Can Israel’s alpha bubbe bring Mideast peace?
Galia Albin is one grandmother who isn’t spending afternoons knitting booties, baking cookies or changing diapers. Instead, she’s running to television studios for tapings, representing Israel at international business forums and wielding influence on Israeli policymakers. She is one of the country’s powerful women, and her mission is to influence and empower other women throughout the world.
Sitting in a cramped Tel Aviv television studio dressing room, Albin is bright-eyed, alert and enthusiastic while breaking for lunch between tapings of “The Club,” a talk show she hosts for Israel’s 50-plus demographic.
“Would you like to share my salad?” she offers generously before launching into excited chatter about her projects and work.
At 57, Albin holds a slew of titles and positions in both public and private sectors in Israel and beyond. She serves as company director of at least 10 publicly held Israeli/international giants including Marks & Spencer Israel, United Steel Mills and the Koor Industries Group; she chairs the Business Forum Women’s advisory to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, the National Council for Children, The Center for Economic Development Among Jewish & Arab Women and serves as director of the Israel Women’s Network.
Most recently, she was invited to the second annual International Women’s Forum in Deauville, France, to address global concerns over health care, education and demography. Bringing together world leaders and prominent businesswomen, the conference attendee list included Jordan’s Queen Rania, Kuwait’s premier female minister Maasouma Al-Mubarak, Lucent CEO Pat Russo and State Department Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy Karen Hughes.
“I would have to say that the strongest message on all levels was self empowerment for women. The societal and economic topics addressed in Deauville tapped into the woman’s role and how women can be influential in policy making and business,” Albin said.
At the conference, Queen Rania called on women to join her in solving the current Middle East crisis and invited select participants from Kuwait, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, etc. to Jordan next spring for a Convention of Women for Peace in the Middle East. Rania hand-picked Albin to represent Israel.
“What I wish for more than anything is a connection between women in Israel, our region and the world. It’s a weak link that needs promoting, but luckily I think I have the power, knowledge and connections to do it. I would love to go to more cities and meet more women to speak about empowerment from my experience.”
Albin’s experience is broad. She holds four degrees — two in psychology, one in law and another in acting — has produced and executive produced three films, owned the Globes and Monitin business publications and at one point held the Israeli franchise rights to Penthouse Magazine.
“I fought religious groups like mad. They burnt down sales points. So after 11 issues, I threw in the towel,” she recalled.
Her husband’s sudden death in the mid-1980s prompted a tremendous shift.
“I had a business career until then, but mostly I stayed home with my children.
When he died, I inherited seven public companies and other holdings, and I had a choice: sit back and spend the money or learn how to ‘work it.’ It took four years to become chairwoman, and some of my husband’s closest associates didn’t like me being there. I made mistakes but ultimately I was the winner.”
At 50, Albin opted again for a major life change. “I realized I had been through six wars in my lifetime, my four kids were grown and the future of my country seemed to be in question,” she said.
She packed it in and headed to New York to study acting with Lee Strasberg, mentor to Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, Uma Thurman and Geraldine Page.
“It was a lifelong dream,” Albin said.
After two years of acting study she returned to Israel and auditioned for her current role as “The Club” host, beating out some of Israel’s premier actors. Recently the show celebrated its 200th taping.
“It’s not too late to realize dreams. When you stop dreaming, you stop living,” Albin advised.
Dr. Raanan Gissin, the former adviser to past prime minister Ariel Sharon and a 30-year friend of Albin’s who sometimes guests on her show, says he sees huge potential in Albin’s dream of bridging the peace gap.
“Israel is like an island surrounded by enemies and fences. Her nonconformist way of reaching out is very important because in going beyond the regular formalities, sometimes people can be reached,” he said.
Sharing Albin’s dream of regional peace, Lebanese-born Fadia Otte says that when she and Albin discussed the region’s conflict in Deauville they found a common bond.
“When I met Galia we were nearly in tears over recent events. She wants peace between Arab and Jewish women, and I want the same. We have a moral obligation to meet in Jordan and try to bring peace,” Otte said during a call from her home in Paris.
A member of Lebanon’s prominent Khabbaz family, Otte left the country years ago due to severe in fighting between warring factions. “I grew up in bomb shelters,” she said, adding that she lost her brother in a bombing when she was 21.
Otte hopes that together with Albin and other attendees, problems of generations may be addressed at the upcoming Jordanian Women’s Convention.
“It’s really all about tolerance. Tremendous ignorance is making the world go wrong but if we inform the young that we are not each others’ enemies maybe it can stop,” Otte said.
Albin shares the sentiment, taking it one step further.
“My biggest fear is that in my lifetime I won’t be able to fulfill the mission I’m supposed to: leaving a safe country. I’m a grandmother with two grandchildren and I know I’m not good enough in that role because I choose to spend time with the children on my terms. But women and peace is something I want to be good enough at. I want to make the connection and do it right.”
Stephanie Freid is a freelance writer in Israel for ISRAEL21c, a news agency focusing on 21st century Israel.