Israel Election: How the Country's Oldest Citizens Will Vote

Will it be Netanyahu or Gantz? Haaretz consults with tribal elders ahead of Israel's historic third election in one year

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Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

They’ve been here since the very beginning. Some of them look back with longing at the good old days of Mapai, while others are nostalgic for Menachem Begin’s oratory. The oldest in the group is about 106 years old; the youngest is 88, but they have all been voters since Israel’s first election in 1949. Left, right, Netanyahu or Gantz: How will they cast their ballots this time? 

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Nahum HermonCredit: Tomer Appelbaum

Nahum Hermon
90, Ramat Gan
Will vote for Labor-Gesher-Meretz

In 1949, in the first national election in Israel, Nahum Herman walked from house to house in his hometown, Afula, to prepare the roll of voters for the young state. “The whole of the Jezreel Valley was Mapai,” he says, referring to the Workers’ Party of the Land of Israel, the major precursor of today’s Labor Party, as he recalls his activism as a member of the faction’s young guard. In all of his 90 years, he remembers only two occasions when he voted for another party: center-left, anti-clerical Shinui in its day and the Democratic Union in the most recent election. This time he will vote for Labor-Gesher-Meretz, “So that at least they will try to achieve peace, one way or the other,” he explains.

Hermon was born in Romania in 1929. In 1936 he immigrated to the Land of Israel with his family and settled in Kibbutz Ayanot, which later became Ramat David. He later made his home in Ramat Gan and for many years worked at Bank Leumi.

"Ben-Gurion sustained the country and knew how to run it"

“We felt that [David] Ben-Gurion sustained the country and knew how to run it,” he recalls. “He also had respected ministers like Levi Eshkol and Dov Yosef. All of them were larger than life. Not like the current justice minister, that I don’t even know where he’s arrived from.”

When asked to explain how Labor crashed, he says that “those who felt Mapai had harmed them decided to take revenge and when Menachem Begin came along with all his stories, they ran to him, even though I don’t know whether he helped them a lot economically.” According to him, in this respect, Israel is following the rest of the world. “The leftist circle is moving in a more centrist direction,” he explains. “The feeling is that socialism doesn’t solve the problems, everyone is an individualist, every man for himself.”

Chana BiluCredit: Moti Milrod

Chana Bilu
98, Tel Aviv
Will vote for Likud

In 1934, Chana Bilu got to see Vladimir Jabotinsky make a speech in Cracow. She remembers the applause to this day. “He saw the future as very bad and told us to immigrate to the Land of Israel,” she recalls. She did as the leader said. In Palestine she became a company commander in the Irgun militia organization he commanded.

She transmitted messages to her husband, himself a paramilitary man who was arrested by the British at Latrun, among them messages from the headquarters commander, Haim Landau, who eventually became a minister in Menachem Begin’s government. Once, for example, she updated him that at the bottom of a cask of olives being taken to prisoners were burglary tools that could help them escape. Sometimes she concealed underground materials in their baby daughter’s clothing. Subsequently, she headed a unit dubbed “Old Folks,” which consisted of married women and mothers of children who carried messages, equipment and food to Irgun positions on the Jaffa-Tel Aviv border.

“I would like to have peace, but I don’t see it happening”

With a biography like that, it’s no wonder she has always voted Likud. “I can’t possibly do anything else,” she says, “even if I have a lot to say about Bibi,” referring to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whom she accuses of having moved very far from the majestic dignity of the Betar movement associated with Jabotinsky. She admits that she misses Begin, “the symbol of delicacy and modesty.” It used to be, she recalls, that they’d have to wait for Begin to travel abroad in order to renovate his apartment against his will.

“Whether a slave or a tramp – you were born a king’s son” – she declaims these lines from “The Betar Song,” and then goes on to “The Jordan has two banks, this one’s ours and the other is the same,” another of Jabotinsky’s compositions. “I would like to have peace,” she says, “but I don’t see it happening. If they are the majority, it’s clear they won’t let us live here in peace.”

Rose LowCredit: Tomer Appelbaum

Rose Low
106, Tel Aviv
Will vote for Likud

Even at the age of 106, Rose evinces impressive familiarity with the very latest political squabbles. However, what really disturbs her is the Iranian threat. “Maybe it’s necessary to attack Iran. We aren’t living like in Denmark, around friends. We are on a volcano with haters all around us.

She was born in Oma in Poland – possibly in 1914 but maybe in 1916, which would mean she is only 104. In 1935, she immigrated to the Land of Israel and worked as a clerk for the British Mandate Post Office. Among other things, she censored telegrams that were sent during World War II.

