Israel's Political Parties Suddenly 'Discover' English-speaking Voters

Roughly 170,000 English-speakers live in Israel, among them new immigrants, old-timers and children of immigrants born in the country.

Tomer Appelbaum

Despite their relative affluence and not insubstantial numbers, Israel’s English speaking voters have never been deemed high priority by political parties at election time.

But that may finally be changing. Many of the parties running in the upcoming March 17 elections have been investing time and energy, as never before, in wooing over immigrants from English-speaking countries. That includes dispatching their stars to special events that target English speakers, translating their campaign material into English and appointing dedicated staffers for outreach to the community.

Dov Lipman, an Orthodox rabbi from the centrist Yesh Atid party who served in the outgoing Knesset, estimates that roughly 170,000 English-speakers live in Israel, among them new immigrants, old-timers and children of immigrants born in the country.

“Almost every night, we have events scheduled for English speakers, which is something we never had before,” he says.

Originally from Maryland, Lipman placed 17th on his party’s list and is unlikely to find himself back in the Knesset, unless Yesh Atid executes a dramatic turnaround in the coming weeks. In the outgoing Knesset, he assumed the role of the go-to member for English-speaking immigrants, so that his finger is today very much on the pulse of this community.

TLV Internationals is an umbrella organization that targets the growing community of English-speakers in Tel Aviv, organizing events as diverse as Shabbat dinners, lectures on local art and meetings with government leaders. Its founder and director, Jay Shultz, reports that the various political parties have been much more receptive to his invitations during this election campaign than they were in the past.

“We had 1,000 young voters attend a debate we organized last week with representatives of all the main parties,” he recounts, “and we’ve had that kind of turnout for other events with individual politicians.” According to Shultz, the size of the international community in Tel Aviv (including French-speakers) has quadrupled in the past seven years and surpasses 10,000 today.

Several hundred young English-speakers recently signed up for an initiative led by TLV Internationals to volunteers for the various political parties. The Zionist Union, the new center-left party formed by the merger of Labor and Hatnuah, nabbed the biggest number of recruits, reports Shultz, followed by the right-wing Orthodox Habayit Hayehudi, though he cautions against drawing conclusions about the final election outcome based on this tiny and unscientific sample.

“Most Western immigrants come from countries with a two-party system, so they are naturally inclined to gravitate toward the big parties in Israel,” notes Shultz. “The problem is that the big parties here are less nimble and don’t think about things like preparing campaign material in other languages. When we held our big Knesset member debate, the two parties with the most English-friendly material available were not the two big parties, but rather Meretz [the left-wing Zionist party] and Habayit Hayehudi.”

According to an internal poll undertaken by his organization after the last elections in 2013, Shultz says, the biggest vote-getter among his constituency was Yesh Atid, followed by Likud, Labor and Meretz.

Starring a former ambassador

Israel’s former ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, is likely to become the only native English speaker to serve in the upcoming Knesset, if recent polls are accurate, and certainly the most high profile in many years.

Born and raised in New Jersey, Oren received a top spot on the list of Kulanu, the new centrist party that has also been reaching out to the English-speaking community. “The English-speakers are a very high-quality aliyah, but that doesn’t mean these they have integrated smoothly,” notes Oren, who aside from taking charge of the new party’s diplomatic platform has also been coming up with ideas to address the specific problems of English-speaking immigrants. One such proposal, he says, is creating special classes — an “economic ulpan,” as he terms it — where new immigrants can learn the ropes of managing financially in Israel.

Jay Ruderman, a prominent American-born philanthropist, has in recent years been trying to get more English speakers involved in Israeli political life. “The United States is Israel’s greatest ally, and its support is vital to the future security of the Jewish state,” he says. “It should therefore be in Israel’s interest to include those who best understand the United States at the highest political levels. American immigrants not only understand how to communicate better with their fellow Americans, they understand American culture in a way no native born Israeli could ever hope to obtain.”

This should prompt Israeli political parties and leaders to include American immigrants in electable spots on their Knesset lists and as key advisers, but unfortunately, laments Ruderman, “This seldom happens because most Israeli leaders suffer from the belief that they understand America, when in reality they do not.”

Aside from Oren and Lipman, two other immigrants from English-speaking countries, appear on the party lists for the upcoming Knesset, though not in electable spots: British-born Ashley Perry of Yisrael Beiteinu, the so-called “Russian party,” and American-born Laura Wharton of Meretz. Another longtime Knesset member who grew up in the United States, though he was born in Germany, is Yaakov Litzman of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party.

They have very illustrious predecessors. Among the English-speakers who served in the Knesset were former prime minister Golda Meir, who was born in Kiev but grew up in Milwaukee, former president Haim Herzog (Ireland,) former foreign minister Abba Eban (South Africa and England) and Meir Kahane, the former New Yorker and leader of the extreme right-wing party, Kach, which was ultimately outlawed.

Americans who immigrate to Israel tend to have strong opinions about politics and therefore gravitate to parties on the extremes, observes Wharton, who teaches political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and is a representative of Meretz on the Jerusalem city council. “You have many American immigrants who move to settlements in the West Bank and vote for right-wing parties,” she notes. “But you also have many on the extreme left, borderline anarchist types.”

English-speaking immigrants, she says, tend to attribute great importance to quality of life issues. “It was English-speakers who led the battle to end smoking in public places in this country and who are today leading the fight against religious extremism in places like Beit Shemesh.”

Lipman believes that English-speakers tend to vote for right-wing parties, although in recent years the influx of many young secular immigrants to Tel Aviv has tempered that trend, he says. The big-picture issues that concern this community, based on his experience, are corruption and state intervention in religious affairs.

But it is the little picture issues, he says, that ultimately cause them to lose sleep, with the huge bureaucratic hurdles they are forced to confront when they transfer their driving licenses and professional certification from their home countries to Israel topping the list.