The Labor Party Wants You, American Olim!

Shelly Yacimovich's party has pretty much ignored English-speaking Israelis until now, but as the race reaches its final hour, a new English campaign coordinator is overseeing a flurry of Anglo outreach.

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
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Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

Come election day, the Labor Party should be a natural choice for most American immigrants living in Israel. At least, that's what Gabriel Sassoon, the party's newly appointed English campaign coordinator, believes.

“Seventy percent of American Jews voted for the Democratic candidate, Barack Obama,” Sassoon says. “Labor is the closest thing you have to the Democratic Party here in Israel.”

Sassoon grew up in Australia but spent several years living in the United States. He is well aware that rather than representing a cross-section of the nation's Jews, Americans are more and more falling into the category of the religious right.

So it begs the question: Why has Labor, which is projected to emerge from next week's elections as Israel's second-largest party, given Anglo voters the cold shoulder in its most recent campaign?

Labor was at Israel's helms for its first three decades. Until this week, however, it didn't even have an English-language translation available on its official website. Even now, users who click on the site's link for English will be directed to the English-language website of party chairwoman Shelly Yacimovich. The party's English-language Facebook site was only born a month again, and as of the latest count – here's a sad statistic – it has only 16 "likes."

The last-minute flurry to embrace Anglo voters coincides with the tapping of Sassoon, just about a month ago. Until he entered the scene, Labor had no English campaign coordinator.

Sassoon moved to Israel seven months ago from New York, where he had worked as a public affairs consultant.

The fact that Israel's biggest centrist-left party has virtually ignored the English-speaking community for most of this campaign is even more striking when you consider how ardently the other two big parties – Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu and Habayit Hayehudi – have courted them. They've showered American, British and Australian-born Israelis with English pamphlets, fliers and speakers.

It helps, obviously, that unlike Yacimovich, Likud's Benjamin Netanyahu and Habayit Hayehudi's Naftali Bennett are both completely bilingual They feel in their element around English speakers.

Guy Spigelman, another Australian who in 2006 made an unsuccessful bid for the Labor Party list, says it was a mistake to so long for an English version of the website. But, he says, that wasn't the party's only oversight.

Israel's community of Anglo-Saxon immigrants is small but influential, and Labor needs them. Sassoon estimates that native English-speaking Israelis make up somewhere between 2 and 2.5 percent of the population. According to Spigelman, though, they tend to vote at higher rates than other segments of the population.

"We needed to provide newer faces to Anglo community," Spigelman says. Using the nickname for English-speaking Isaac Herzog, No. 2 on the party's list, he adds, "Bougie's an old friend and one of us, but we can't keep sending him to every single English-speaking gathering."

With the campaign heading down to the wire, Sassoon has organized a major telephone outreach campaign aimed at English-speakers, and parlor meetings around the country to introduce English-speakers to party candidates. He’s also encouraging those on the party roster to pen Op-Ed pieces for English-language newspapers in Israel, and he's behind a glossy English-language flier that is being circulated these days at all party events.

Spigelman agrees that the Labor Party, especially with its current platform, should have special appeal for immigrants from English-speaking countries. “These are voters who come from the middle class and who care about the bread-and-butter issues Labor has been emphasizing,” says Spigelman, who serves today as the Israeli CEO of PresenTense, an organization promoting social entrepreneurship in the Jewish world.

Immigrants from English-speaking countries, he notes, are also more sensitive than the average Israeli to how the world perceives us. “They watch CNN and read The New York Times,” he says, noting that Labor should have done a better job of emphasizing how its policies could restore world sympathy for Israel, as was the case during the Rabin years.

He’s thrilled, though, that Yacimovich announced she would not sit in a government with Netanyahu. “The day after she said that, I went out to distribute Labor Party leaflets at the Carmel market,” he says.

'We needed to provide newer faces to Anglo community,' says Labor's Guy Spigelman.Credit: David Bachar
Shelly Yacimovich decides to address English-speakers too. Credit: Ofer Vaknin

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