Parties vie for ‘Anglo’ votes

Labor Party leader Amram Mitzna, right, shakes hands with English speakers living in Israel after meeting with them Jan. 14 in Jerusalem. (Brian Hendler)

Labor Party leader Amram Mitzna, right, shakes hands with English speakers living in Israel after meeting with them Jan. 14 in Jerusalem. (Brian Hendler)

JERUSALEM, Jan. 21 (JTA) — As Israel’s Jan. 28 election approaches, the country’s English-speaking immigrants find themselves in the unusual position of being courted. For the first time, more than one political party is reaching out to this small but influential community — but the Western immigrants wonder whether they ever can be well represented in the Middle Eastern-style bazaar of Israeli politics. Known locally as “Anglo-Saxons,” the English-speaking immigrants hail from the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia and South Africa. The community numbers around 200,000, most of them — some 120,000 — from North America. In the past, the Anglo community has voted overwhelmingly for right-leaning parties. There have been exceptions, notably in May 1999 when Labor Party chairman Ehud Barak beat the incumbent prime minister, Likud Party head Benjamin Netanyahu. But then Ariel Sharon of the Likud trounced Barak in February 2001, as Israelis — natives, veteran immigrants and newcomers — veered back toward the right in the face of the Palestinian intifada. Nearly two years later, many Israelis, including Anglo immigrants, still identify as right-of-center. And even with the return to the old system of casting just one vote — for a party, rather than a prime ministerial candidate — expected to cut into small parties’ support, the Anglo community isn’t lining up monolithically behind the Likud. Since a Likud victory seems probable, many voters may decide to cast ballots for other parties to influence whether Sharon forms a narrow, right-wing coalition or a unity government with Labor, said Stu Schnee, a marketing manager originally from New Jersey. Schnee has voted faithfully for the Likud in most elections, but this time is considering voting for the National Union, a small, far-right party. “I have no illusion that the National Union will change anything, but the question is who will be Sharon’s partners?” Schnee asked. “Likud is pushing the peace negotiations forward, just more slowly.” As for the Labor Party, chairman Amram Mitzna “is a dreamer — with the best of intentions, but out of touch with reality,” Schnee said. But Schnee’s mind is still open. “I have to read the polls,” he added. “If Sharon is up, then I’ll vote National Union. If he’s in trouble, then I have to make sure he gets more votes than Mitzna.” Recent polls project that the Likud will win some 32 to 33 seats in the Knesset, while Labor is expected to win about 20. Likud’s poll numbers had fallen as Sharon and his party were caught up in several corruption scandals. The troubles began during the Likud’s December primary, as charges of ballot buying and selling, and of underworld involvement, made headlines. More recently, Sharon has been accused of accepting an illegal donation from an overseas friend with business interests in Israel, to pay off an earlier illegal contribution to a Sharon campaign. The prime minister has denied any wrongdoing. “In the old days, I would vote Likud, but it might have been out of habit,” said Mordy Kehat, 44, a native New Yorker who has been living in Israel since he was 11. “When I look at the Likud today, I’m kind of put off by the people,” said Kehat, a former Israeli air force officer. “I don’t like the politicians that make up the rank-and-file, and I didn’t like that they didn’t hold open primaries.” This time, however, Anglo voters such as Kehat have more of a choice, as several factions have decided to woo English-speaking immigrants. Given his rather centrist point of view, Kehat is strongly considering Yisrael Ba’Aliyah, Natan Sharansky’s immigrant faction, which has been aiming itself at English-speaking voters for the last year and a half and has put an immigrant from the United States high on its Knesset slate. “In spite of the fact that I’ve been here for 35 years, and in spite of the fact that the party is an immigrant party, I like that they want to absorb what we have to give,” said Kehat, a partner in a company offering kosher trekking experiences. “Their name suggests that it’s not just a matter of absorbing immigrants, but absorbing immigrant values into Israeli society.” Yisrael Ba’Aliyah won kudos