Kamal Mansour – public servant extraordinaire

Israel Prize laureate believes that "hatred and hostility between people or between nations do not have to be eternal."

kamal mansour peres 311 (photo credit: Joseef Avi Yair Engel)
kamal mansour peres 311
(photo credit: Joseef Avi Yair Engel)
The genial, mild-mannered persona of Kamal Mansour belies the enormous influence that he wields. Mansour, who this month celebrates the 40th anniversary of his appointment by Israel’s third president, Zalman Shazar, as his adviser on minority communities, continued to serve under presidents Ephraim Katzir, Yitzhak Navon, Chaim Herzog, Ezer Weizman, Moshe Katsav and Shimon Peres.
In recognition of the enormous service he has rendered to the State of Israel, he was named as one of the recipients of a Life Achievement Award, to be presented to him at the Israel Prize Ceremony, traditionally the closing event in Jerusalem of Israel’s Independence Day celebrations.
Although he has chalked up numerous achievements, such as being the first Druse to sit on the board of directors of the Israel Electric Corporation, the first Druse to sit on the boards of governors of the University of Haifa and Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, and the first Druse to be a member of the plenum of the Israel Broadcasting Authority, this is one occasion in which he will not be setting a precedent as the first non-Jew to be honored.
Other non-Jewish laureates have included Zubin Mehta, the music director of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, for whom a special exception was made, because he is not a citizen of Israel; actor Makram Khouri, Circassian leader Aladin Haukai, Druse leader Sheikh Amin Tarif (with whom Mansour worked closely for 20 years), theologian Father Marcel Dubois, and controversial Arab poet Emile Habibi.
Then again, considering how small a minority the Druse are in Israel, with fewer than 120,000 souls, having two members of the community singled out for the Israel Prize is a remarkable tribute.
Likewise, the Druse have a disproportionately high representation – four members – in the current Knesset, each of whom represents a different party. Ayoub Kara, the deputy minister for the development of the Negev and Galilee, is a member of Likud. Former deputy foreign minister Majallie Whbee is a member of Kadima, Hamed Amer is on the Israel Beiteinu list, and Said Nafa is a member of Balad.
WHEN FIRST offered an appointment by Shazar, Mansour, who was born and lives in the Druse village of Usfiya, declined, explaining that he had a large family to care for and that the distance was too far. The journey from Usfiya to Jerusalem and back took more than five hours in those days.
“You refuse a request by the president?” said Shazar.
Mansour, who had been raised to respect authority, was left with no choice but to accept Shazar’s offer, but stipulated that he would do so only on condition that he would not be forced to move to Jerusalem, neither would he have to travel from Usfiya every day. Shazar agreed – and the rest is history.
When Katzir became president, he told Mansour that he had heard such positive things about him that he wanted him to stay on. Navon, who knew Mansour and had visited him in his home, was equally keen to retain him, as were Herzog and Weizman, who in their previous capacities had also visited him in his home.
Mansour and Peres had also known each other for years, and there was no question about Peres maintaining the Mansour tradition. In fact, he took it a step further with Mansour’s son-in-law, Brig.-Gen. Hasson Hasson, who is the first Druse to be appointed military adjutant to the president of the state.
THE DRUSE are famous for their hospitality, and often use it as a vehicle for easing tensions. Mansour is no exception, and his home on Mount Carmel has become almost a place of pilgrimage. Heads of state, important political figures, academics, entertainers, business people, army officers and others from Israel and abroad have found their way there. All visitors sign a guest book, which so far contains just over 40,000 signatures.
Mansour, who is the son of Sheikh Najeeb Mansour, the first mayor of Usfiya during the British Mandate who continued in the position under Israeli rule, says that he was weaned on hospitality. His father ran an open house and he does likewise. He remembers that when he was a boy of seven, his father would make him recite an Arabic poem to the guests that explained how happy the coffee was to quench their thirst.
Prior to the establishment of the state, the Druse refrained from taking sides in the Arab-Jewish conflict, although they did help Jews who came into the country illegally.
“We saw the Holocaust survivors wading through the water to the shoreline in Atlit, and we pulled them to dry land and gave them food and shelter,” Mansour says.
