For a body purporting to represent the breadth of Israeli society, immigrants included, the Knesset — at least since Golda Meir stepped down as prime minister — has been almost devoid of Anglo immigrants. Candidates trying to enter its hallowed halls with hopes of representing the country’s smallish English-speaking population have had little success.
That may change come Election Day on January 22. A handful of Anglo candidates have realistic chances of being elected to the 19th Knesset, and they are spread out across the political spectrum.
Rabbi Dov Lipman, a prominent “modern Haredi” activist from Beit Shemesh (and Times of Israel columnist) is probably the American-born politician with the highest chances of making the cut. Lipman, who grew up in Silver Spring, Maryland, and immigrated to Israel in 2004, is expected to be placed thirteenth or higher on the Yesh Atid party list for Knesset. According to the polls, the centrist party headed by former journalist Yair Lapid can expect between 11 and 14 seats.
Naftali Bennett, who last week was elected chairman of the right-wing Jewish Home party, is basically guaranteed a Knesset seat, as the party is expected to garner at least four or five mandates. Born in Haifa to parents who had immigrated to Israel from San Francisco in 1967, Bennett holds an American passport but recently told The Times of Israel that he would “happily” renounce his citizenship, without hesitation. Per Israeli law, citizens must give up all additional nationalities before entering the Knesset. “I have one identity, and that’s Israeli and Jewish. I don’t view myself as an American citizen,” Bennett said.
The outgoing Knesset had two members who could count as Anglos. Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, who was born to Polish Holocaust survivors in Germany, moved with his family to Brooklyn when he was two years old. He came to Israel at age 17. Kadima MK Yohanan Plesner moved to Israel from London with his family when he was just a few months old.
‘There are more than 250,000 English-speaking voters in Israel, without even one representative in the Knesset’
Most Anglo hopefuls for the 19th Knesset can be found in nationalist parties, a reflection of the right-leaning and religious views of most English-speaking immigrants.
US native Jeremy Gimpel, 32, is hoping to enter the Knesset for the Jewish Home party. “I represent a large sector of olim [immigrants] that the party has never addressed until now,” he says in a campaign video released ahead of the party’s primaries, which will take place on Tuesday, November 13. “There are more than 250,000 English-speaking voters in Israel, without even one representative in the Knesset.”
Gimpel, a lawyer by training and ordained rabbi, has made a name for himself in right-wing English-speaking circles through his various efforts to boost hasbara, or pro-Israel advocacy. He co-hosts “Tuesday Night Live in Jerusalem,” which he says is the “largest English-speaking TV show broadcast from Israel internationally.” The Facebook profile of his “The Land of Israel” organization has 320,000 likes; his YouTube channel boasts over 12 million views.
Extremely media-savvy, Gimpel and his associate Ari Abramowitz (who initially also sought a Knesset seat but recently dropped out of the race) managed to sign up thousands of new members to Jewish Home, most of whom were Anglos and many of whom will place him first on the list when they vote in the primaries. If that’s not enough, Gimpel’s campaign manager hopes he still has a chance to enter the Knesset as one of four contenders for the party’s slot reserved for young candidates, which is the fifth spot on the party’s Knesset list. (According to a poll on a popular national-religious website, Gimpel is leading the race for the young candidates’ spot.)
“He is doing amazing work for the people of Israel in hasbara abroad, which has typically been our weak point,” Bennett said about Gimpel. Outgoing party chairman Minister Daniel Hershkovitz, too, endorsed Gimpel, saying he has a “very American” attitude, “in the sense that he sees the candidate as a representative of the voters, which I think is very much missing in the Israeli system.”
A father of three residing in the Gush Etzion settlement bloc, Gimpel grew up in a secular home in Atlanta.
“I have distinct memories as child going to McDonald’s, ordering a Big Mac and a milkshake. But we would never order a cheeseburger because Jews don’t eat meat and milk,” he recalled. His family became Orthodox and subsequently moved to Israel when he was 11.
“Right now, we have no say in the government, we’re an irrelevant party with three seats,” Gimpel said about his new political home. “The National Religious Party [the predecessor of Jewish Home] is like an old beat-up car that barely made it to the garage. And now it’s at the garage. We’re going to paint it, we’re changing the upholstery, put in a new engine and look at it and people will say: hey, this is a classic Chevy ’56.”
“This is a classic party with great ideology and great values and it’s going through a renaissance now. It’s an opportunity to revive the religious Zionism movement,” he said.
Eloquent and charismatic, Gimpel has won the hearts and minds of many right-leaning Anglos. Politically, he doesn’t sound like an extremist despite the fact that his views are no less radical than those of other far-right leaders: he opposes a two-state solution (unless you’re talking about Israel and Jordan), blames the current rocket attacks on the Oslo peace process and says that Israeli Arabs should study Jewish history and religious texts, such as the Ethics of the Fathers.
“Of course they should learn the Koran and about their culture. But let them also be introduced to our culture. It would actually create unity.”
“I want to make peace with our Arab neighbors. I am not one who makes war,” Gimpel added. “But I want real peace. Real peace, not a wall that separates us — I’m on this side, they’re on that side. I don’t believe that’s peace — that brings Kassam rockets.”
Real peace can only be the result of dialogue, and such a dialogue could start by talking to Arabs about Jewish values, Gimpel said. “Not a political conversation, but a natural base. We actually share many values: family, modesty, God — there is really much that unites our worlds. But right now no one is talking to anyone, we’re trying to build walls to separate us…
“We’re going to live with each other,” he continued. “No one is going anywhere. So we better figure out a way to live with each other.”
