Israel Election: These Right-wing Immigrants Aren’t Sure Bibi Deserves Their Vote

Even on Election Day, some European-born immigrants are still mulling which right-wing party will get their vote: Likud, New Hope or Yamina

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New Hope leader Gideon Sa'ar, left, and Yamina Chairman Naftali Bennett voting on Election Day with their families.
New Hope leader Gideon Sa'ar, left, and Yamina Chairman Naftali Bennett voting on Election Day with their families.Credit: Jalaa Marey, AFP / Gil Cohen-Magen, AFP
Jotam Confino
Jotam Confino

Of the many challenges facing new immigrants in Israel, deciding who to vote for on Election Day seemingly never gets any easier – even when it’s your fourth election in less than two years. 

“I voted for Benny Gantz, Naftali Bennett and Moshe Kahlon in the previous elections. But this time I’m really not sure,” says German-born Eli Szeinwald, naming the leaders of three different Israeli parties – Kahol Lavan, Yamina and the now-defunct Kulanu, respectively.

Szeinwald, 33, is one of many new immigrants about to cast their vote in Tuesday’s election, after moving to Israel in 2015.

For him and other newcomers, as well as veteran Israeli voters, the shake-up of the political map and the emergence of new parties and leaders in the last few years is causing a great deal of confusion, with many only likely to decide who to vote for when they reach their polling place.

Szeinwald considers himself to be right wing, but even with a few parties to choose from, he is finding it difficult to decide whom to cast his vote for.

“I’m a supporter of Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s ideology,” says Szeinwald, referring to the famed Revisionist Zionist leader. “So naturally, Likud would be the obvious choice for me. But I don’t want to vote for [Likud leader and Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu. He has been in power for too long. I like Gideon Sa’ar” – chairman of the right-wing New Hope party – “because he’s basically still Likud when it comes to his policies. But I don’t think he has a strong list of candidates in his party.”

As in the case of his political beliefs, this newcomer’s decision to immigrate to Israel from Munich was also driven by ideology.

“I made aliyah because I’m a Zionist,” says Szeinwald, who is married to French-born Annael and has three children, “and I always wanted to immigrate to Israel. I was very involved in the Jewish youth movement, including Habonim Dror in Munich, and also studied at a yeshiva in Israel. It feels like my home now, and I plan on staying here to raise my kids.”

Another new immigrant who lives in Tel Aviv and is still dithering over who to vote for is Hillel Portugais-de Almeida, 25, from Paris. He also identifies with the right and agrees with Szeinwald that it’s time for a change in Israel.

“The political scene in Israel is very complicated. There are so many parties and some of them are very similar. I usually vote center-right, but I don’t feel like there’s anyone who represents my values. Netanyahu has done great things for Israel, but he has been in power for too long. And Bennett is too extreme. Gideon Sa’ar is from Likud and has the exact same values as his former party. The problem for many olim [new immigrants] is that they don’t really know politicians like Sa’ar. They’re more familiar with Netanyahu and Bennett,” Portugais-de Almeida says.

Zionism was also the driving force behind Portugais-de Almeida’s decision to make aliyah in 2019. “I’m a Zionist,” he explains, “and I think Israel has better opportunities for me, career wise and personally. And I definitely plan on staying here.”

Also 25, Sara Castelnuovo, a right-leaning new immigrant from Rome, is a bit more certain about who will end up getting her vote, but still hasn’t made up her mind completely.

“I’m still trying to decide whom to vote for. I will likely vote for Bennett, although a tiny voice in my head says I should vote for Netanyahu again. Why Bennett? As a young Zionist and a modern Orthodox woman, I think we share the same ideology. His parents made aliyah, so I think he understands the ‘struggle’ of living in Israel, away from your family. Netanyahu is a safe option. I almost always agree with him, but I see how the country, and especially the Israelis, needs a change,” she says.

Castelnuovo made aliyah in 2016, knowing all her life that Israel would be her future home; today she lives in an apartment with roommates in Givat Shmuel, in the central part of the country. Still, even after almost five years here, she says, she is facing the challenges many olim know all too well.

“I’m not going to lie. Living here, especially without your family, is not easy and will probably never be, but when I say I’m an olah, people always try to help and often invite you to their Shabbat dinners. This makes me realize how much I love being here. The possibilities for a modern Orthodox Jew in Europe are really limited, in my opinion,” Castelnuovo says. “I feel like I can truly be myself in Israel, in terms of religious identity and beliefs.”

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