ISRAEL VOTES 2009
NEW YORK (JTA) — For an Israeli politician, Gershon Baskin has an unusual resume.
In the 1960s, he was protesting America’s war in Vietnam, not fighting against invading Arab armies. He grew up on Long Island marching for civil rights, not wandering the alleyways of Jerusalem’s Old City.
And that was all before his bar mitzvah.
Baskin says both his social conscience and his Zionism come from his Zionist youth movement, Young Judaea.
It’s no coincidence that "you find so many Young Judaea people of our generation who have become social entrepreneurs and gotten engaged in all kinds of initiatives to make Israeli society a better place," Baskin told JTA.
Baskin is one of three Young Judaea graduates who are now American-Israelis running on the Green Movement-Meimad ticket in Israel’s election Feb. 10. Environmentalist Alon Tal occupies the party’s No. 3 slot, while Baskin is listed as 26th and entrepreneur and social activist Yosef Abramowitz is No. 36.
The Green Movement, which is left-leaning and secular, merged with Meimad, a left-leaning and moderate religious party, in the run-up to the election. The party’s platform focuses on energy policy and education.
"There is a lot of enthusiasm, especially since the decision to run together with Meimad," Abramowitz said of the party’s support base. "If we win together and enter the Knesset together, it will solidify a remarkable philosophical and ideological breakthrough in Jewish life."
Baskin, a crusader for Jewish-Arab coexistence, says he was prompted to run for Knesset because he wants to be in a position to help drive the Israeli government agenda.
"I personally got tired of telling politicians what they ought to do and realized the time had come for me to stand up to the plate and take responsibility," Baskin told JTA.
The founder of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information, Baskin has spent the last few years crusading for coexistence through everything from sharing the region’s limited water to cross-border business initiatives.
Tal, too, has sought to build bridges across borders. As founder of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, he brings Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian graduate students together to work on environmental problems.
In 2006, Tal’s environmental work earned him the prestigious Charles Bronfman Prize, a humanitarian award with a $100,000 prize. He also founded the Israel Union for Environmental Defense, which counts among its successes battling the dumping of sewage from Eilat into the Red Sea and got a $10 million purification system installed in the Kishon River near Haifa.
Tal says the paucity of Jews in Durham, N.C., connected him to his fellow Jews and influenced his decision to move to Israel.
"There is a high percentage of Jewish North Carolinians who move to Israel, and it’s not because they don’t like North Carolina," he said, "but because they have a strong sense of Jewish identity."
Of the three, Abramowitz is the most recent transplant to Israel. Three years ago, he and his family left their home near Boston for a desert community, Kibbutz Ketura, near Eilat.
Despite their enthusiasm, it’s unlikely any of the candidates will win a Knesset seat. Even if the Green Movement, one of two environmental parties vying for seats, gets a toehold in the parliament, the chances that the party would win enough votes to seat three members are dim.
"Everything is against us and it’s very hard to break in as a new party," Tal acknowledged.
One of the challenges facing the party is the split of the environmental vote. A recent survey conducted by the Jerusalem Post suggested that the other environmental party, the Greens, could eke out a Knesset seat or two — 2 percent of the vote, or roughly 80,000 votes, are necessary to win a seat — but the Green Movement’s odds aren’t as good.
Despite the disillusionment of many Israelis with the larger parties, concern with security is likely to keep them in power.
"I think the large parties will gain most of the votes," said Professor Avner De-Shalit, a political science professor at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University. "Despite being not popular, people will vote for them because of the recent war [in the Gaza Strip] and its effects."
Tal remains optimistic, however, predicting that the Green Movement "is going to show up and surprise the pundits." He said his optimism is fueled by the heavy traffic to the party’s Web site and the increasing interest in environmentalism in Israel — evidenced by the growing number of environmental activists and organizations — over the past few years.
The party’s kickoff rally on Jan. 18 drew an estimated crowd of 1,200 to 2,000. In an event styled after a youth movement meeting, the crowd formed a large circle to hear speeches and musical performances that included Tal on saxophone and fiddle, as well as a rendition of Joni Mitchell’s environmentalist ballad "Big Yellow Taxi."
"Walking into the room, you realized, ‘Oh my God, we’re going to get some seats in the Knesset,’" Abramowitz said.
In a bid to make the most of its limited budget, the party is employing innovative campaign tactics, including sending text messages to potential supporters, raising funds and awareness through house parties, and running a Web site that appears in Hebrew, English, Arabic and Russian.
Still, for all but the top candidates on the list, the election is not about landing a Knesset seat.
"My goal is not to become a Knesset member," said Abramowitz, who refers to his 36th slot on his party’s list as "double chai." "My goal is to bring solar power to the State of Israel."
Abramowitz, founder of the Arava Power Company, one of Israel’s biggest solar developers, was brought into the party as a solar energy and business expert.
Baskin, on the other hand, has his sights set on making it into the Knesset — at least someday.
"I think I’ll do much better next time," he said of his party ranking, No. 26. "I think what I bring to the party is the non-environmental agenda, ensuring that this party also addresses social and political issues like peace with the Arab world."