“Does anybody know when the municipal elections are?” Guy Seemann asked a group of 15 young immigrants who had gathered in the living room of his airy central Tel Aviv apartment on a recent evening.
The room was silent. Seemann did not seem surprised.
“We as immigrants are not necessarily informed about what’s going on in the city,” he told the group. “We kind of feel outside of the system. We don’t have a real voice.”
In an effort to capture that voice and perhaps launch his own political career, Seemann − a 27-year-old immigrant from New Jersey who has only lived in Tel Aviv for four months − has been meeting with English-speaking immigrants and encouraging them to vote in the October 22 election. He is calling the voter-outreach campaign Kol Oleh, or Voice of the Immigrant.
“The agenda of the movement is to get people informed about who represents them and how the city works,” he told the group, which included immigrants from the United States, Canada, South Africa, Mexico and Italy. “It’s about making sure the parties and the mayor and the deputy mayor take us seriously.” (In a follow-up phone call, Seemann said he thinks city hall, through its Mazeh 9 young adult center and other projects, has gone out of its way in recent years to provide new immigrants with needed services.)
After the election, Seemann said he envisions Kol Oleh as a platform for immigrants to lobby the city for greater assistance and offer their own solutions to problems like the lack of affordable housing and parking. “There’s so much we have to bring to help the city solve its problems,” he said. “If there’s anywhere in the country where we can get something done on the local level, it’s here in Tel Aviv.”
A self-described “government guy,” Seemann studied at American University in Washington, D.C. and campaigned for Barack Obama in 2008. Upon immigrating to Israel in 2009, he interned in the Government Press Office and later worked at the National Security Council. (In June 2011, he was caught up in a scandal over a fake YouTube video critical of the Gaza flotilla campaign that he had promoted via his personal Twitter account. He cited a “lack of judgment” for the tweet, which the Government Press Office retweeted and for which it had to later apologize.)
Seemann said he was inspired to start the Kol Oleh movement in part by his experience in Haiti last year. As head of an Israeli development mission, he worked with the non-governmental organizations IsraAID and Tevel B’Tzedek to build a vocational school, medical center and agricultural project near the epicenter of the 2010 earthquake.
“We went into the field and found out what people needed,” he said. “I saw how much more effective that strategy is, working from the ground up instead of from the top down.”
Applying that strategy in Tel Aviv, he has held over a dozen parlor meetings in apartments across the city during the last month and is planning a series of rallies “to make sure that people understand that we’re here, that we have different perspectives that can help the city.”
When told about the Kol Oleh movement, Noah Efron, a former Tel Aviv city councilman from the Ir Lechulanu party and Maryland native, said: “I think it’s fantastic for immigrants to organize and get involved in politics in a way that’s comfortable for them.”
However, Efron encouraged Western immigrants to use their economic and cultural capital for the good of all of the city’s residents. “I would hope that English-speaking immigrants, once organized, would fight for the needs of everybody, including for groups that need help much more than we do as a whole,” he said. (Seemann said he is seeking cooperation with leaders of the Ethiopian and Russian communities in Tel Aviv.)
Some of the immigrants at the meeting in Seemann’s apartment vowed to vote in October and become more involved in the movement, while others said they needed a bit more convincing.
“I think the movement has great potential,” said Ben Sack, a native of Austin, Texas. “There’s no one looking out for the specific needs of this community right now, and it’s because we haven’t shown that they should care about us.”
Michal Freier, who hails from New York, said she would support the movement if Seemann can present a focused agenda. “We need to be very clear about what we want,” she said, adding: “I’m afraid that this idea will just stay an idea.”
Another immigrant, who attended a separate parlor meeting last month, said he felt that Seemann was taking the wrong approach to social integration. “The ideas that he was floating would further ghettoize Anglos in Tel Aviv,” the immigrant said. “Instead of focusing on having immigrants insulate themselves, I feel that it’s better for them to integrate into Israeli society.”
While insisting that English-speaking immigrants need an official voice in city hall, Seemann remains coy about whether or not he will run for a seat in October. (To do so, he would have to join a party or start his own.)
“Have I thought about it? Yes,” he said. “Is that my main goal right now? No. My main goal is getting this movement up and running.”
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