and recently I was in Morocco and Bahrain, which are Abraham Accord countries. The triangulation between India-Israel and Gulf countries is extremely important. India and Israel are great partners; India has huge human capital and there are 3.5 million Indians living in the UAE. This regional partnership is a game changer for all. I also say this because innovation in Israel is huge, but we are a small country and the playground is India with its huge market and potential. We have a natural synergy and mutual appreciation and respect which is the basis for many future partnerships.