“Bibi is the most talented and he has so much to his credit in the economy and security”

In the first election she voted for David Ben-Gurion, “Even though I don’t like the man.” To this day she hasn’t forgiven him for preventing Chaim Weizmann from signing the Declaration of Independence and for how “he tried to sink the Altalena” – an Irgun arms ship. In 1977 she voted for Shmuel Flatto-Sharon’s one-man party so he could obtain immunity and not be prosecuted in France “by the anti-Semites looking to destroy him.”

Since then she has consistently voted for Likud. “They are the patriots,” she explains. She had the privilege of seeing Begin up close during the time of the British Mandate, when he was active in the underground. One day he was sitting next to her on a bus, when suddenly some British policemen boarded. At his request, she concealed him with her newspaper. Begin is no longer with us but “Bibi is the most talented and he has so much to his credit in the economy and security,” she concludes.

Tamar EshelCredit: Emil Salman

Tamar Eshel
100, Jerusalem
Will vote for Kahol Lavan or Labor-Gesher-Meretz

Tamar Eshel, a walking history of the past century, had no doubts about whom to vote for in the first election. “Wherever there was Ben-Gurion, I was there too,” she says. “I was a fan of his.”

She knew “the Old Man” personally when she served in the Palyam, the naval branch of the elite Palmach underground force. “He was very very nice to me and he was very glad when I’d come to him with telegrams,” she says. However, she viewed Jabotinsky and his colleagues on the right as “big chatterers, who don’t do anything.”

Her vote did not change even when she was exposed to some of the less pleasant aspects of Ben-Gurion’s personality. “He was a dictator and sometimes really lacking in human sensibilities, but this didn’t prevent me from being impressed by his ability to make decisions in matters of principle in such difficult times,” she says.

“The leaders of the past – all they cared about was serving the public and not serving themselves”

Over the years, Eshel held a number of public positions. Among other things, she was a diplomat and Israel’s representative to the United Nations, a Knesset member on behalf of the Alignment (an alliance of the Labor and Mapam parties), a member of the Jerusalem Municipal Council, deputy mayor of Jerusalem and head of the Na’amat women’s organization.

When asked about today’s leaders compared to those she knew during her decades of public activity, she finds one significant difference: “The leaders of the past – all they cared about was serving the public and not serving themselves.”

When she looks at the public’s elected representatives in 2020 she asks herself: “What exactly have they done in their lives for the general public, the state or the future? It could be that they have more formal education and knowledge, but that’s not important.” Today, from her apartment in Nofei Yerushalaim, an assisted living facility, she wants to strengthen Labor-Gesher-Meretz for fear that “they might go way down.” However, “The priority is to get rid of Bibi,” according to her, and therefore she might vote for Kahol Lavan.

Moshe BodekCredit: Rami Shllush

Moshe Bodek
90, Haifa
Will vote for Likud or Yamina

Bodek inherited his rightward leanings from his father. “Do you believe in genetics? So my father, may he rest in peace, was commander of a Betar club back in Kalisz in Poland,” he says. In 1935, after his family immigrated to the Land of Israel, leaving behind dozens of relatives who were murdered in the Holocaust, Moshe too became active in Betar – the youth movement Jabotinsky founded – and from there, naturally, he went into the Irgun. “Being a Betari was considered a blot at the time here. We were not favorites of the regime and it was hard to get work,” he recalls.

“As I grow older, the greater Ben-Gurion looks to me”

At first he participated in putting up posters against the British in the streets of Haifa. On one occasion he was shot and wounded in the leg after escaping from an attempt to arrest him. Later he participated in the occupation of Jaffa. That was the first time he saw Begin, the admired commander. “He gave a speech to us – we were hundreds of people,” he recalls. In the War of Independence, he served in the 51st Battalion of the Givati Brigade and took part in battles, in one of which he was wounded. In civilian life, he worked as a teacher.

In contrast to his comrades in the Irgun, he does not feel hostility toward the left. “They can excommunicate me – but I came back from a visit to the Palmach Museum full of admiration,” he says. “As I grow older, the greater Ben-Gurion looks to me. They tell me: ‘Moishe, how can you talk that way?’ and they mention the Altalena. But I say: Guys, drop it. If not for Ben-Gurion, there wouldn’t be a state.”

“When we heard we had won it was like a holiday for me,” he says of the landslide Likud victory in the 1977 election. However, after the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005, he disengaged from Likud. “If Netanyahu voted in favor of the expulsion, how could I vote for a party like that? That was an ugly deed. I believed the soldiers would go to Gush Katif [the Israeli settlement area inside the Gaza Strip that was vacated in the disengagement] and say they weren’t willing; but they brainwashed them.” In the coming election he is undecided between Likud and Yamina.