Gimpel considers the two-state solution a “terrible idea” but during a recent interview in Jerusalem he hesitated to formulate a concrete alternative. He hinted, however, that he would not be against the idea of having a Palestinian state east of the Jordan river.
“I don’t know if there is an immediate alternative [to a two-state solution]. What I know, though, is that things in the Middle East are changing fast and very drastically,” he said. “I also know that 80 percent of Jordanians are Palestinians. (The CIA World Factbook indicates that there are some two million refugees of Palestinian origin in Jordan, out of a total population of some 6.4 million.) Who knows what might happen in the next year with the Arab Spring? Maybe there will be a de facto Palestinian state right next to us? What I do know, though, is destroying Jewish homes, putting up walls and expelling Jews, that doesn’t work. It hasn’t worked ever.”
‘A two-state solution to prevent Israel from becoming South Africa’
Eytan Schwartz, who grew up on Manhattan’s Upper East Side and is running for a spot on the Labor Party’s Knesset list, has a diametrically opposed view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Probably the only thing he and Gimpel have in common, besides their American passports, is that they both started their careers as hasbara professionals.
But while Gimpel likes to portray himself as the representative of Israel’s Anglo community and hopes for their votes at the upcoming Jewish Home primaries, Schwartz knows that relatively few native English speakers are Labor members and he is not relying on any support from that group for the party’s primaries on November 29.
Having moved to Israel at the age of seven, Schwartz, 39, gained national prominence as a participant in “The Ambassador,” a reality TV show trying to find the best candidate to defend Israel’s positions abroad. After winning the show in 2005, he spent a few years in the US doing hasbara but soon grew tired of repeating the talking points of the Israeli government, especially since he disagreed with many of them.
“Good hasbara can only get you so far. At the end of the day, I was very good at explaining what I thought was very bad policy,” he said. “And I vowed that when I came back to Israel I would not explain policy I don’t necessarily agree with, but change the policy.”
‘I wish every Israeli had some American education, I think that would make this jungle a bit more civilized’
Upon his return to Israel, Schwartz volunteered for a nonprofit working on behalf of refugees from Darfur in Israel. For the past year he has been the senior adviser for international affairs to Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai.
Since many Israelis still remember Schwartz as the likable and articulate contestant on “The Ambassador,” he has a good shot at landing a realistic spot on the Labor list. Recent polls give the party about 22 seats.
Schwartz is not the only US citizen vying for a spot on Labor’s list: he is joined by Hili Tropper, a national-religious social activist from Jerusalem.
“I deal with the issue of Israel’s growing isolation, Israel’s growing separation from the Jewish world and how to bridge those,” Schwartz told The Times of Israel last week in a Jerusalem café. “At the end of the day, our international isolation will bring us to the point where South Africa was in the ’80s insofar and as long as we remain an occupying force in the territories.”
Schwartz acknowledges that these issues might not dominate the election campaign, which presumably will focus on socioeconomic discussions. Yet he argues that if Israel neglects its increasing international isolation, this will soon come to back to haunt the country economically.
“[Even] if the economy survives and everybody enjoys minimum wage and a good pension plan and social benefits — which is the core of the Labor Party’s platform — the economy will collapse into itself within the next decade because you can’t sell Israeli goods in markets all around the world,” he said.
Schwartz’s solution to combat Israel’s growing international isolation? The rapid implementation of a two-state solution, based on the 1967 lines with land swaps.
“I believe we have a partner [on the Palestinian side]. I believe we never had a more favorable partner than we have right now,” he said. “The current government has been very good at convincing the public that we don’t a have a partner for peace, that we don’t have a partner for political progress. I don’t buy that.”
Commenting on a surprisingly moderate television interview by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in which he called for renewed peace negotiations with Israel, made plain he had no territorial claims on pre-1967 Israel and said he had no personal “right” to return to his place of birth in Safed, Schwartz said: “I truly believe that he can deliver the goods. I think that we have been the ones that have been ignoring reality.”
Schwartz says he belongs to the peace camp not because he’s a bleeding heart but because he thinks a Palestinian state is in Israel’s interest. “I want this to continue being a Jewish state. We cannot have a Jewish state if the majority of the people living under our rule are not Jews, and that’s where we heading… Never in history was a minority able to control a majority for a long time, and we’re slowly becoming that South Africa [of the apartheid era].”
In light of continuing settlement construction in West Bank, the two-state solution will remain viable for “not much longer,” Schwartz added. But he refused to discuss what could happen if the possibility became entirely implausible. “ I don’t know. I don’t want to see it happen.”
As someone who spent two years traveling across the US to talk about Israel, Schwartz is also concerned about American Jewry’s waning commitment to and enthusiasm for the Jewish state. “They see a country they don’t like anymore,” he said.
Schwartz is also atypical of Anglo-Israeli politicians in that he doesn’t see a particular value in trying to convince Diaspora Jews to move to Israel. He advocates ending “aliya as an ethos of the country” and instead believes Israel should start appreciating the importance of Diaspora communities. The Hebrew terms for immigrating to and emigrating from Israel (aliya and yerida), which literally mean ascent and descent, are derogatory toward Zionists who don’t necessarily want to live in Zion, he argued. “We see Jews living abroad as those who preferred better material lives over an ideal. I don’t see it that way.”
“I am very proud of my American heritage. I would not be same person if I were born here,” said Schwartz, who returned to New York as a teenager to earn a degree at Columbia University. “I wish every Israeli had some American education, I think that would make this jungle a bit more civilized.
“But having said that, I’m Israeli. I love this country and if I’m a member of the Israeli parliament and it requires me to give up my passport, I’d give up my passport, sure.”