When it comes to local politics in Israel, October 2013 might very well go down in history as the month of the Anglo olim.
That’s thanks in part to four plucky English-speaking immigrants to this country, who are all taking their chances on local government and running this month for a spot on their respective city councils. Even if they don’t win when elections are held on October 22, all four say their very presence on party lists and in the public eye shows that things are changing for Western newcomers to Israel.
Taken together, the quartet represents a cross-section of Anglo Jewry in Israel: There’s Maya Tapiero, a 27-year-old student from Montreal, who’s running with the female-centric Ometz Lev party and committed to upgrading city planning in Jerusalem; Jonathan Javor, a 31-year-old from England who has a wealth of experience in the Knesset and the Tel Aviv mayor’s ear; Jonny Cline, a British 38-year-old who left a West Bank settlement to raise his three children in Modi’in; and Rabbi Avrohom Leventhal, a religious grandfather who left the high-tech world in order to embrace public service in Beit Shemesh.
From Blighty to the White City
“I believe in this community. I believe in what it’s capable of, and in giving people the tools to go succeed,” says Javor during an interview in a crowded Tel Aviv coffeehouse. The London native came to Israel with his parents when he was just 11; the family settled on a kibbutz up north. After completing the army, he returned to his native country for college, then came back to Israel in 2008 and headed straight for Tel Aviv. While working in then-vice premier Silvan Shalom’s office as an aid for then-Kadima MK Otniel Schneller, he began volunteering with the group TLV Internationals, which was started by his good friend Jay Shultz as a hub of English-language events for Western immigrants in the city.
He and Shultz share a vision, Javor says — that life in Tel Aviv can be better for the bright-eyed Westerners who flock here from English-speaking countries around the world.
“Western olim come to Israel by choice,” he says. “And I am tired of olim being taken advantage of when it comes to rental agreements, and the limits that are placed on them because of language barriers and they can’t get a real job.”
His work with TLV Internationals found him often rubbing shoulders with Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, who was eager for more input about the city’s 15,000 young English-speakers. Huldai helped TLV Internationals navigate some of the city’s red tape when it came to several of their events, including English-subtitled screenings of classic Israeli films at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque and the weekly “office hours” of an English-speaking municipal aide to help olim wade through rental contracts, bills, and other puzzling documents.
“The mayor is a Zionist. We come here and we’re Zionists. He understands that people are coming here and wants to help them succeed,” Javor says. And in September, Huldai made good on that promise by putting Javor on the city council list for his party, Tel Aviv 1.
Javor is at No. 8 on the party’s list, which gives him a slim chance of actually securing a spot. But Javor says he is both hopeful he’ll be elected, and well aware that in politics — as in showbiz — it’s an honor just to be nominated.
“I think it’s an incredible opportunity for us as a community — as Zionists and also as Israelis,” he enthuses. “Because if we’re being recognized to run for office, then we’re also being recognized as part of Israeli society.”
Maya Tapiero sits at No. 11 on the party list of Ometz Lev (literally: “Braveness of Heart”), a brand-new party revving for change in an increasingly sectarian Jerusalem. Started by Deputy Mayor Naomi Tsur, who herself was born in England, Ometz Lev has been hailed as a “women’s party” — thanks to the fact that its party list is almost entirely female.
Tapiero made aliyah from Canada three years and is finishing up a master’s degree in urban planning at The Hebrew University. Her vision of Israel’s capital, she says, follows that of Tsur: Every new project should have a “triple bottom line,” with benefits that are social, economic and environmental. It should also, Tapiero says, be focused on the entire population, rather than on an individual sector.
“When you do something good for one community, it should be good for everybody. Everyone is interconnected,” claims Tapiero. “So if I’m pushing for something that is good for the Anglo community, it should also benefit everyone else.”
Whether she is elected or not, Tapiero will continue to work on her master’s thesis — which looks at the political integration of immigrants in Israel — and to support her party.
“My contribution to the campaign is really to help them get elected, because I firmly believe in their platform and their ideas,” she says. “Voters want to trust their government, so the government has to prove themselves.”
Show him the money
When the Jewish Home party asked Jonny Cline to take the No. 3 spot on their list for the Modi’in city council, their approach was simple: They wanted him, they said, to be the voice of olim in this once-bedroom community halfway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. A former spokesman for the West Bank city of Ariel, the British-born Cline relocated to Modi’in with his family following a two-year stint as a government shaliach (emissary) in Winnipeg, Canada.
What he found in Modi’in — a rapidly expanding city that is quickly eclipsing Ra’anana as the go-to destination for English-speaking families in Israel — is a group of Anglos eager to contribute to society. but who instead find themselves struggling to find jobs that match their skills.
“Employment issues are one of the biggest issues for olim,” says Cline. “A happy home is a home that’s successful in Israel, and that includes the ability to look at the bank balance at the end of the month and know that we’re financially sound.”
Cline’s biggest challenge in running as the “Anglo candidate,” he explains, has not been so much in encouraging his community to vote for him, but in encouraging them to vote at all.
“We all grew up being active citizens, because it is activists who make aliyah… but then we make aliyah and we still have to make that shift to be part of it,” he says. “The right to vote is a responsibility. Voting is the realization of everything that we wanted to be here in Israel. Do it. Don’t sit at home. Get out there and vote because if you don’t, then your right to complain has been revoked for four years.”
The rabbi who wants to heal Beit Shemesh
For years, Beit Shemesh has been looked at as a microcosm of the fractures and divisiveness plaguing Israel. Its Haredi and secular communities remain as much at loggerheads over issues of modesty and religious practice as they do over basic municipal decisions. Friction between its increasingly segregated neighborhoods routinely escalates into violence and makes its way into national news.
Rabbi Avrohom Leventhal, a Baltimore native who made aliyah with his family in 2005, wants to change that. Beit Shemesh, he says, could be so much better if the government focused on the needs of the community as a whole, rather than on the specific special-interest groups they hail from.
“Beit Shemesh is definitely a poor city, more so than other cities. That’s happened because our elected officials are not looking out for the entire population,” he says. “As opposed to the government being a unifying force in the city, it’s become a divisive part.”
Leventhal is running with the TOV (“Good”) party, which has come out in support of mayoral candidate Eli Cohen, who hopes to oust Haredi Mayor Moshe Abutbol on October 22. Leventhal himself is quite religious, but believes that the key to the success of Beit Shemesh will be inclusion and the embrace of diversity.
“Beit Shemesh is such a melting pot, and in my opinion it could be a wonderful example of coexistence and harmony. Instead, it’s become an example of what could go wrong,” he says.
The city also has a very large Anglo population, which means, Leventhal says, that they need someone representing them in local government.
“Very often, Anglos are intimidated by Israeli government and politics because it’s an old boys’ network, and they don’t understand it. The bottom line is that if Anglos are going to become a contributing force to this country, then they should be heard, and they should have a say as to how their government is run.”