Jeremy Gimpel oozed confidence after a campaign event in Tel Aviv last week. “We’re going all the way this year,” he said. The American-born Knesset candidate was discussing his favorite football team, the Atlanta Falcons, which is one win away from reaching the Super Bowl.
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However, he could also have been talking about his party, Habayit Hayehudi, which has surged in recent weeks and is projected to win 12 to 14 seats on Election Day.
Now Gimpel, who sits precariously at number 14 on the party’s list, faces a more uncertain future following Channel 2’s broadcast Friday of a video in which he makes controversial remarks about the Dome of the Rock, the Muslim shrine located on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.
Speaking at the Fellowship Church in Florida in 2011, Gimpel - an ordained rabbi who lectures widely - reads from the book of Ezra then adds: “Imagine if the Golden Dome - I’m being recorded so I can’t say ‘blown up’ - but let’s say the Dome was blown up, right? And we laid the cornerstone of the Temple in Jerusalem. Can you imagine? None of you would be here. All of you would be like, ‘I’m going to Israel, right?’ No one would be here, it would be incredible!”
On Saturday, Gimpel dismissed his remarks as a joke, “in order to make the lecture more lively. You could clearly hear the people [in the congregation] laughing,” he said. “To say that I’m running around America calling for the destruction of the Dome of the Rock, that’s pretty ridiculous. This is a cheap political attack and I would urge anyone to watch the video in its entirety and decide for yourselves.”
Interviewed last week, before the video came to light, Gimpel said he has traveled across the United States and Europe, sharing an “unapologetic, Jewish message about our rights to be a free people in our homeland” with “anyone who would have me,” including evangelical Christians.
Gimpel has also hosted church groups in his home in the settlement of Neveh Daniel, where he lives with his wife Tehila, a Cleveland-born lawyer, and their three children.
He denies speaking to or accepting donations from Messianic Jewish groups.
Gimpel was born in Atlanta and moved to Israel with his mother when he was 11. He is a natural performer who first honed his message on Israel National Radio and then on a popular television show called “Tuesday Night Live in Jerusalem,” which he hosted with his friend Ari Abramowitz.
Together, the two launched TheLandofIsrael.com, where they post podcasts and short films to “educate people from all backgrounds about the truth and beauty of Israel.”
Yet for all the YouTube hits (12 million and counting), the 33-year-old Gimpel is a political novice and relative unknown outside of the religious Zionist camp. People close to him see this as an advantage.
“A breath of fresh air may be a positive thing,” said Abramowitz, who hails from Houston and ran in the Habayit Hayehudi primary on a joint ticket with Gimpel, but dropped out to bolster his friend’s chances of earning a viable spot. (Gimpel landed at number 9 but fell to 14 when the party merged its list with the National Union’s.)
His mother, Lynn, says Gimpel was initially turned off by the “dirty game” of politics. “Jeremy’s always been an idealist,” she said. “For a long time he didn’t even consider himself a politician. I said, ‘Jeremy, that’s what you are!’”
Lynn was born in Oklahoma and met Jeremy’s Israeli father, Amnon, in medical school there. She comes from a family of “political junkies” and says she woke up in the middle of the night to watch the last American presidential debates on television.
A love of football also runs in the family. Amnon received a college football scholarship and tried out for the Chicago Bears as a kicker, but decided to pursue a career in medicine instead. (He changed his name from “Gimpelevitz” because the hospital staff had trouble pronouncing it, Jeremy said.)
The youngest of three boys, Jeremy served as a commander in the Givati Brigade and studied at the Interdisciplinary Center, earning degrees in law and business. His brother Daniel - who dropped out of New York University and moved to Israel during the Gulf War out of solidarity, inspiring the rest of the family to follow - is a partner in a Tel Aviv venture capital firm and lives next door to Jeremy in Neveh Daniel. Another brother, Micah, works in asset management and lives in Efrat. All three are rabbis.
A self-described “half-breed,” Gimpel is critical of both the U.S. State Department, which he said is biased against Israel, and of Israel’s public relations campaign, which he called “horrendous.”
“The world needs to realize that we are the indigenous people of this land and it is not in America’s rights” to dictate where Jews can live, he says. “That’s a message that’s rarely put out of Israel, and I think that’s the message the world needs to hear now.”
Although Gimpel endorsed MK Zevulun Orlev in November to lead Habayit Hayehudi, he says he admires Bennett, who won the top spot and whose parents are American immigrants. Both men appeared in a campaign video in English and have said separately that they will work to strengthen Western Jews’ connection to Israel.
“It’s not enough to just take their checks,” Gimpel says. “We should really make them feel at home. I think that [Bennett] absolutely appreciates the English-speaking aliyah and realizes there’s so much potential that is not yet realized.”
Gimpel has said that if elected, his office will have a bilingual staff and that he will be a voice for Anglos in the Knesset. He hopes his campaign will inspire other Western immigrants to get into politics.
“They moved to Israel because they had a vision and they saw themselves as part of the story of the Jewish people,” he says. “They don’t want to just watch the game unfold from the sidelines; they want to be players in the game. This is a new Zionism.”