Historically, the Druse have no quarrel with the Jews.
Mansour cites Rabbi Benjamin of Tudela, who traveled through the region around the period 1165-67 and wrote in his diary that the Druse were monotheistic mountain dwellers, who believed in reincarnation and the eternity of the soul, and were friendly to the Jews.
But the goodwill of the Druse towards the Jews long predates that. Jethro, the father-in-law and mentor of Moses, is one of the most revered of Druse prophets.
The 18th chapter of the Book of Exodus states that Jethro rejoiced for all the good which the Lord had done for Israel, whom He had delivered from the hands of the Egyptians. Later in the chapter, Jethro counsels Moses on how to establish a system of judges, and the basis of that advice has become a universal foundation for legal systems.
Thus it comes as no surprise that the Druse are well disposed towards the Jews.
This manifested itself to some extent during the 1948 War of Independence, when Druse fought on a volunteer basis with the Israel Defense Forces. Druse were not initially drafted into the army, but once they were, they proved to be good and brave soldiers. Many became high-ranking officers, and even more paid the supreme sacrifice in Israel’s wars.
Mansour did not serve in the IDF. “I was too old by the time it became compulsory for Druse to do army service,” he explains, “but I was in the reserves for 26 years and six days.”
In the immediate aftermath of the War of Independence, there was a lot of confusion in the country, particularly among the Arab population. Many feared some kind of Israeli vendetta. All were uncertain about what the future held.
Mansour quickly realized that if nothing was done to quell the fear, the situation would get of hand and might spark another war.
So he started a one-man information campaign, speaking to groups of Arabs in their villages and assuring them that everything would be fine once the dust settled.
His efforts to allay fears, ease tensions and promote Israel’s policies came to the attention of the Foreign Ministry, which in 1957 sent him on a speaking tour of the United States, Canada and Europe. He was the ministry’s first non-Jewish envoy. Later, he did a speaking tour for Israel Bonds.
Having grown up under the British Mandate, he had learned English at school, and in addition to Arabic is fluent in Hebrew. He is an eloquent orator, who can deliver a spontaneous one-hour address in any of those three languages, without consulting a single note.
In addition to working as an adviser to seven of Israel’s nine presidents, Mansour is a prolific writer of books and newspaper articles, and he has also been a frequent broadcaster on Arabic language radio and television.
He is a gifted speechwriter, and in his interview with The Jerusalem Post disclosed that he had written three speeches in Arabic for one of Israel’s greatest and most famous orators, Abba Eban, on occasions when the latter was going to Egypt. Notwithstanding Eban’s widely acclaimed gift for language, Mansour had a better understanding of how to talk to the Egyptians and of what they wanted to hear, and he wrote the speeches accordingly.
Similarly, he wrote speeches in Arabic or translated from Hebrew to Arabic for Israel’s fifth president, Yitzhak Navon, even though Navon speaks fluent Arabic.
One of the memorable occasions in this regard was when Saad Mortada, Egypt’s first ambassador to Israel, presented his credentials. Navon chose to speak to Mortada in Hebrew, recalls Mansour, who was on hand to translate the president’s remarks into Arabic with just the right degree of flourish and respect that are part and parcel of Arab socio-cultural tradition.
Navon was tuned in to the needs of Israel’s minority groups, whose leaders used to come at the start of their festivals to receive a blessing from the president. Mansour, who had initially brought Arab leaders to the president’s annual open day during Succot, suggested to Navon that if the procedure were to be reversed, it would be perceived as a very significant gesture. Navon needed no convincing and began to visit Arab towns and villages. Since then, all subsequent presidents of the state have frequently visited Arab and Druse communities around the country.
When Mansour suggested to Katsav, who had a special relationship with the leaders of the Arab communities, that he should host an Iftar dinner to break the fast during Ramadan, Katsav immediately agreed, and since then, it has become an annual tradition for spiritual and lay leaders of Muslim Arab communities to come to Beit Hanassi for an Iftar meal. Not only that, but care is taken to ensure that the menu comprises foods familiar to the Arab palate.
Mansour not only advises presidents about minority communities, but is also the president’s representative to those communities, especially in troubled times when disputes have to be settled in the religious or civil courts.