from Anglo voters in the fall, when the party fought against a proposed tax reform that would have radically increased taxes on immigrants’ overseas assets. The party succeeded in exempting certain retired immigrants from the law, which may have won them new voters. “This American thing isn’t just an election ploy. They’ve been doing it for the last year and a half,” said Russell Rothstein, 34, a venture capitalist who lives in Rehovot. Rothstein voted for Likud in the last election. This time, he says, “The Likud doesn’t care about me as an Anglo. But Yisrael Ba’Aliyah was the only one who really stood up for the rights of immigrants on the tax reform issue.” Yisrael Ba’Aliyah’s number of seats in the Knesset has fallen as its members have migrated to other parties to the right or left of the right-of-center faction. It also has been upstaged among immigrants to a certain degree by the Israel Our Home Party of veteran immigrant Avigdor Lieberman. But Israel Our Home runs more on a right-wing platform toward the Palestinians than as an immigrant party per se. In an effort to gain more seats, Yisrael Ba’Aliyah is touting a candidate with American background: Eli Kazhdan, 33, a Russian-born, U.S.-raised immigrant who has been with the party since it was founded in 1995, serving as an adviser to Sharansky and as the party’s executive director for the past year and a half. There is no equivalent for the word “accountability” in the Hebrew lexicon — nor in the Israeli political reality, Kazhdan told JTA. Yet, he said, “it’s gratifying to see that many English-speaking olim in Israel appreciate the fact that we have served as their voice and as their representatives in the corridors of the Knesset and government, and are willing to entrust us with their vote for the upcoming four years.” “Eli Kazhdan is attuned to the American way of life, but he has integrated into the Israeli establishment,” said Ze’ev Khanin, an expert on Israel’s immigrant parties and a lecturer at Bar-Ilan University. “Yisrael Ba’Aliyah is a party in crisis and they’re eager to expand their political base, so Eli came in at the right time and the right place.” Yisrael Ba’Aliyah isn’t the only party appealing to Anglo immigrants. The left-wing One Nation Party says it will work against parts of the new tax reform that could harm Western immigrants. The party also says new immigrants should be eligible for stipends for their disabled children, and says it will press the government to give pensions and medical insurance to elderly retirees who move to Israel. But the party’s worker-oriented, socialist platform seems unlikely to appeal to a significant number of Anglo immigrant voters, who arrive in Israel with a strong capitalist background. Two other parties that draw from the professional classes and share a desire to separate religion and state — Meretz, a left-wing faction, and Shinui, a centrist, free-market faction — may appeal to some Anglo voters, particularly those attuned to Western-style notions of “good government.” Like Yisrael Ba’Aliyah, Shinui has an Anglo campaign coordinator, while Meretz and Meimad, a left-leaning religious party that has joined with Labor, have Anglo-focused outreach. Rabbi Michael Melchior, a Scandinavian native who heads Meimad, has claimed that his party has the largest Anglo participation, with around 25 to 30 percent of its leadership composed of Western olim. Yet Meimad’s ally Labor, like the Likud, is doing little to solicit English-language voters. Labor has held parlor meetings and events for English speakers, but neither party has an Anglo voter representative nor an English language option on its Web site. That could hurt both parties in the upcoming election, Khanin said. “The English-speaking community now believes in its own force and want to advance itself here,” said Khanin. “Now some Israeli parties are interested in using this Anglo power.” Among the more right-wing parties, Anglos are running on several party lists. National Union, a far-right bloc of the Moledet, Israel Our Home and Tekuma parties, has included Detroit-born Uri Bank in its 10th slot for Knesset. The Herut Party, has included two well-known Anglos on its list: the Boston-born former Kach leader Baruch Marzel holds the No. 2 slot, and Paul Eidelberg, a former Chicagoan, has the No. 7 spot. Finally, the Green Leaf Party, which calls for legalizing marijuana, has placed Canadian lawyer Dan Goldenblatt, high on its list, in the No. 2 spot.

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