English Speakers Grab Bigger Role in Israel Politics — Halting Hebrew and All
In the eight years since Rabbi Avrohom Leventhal moved from Baltimore to this central Israeli city of 80,000, he has trained as a technical writer, taken over a local charity and become president of his synagogue.
Now Leventhal is hoping to add city councilman to his resume.
Leventhal loves Beit Shemesh, but none of his children want to stay here — not because of the conflict between haredi and Modern Orthodox Jews that has plagued the city since 2010, he says, but because the city feels like it’s falling apart.
A local community center lacks a bathroom. Street cleaning is spotty. At a neighborhood school, children sit all day in converted trailers.
“I want to do whatever I can to make a Beit Shemesh that my children and everyone else’s children would want to live in,” Leventhal said. “It’s not a citizen-friendly city. There’s not a lot for youth, no cultural activities. It should have a whole menu of different activities and events.”
Leventhal is among a handful of English-speaking immigrants making first-time bids for public office in municipal elections on Oct. 22. A few English speakers, known here as Anglos, already serve on city councils.
But following a national election in January that saw the first American-born Knesset member in 25 years and increased political outreach to native English speakers, Anglos are now stepping up their activism in local campaigns.
One party in Jerusalem, Ometz Lev, features five Anglos in its top 11 spots. A native of Manchester, England, is expected to win a council seat in the central city of Modiin. And a Londoner is running on the mayor’s slate in Tel Aviv.
“There’s always going to be this way that I look at the world that will be different from someone who grew up here,” said Jonny Cline, a professional fundraiser who moved to Modiin from Manchester 20 years ago and is third on the Jewish Home party slate. “The municipal level in Israel is something that is crucial.”
Some candidates say their top priorities are things many Anglos consider a given — transparent governing and competent city services among them. Candidates have made campaign issues out of crowded schools, insufficient police patrols and inefficient public transit.
Laura Wharton, a New Jersey native and Jerusalem city councillor with the left-wing Meretz party, said it’s hard to be satisfied with the capital’s public buses after growing up with New York City’s subways.
“I think the awareness that American citizens have for proper government and tolerance and openness are things the city really needs,” Wharton said. “They have high expectations, and that’s a good thing.”
Several Anglo candidates have promised that if elected, they will fight for the English-speaking community’s parochial issues.
Cline wants Modiin to fund workspaces for immigrants who work long-distance for U.S. companies. Jon Javor, running on the slate of center-left Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, wants to create a central hub where English speakers can pay city taxes, consult an accountant and receive help signing an apartment lease. Maya Tapiero, running with Jerusalem’s Ometz Lev, wants the city to publicize more cultural events in English.
“If you have a language barrier, how do you know what’s going on?” Javor asked. “I want to do my part in making sure everyone has the necessary tools so they can succeed here.”
Like most of the Anglo candidates, Javor came to politics through social action. He’s a lead organizer of the Tel Aviv International Salon, an English-language speaker series that has featured public figures from Finance Minister Yair Lapid to famed sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer. He also helps run the Israeli Cinema Series, which shows famous Israeli films with English subtitles.
Javor’s social entrepreneurship, he says, has made him a welcome guest in the mayor’s office. “But that doesn’t mean that in City Hall we shouldn’t have representation,” he added.
Parallel to Javor’s campaign, a Tel Aviv movement called Kol Oleh — which means both “rising voice” and “immigrant’s voice” — aims to get out the vote among the city’s Anglos. The group is hosting candidates’ forums in English leading up to Election Day, and over the summer hosted parlor meetings to discuss municipal issues with local Anglos.
“Decisions were being made and it seemed like the population had no connection to things going on around them,” said Guy Seemann, the head of Kol Oleh. “Kol Oleh wanted to start with the elections as a benchmark to get involved in civil society.”
But Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Naomi Tzur, a native of England whose slate boasts a handful of Anglos, says English-speaking immigrants must learn Hebrew rather than relying on English-language services.
“Wherever they go in the world, they’re so confident that their language is known by everybody,” said Tzur, who moved to Israel in 1966. “They remain in a colony of their own and there are very few who break out of that cocoon.
“You can’t have just enough Hebrew to go shopping or talk to your neighbor about a leak in the roof. You need to be really fluent.”
As newcomers to their slates, many of the Anglo candidates have a slim chance of winning seats in their respective councils. But Leventhal says that any Anglo political activism will help advance the community no matter the result.
“Americans come from a culture of community, concern and respect,” he said. “They’re not going to want to come to a city that doesn’t provide quality of life.”