OVER THE past decade or so, Mansour has also devoted himself to the needs of those members of the South Lebanese Army who came with their immediate families to live in Israel after the Lebanese Civil War in which they fought against both the Palestine Liberation Organization and Hizbullah. Initially, the SLA personnel were treated as great heroes, but many found it difficult to adjust and to find jobs in Israel.
Mansour was able to empathize with this predicament because so many young Druse who have completed their army service have been unemployed for years. The problem of employment for the SLA was partially solved by his daughter Maha Mansour, a lawyer, who managed to get jobs for 150 of them in the Israel Electric Corporation.
Former prime minister Ariel Sharon, who in his capacity as defense minister had a very close relationship with the SLA, later told Mansour that Maha Mansour’s persuasiveness had contributed greatly to reducing the debt which Israel owed to the SLA.
WHEN EDUCATION Minister Gideon Sa’ar called Mansour to inform him that he was being awarded the Israel Prize, Mansour was stunned. He had been engaged in community integration and bridge-building for so long that it never occurred to him that he was doing something out of the ordinary.
“I never did anything for the purpose of winning a prize,” he said. “It’s not as if I’ve done something special.”
The panel, headed by retired Supreme Court president Meir Shamgar, thought otherwise.
It was only natural that Peres should send Mansour a congratulatory letter, but Mansour also received congratulatory phone calls from Navon, Aura Herzog (the widow of Israel’s sixth president) and Katsav. Mansour has continued to maintain contact with former presidents and their families, inviting them to his home and visiting theirs.
In his letter to Mansour, Peres lauded his in-depth understanding of the culture, values and attitudes of the Arab world in general and of the minorities that live in Israel in particular. This knowledge, wrote Peres, had enabled Mansour to contribute to the strengthening of relations between the state and these communities. Peres also praised Mansour as an “ambassador of the first order for the State of Israel” in his travels abroad to explain Israel’s actions and policies to the world at large.
Over the years, the question most frequently put to Mansour by people of different political loyalties, faiths and nationalities is what motivates this passionate loyalty to Israel and this commitment to integrating minority communities into the Israeli mainstream.
Mansour of course refers to Jethro, but also notes that there are other similarities between the Druse and the Jews. Druse do not accept converts to their religion, and while Jews do accept converts, the conversion laws are extremely stringent. Druse discourage intermarriage and polygamy, as do Jews, and both religions forbid the consumption of pork. Druse believe in making the world a better, more humane place, and Jews believe in tikun olam – fixing the world. The commonalities far outweigh the differences.
In January 2004, Druse spiritual leader Sheikh Mowfak Tarif signed a declaration calling on all non-Jews in Israel to observe the Seven Noahide Laws of the Bible – prohibitions of idolatry, murder, theft, sexual promiscuity, eating the flesh of a live animal, and the establishment of a just legal system. All these and more are part of Mansour’s personal worldview, and are incorporated in a book he wrote in Arabic about his personal thoughts and perspectives. He presented copies of the book to both former Egyptian president Anwar Sadat and that country’s current president Hosni Mubarak, each of whom regarded it as a valuable source of information and ideology, stating that it was an important addition to any library.
“Hatred and hostility between people or between nations do not have to be eternal,” says Mansour, citing examples of countries which today have cordial relations after decades and even centuries of enmity and war. The important thing, he emphasizes, is to learn how to look, to listen, to weigh and to absorb.
“We have two ears, so that we can hear twice. We have two eyes so thatwe can see twice. But we have only one mouth. The trouble in thisextraordinary era of communication, when we can make instant contactwith people anywhere in the world, is that many talk, but few reallylisten.”
The importance of listening cannot be overestimated, he says. “If youlisten to someone, you may not solve the problem, but you will defusethe tension and the worry.”
Mansour attributes much of the success in his dealings with people to his calm temperament and his ability to listen.
“I never chased after money,” he says. “Doing that is like running after your own shadow. You never catch up.”
On occasion, he says, his grandchildren ask: “What did you do with your life? Where’s the money?”
Mansour’s reply is: “I did something more important than making money. I built a good reputation.”