Paula FrenkelCredit: Tomer Appelbaum

Paula Frenkel
93, Tel Aviv
Will vote for Likud

She has had a hard life. Paula Frenkel is a very lively Tel Aviv resident who was born in Poland. She survived the Skarysko-Kamienna camp in Poland (“Israelis have a hard time pronouncing that name”), and experienced the “hell” of the illegal immigrant ships in 1946 (“on benches, like in the camps, without enough water, a lot of people vomited, the people who brought us that way should be put on trial”). In Tel Aviv, she had to get along “in a shabby shack with mice, cockroaches and parush ... how do you say that in Hebrew? Fleas? They made our lives miserable all night long.” And if that was not enough, continues Frankel, she immediately became pregnant, “Because everyone was saying: ‘Why aren’t you having children? So many Jews were killed in Europe and you haven’t got anything.’” However, when the child was born, she says, “I had to keep watch at night so a mouse wouldn’t climb into his bed.”

“Begin was a fighter, a leader and a great orator. Unique in his generation”

To assuage the bitterness to some extent, she worked at the Fischinger chocolate factory in Nahalat Yitzhak. It was only in 1977 that she was able to breathe easy. This happened in the Likud landslide, when the right wing finally rose to power. ‘Begin was a fighter, a leader and a great orator. Unique in his generation,” she says. “I had felt bitter disappointment all those years, but ultimately victory came. I wasn’t able to go out, because I had a baby at home, but I sent my husband out to dance,” she recalls. To the question of what is important to her in a leader she replies: “He should know what to do if it is necessary to go to war.” In the coming election Frankel will vote for Netanyahu. “There is no one better than he is. He represents us abroad, he has been to Arab countries that never had any relations with us and he has walked around in palaces. Not every leader has this luck.”

Lea HarpazCredit: Emil Salman

Lea Harpaz
88, Jerusalem
Will vote for Likud

Lea Harpaz, a seamstress and sewing instructor by profession, is a member of the “Mizrahi minority” at the Nofei Yerushalaim seniors residence in Jerusalem. “The majority here is European,” she says. “The European women hate Bibi. We, the Mizrahi women – Bibi.” As a proud minority, she is not afraid to express her exceptional opinion, “Because I haven’t done anything bad.” However, she is not eager to get into conflicts around the bridge table.

Harpaz was born in Jerusalem in 1932 to parents from Kurdistan and has lived there all her life. She voted for Mapai for many years. Her father worked in the Histadrut Labor Federation construction company Solel Boneh and was a member of the Histadrut. “We all had our red booklet [which Histadrut members had to carry], [we were] fans of Mapai and Ben-Gurion,” she says. In the 1977 landslide,” I didn’t sleep all night, out of fear. They frightened us, [saying] that if Begin got elected there would be a war,” she adds.

“Any hatred toward [Benjamin Netanyahu] brings him a few more votes”

After the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, something changed in her. “I couldn’t stand the hatred they pinned on the religious, so I voted Likud for the first time,” she says. In that way she contributed to the rise of Netanyahu’s rule. Ever since then, she has voted for him, “Not out of ideology, but rather because people hate him. Any hatred toward him brings him a few more votes,” she says. At one point she thought of defecting to Yair Lapid, because “I admired him so much.” Subsequently, however, when she saw him “applauding on television, like some idiot,” she realized there is no one like Bibi.

From the perspective of her 88 years, she is well acquainted with Mapai, “thanks to whom we have a state,” but she does not believe in peace. “Not at all. It isn’t going to happen. Is there anyone to make peace with? I am voting for Bibi, to your regret, Haaretz,” she concludes.

Nachman BernsteinCredit: Moti Milrod

Nachman Bernstein
95, Givatayim
Will vote for Kahol Lavan

In Israel’s first election, Nachman Bernstein was given an important mission: “We had to keep our finger on the pulse, to check and see how the elections were going and to report to upstairs, where Ben-Gurion would sit,” he says, recalling an instruction he had received from on high. Thus he found himself standing in the street and going up to passersby to address them with a single question: “Sir: For whom did you vote?” Most of them answered, he says: “Mapai, of course.” When the results of the unrepresentative street survey were presented to the “Old Man,” they were converted into the phrase: “Going well.”

“It used to be that if you wanted to talk to some government minister, you’d simply call him by his name”

Bernstein was born in Romania, survived the Holocaust in Transnistria, immigrated to Palestine and settled in Kfar Yehoshua. “There was no one who wasn’t a Mapainik,” he recalls. After the War of Independence, he says, he worked as a kolboinik – a jack of all trades or handyman – in the Prime Minister’s Office. After that, he worked at the Jewish Agency for 38 years.

“In those days, the prime minister would walk around in khaki. Nowadays everyone is in suits and ties and you can’t get to anyone. You need to do somersaults to get a hold of a minister. It used to be that if you wanted to talk to some government minister, you’d simply call him by his name,” he says. In the coming election he will relinquish Labor with a heavy heart and vote for Kahol Lavan, “In order to bring about a change.”