Score One For The Anglos


Jerusalem — Last month, local media outlets reported that HOT, the country’s sole cable television company, had decided to discontinue broadcasting the BBC-Prime channel, a British station featuring favorite BBC programming. The same month, the YES Satellite channel revealed it would be cutting Star World, another of the very few English-language channels broadcast in Israel.

While both companies thought they could implement the change with little or no fanfare (they have been quietly altering their programming for years), the disclosure prompted some members of Israel’s small but feisty English-speaking community to launch a grass-roots campaign to save the channels.

Relying largely on the online listservs frequented by the country’s estimated 200,000 to 250,000 "Anglos," or immigrants from English-speaking countries, to mobilize the masses, the activists succeeded in flooding the Cable and Satellite Authority with hundreds of faxes, phone calls and e-mails.

On Tuesday, HOT executives announced that it had negotiated a less expensive deal with the BBC that will allow it to keep BBC Prime on the air, but said its decision to negotiate had nothing to do with the grass-roots campaign.

The Anglo activists think otherwise, and say that it is a small victory in their community’s ongoing struggle for recognition in Israel.

"The Anglo community in Israel is mainly an ideologically-based, Zionist aliyah of people with a strong Jewish identity and love of this country, and we do our bit to make our wonderful country even more wonderful," says Leonie Lachmish, who spearheaded the HOT campaign.

Given the Israeli love affair with Western/American, culture, Western clothes and Western fast food, one might expect Israelis to hold their Anglo community in very high esteem. In reality, although individual English-speaking olim generally have excellent relations with other Israelis and quietly contribute to society, as a group they wield very little influence.

"Numbers count and our numbers aren’t there," acknowledges David London, executive director of the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel (AACI), explaining why his community is constantly struggling for a piece of the Israeli pie.

"Except for the period right after the 1967 war, when about 7,000 olim arrived from North America, our aliyah hasn’t topped much above 3,000 a year. This reduces our clout," London says.

When, during the past couple of election campaigns, various parties began to woo the Anglo community, they soon realized that Israelis from English-speaking countries don’t vote as a bloc, something that decreases their political leverage. "We’re impossible to pigeonhole," London says. "We have people involved in the entire religious spectrum. Our common denominator is pluralism and democratic values."

Though Israelis yearn for pluralism and democracy, they generally don’t credit Anglos, many of whom are grass-roots activists on social issues here, with strengthening these goals in Israel.

If anything, "Israelis have the feeling that they’re getting the American crazies and losers," says Calev Ben-David, a former editor of the Jerusalem Post who heads the Jerusalem office of a hasbara organization called The Israel Project. "They think American olim are fanatics and extremists."

Israelis think Anglo-Israelis "are the settlers, the wide-eyed ideologues," agrees historian Michael Oren, a senior fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem and the author of the New York Times bestseller "Six Days of War."

Even though he has lived in Israel for almost 30 years, continues to serve in the army and advised the late Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin, Oren says that Israelis still consider him — and most other English-speaking immigrants — outsiders. "[The daily newspaper] Haaretz still refers to me as the ‘American historian,’" he says ruefully.

Oren attributes some of the problem to the way Anglos speak Hebrew. "The Anglo accent [in Hebrew] sounds to the Israeli ear like a Louisiana drawl to an American ear," Oren explains. "It’s the accent of a country bumpkin."

Which is not to say that Israelis actually view all English speaking olim as bumpkins or fanatics.

"I think that, deep down, a lot of Israelis feel intimidated by the notion of people coming from a more culturally dynamic country," Oren theorizes. "They think that Americans are coming from the top schools. Feeling intimidated, they tend to overcompensate."

"Israelis have a very complex relationship with America," Ben-David concurs. "Israel gets funding from America, and they have a subconscious inferiority complex. They feel they have to prove they’re better than we are. Why else do they switch to English when they hear an American immigrant speaking Hebrew?"

Speaking on the eve of a two-month American book tour to promote his just-released "Power, Faith and Fantasy: The United States in the Middle East," Oren cannot hide his frustration over his near anonymity in Israel.

"Rarely a week goes by when I’m not on some major newscast. In the U.S. and Europe people tend to listen to me to me. I write articles in Hebrew. My book on the Six-Day War was, I think, the largest-selling book ever to come out of Israel. It sold a quarter of a million copies. Yet it barely sold in Israel."

While Oren’s experience is the rule, there are some notable exceptions. Naomi Ragen, the Jerusalem-based author of "Sotah" and other international bestsellers, has succeeded in breaking into the Israeli market.

"There was a time, before my books were published in Hebrew, that no one in Israel even knew I was a writer, despite my success outside the country," Ragen told The Jewish Week. "All that changed about 10 years ago with the translation and publication of my first book in Israel, ‘Sotah.’"

Today, Ragen says, she is regularly interviewed on Israeli talk shows and writes public-opinion pieces in Israeli newspapers. The Habima Theater Company also commissioned her to write a play, which it produced.

Regardless of whether they believe Anglo Israelis are appreciated by their compatriots, English-speaking olim are proud of their community’s many, if often-unheralded, contributions to society.

"Stanley Fisher, the governor of the Bank of Israel, is an Anglo and so is the chief judge of the Labor Court," says AACI’s London, ticking off the many areas in which Anglo olim stand out.

"The fields of medicine and social work are inundated with Anglos, and so is high-tech. We’re at the forefront of social action to save the environment, to limit smoking in public places, to prevent road accidents. The volunteer sector would fall apart without Anglo participation."

Despite the fact that Anglos are only "a tiny minority" in Israel, Ragen says, "we’ve had a prime minister [Golda Meir] and a defense minister [Moshe Arens]. Americans like [lawyer] Sharon Shenhav are active in women’s rights.

"I think we do have an influence, and it’s a shame more Americans aren’t here," Ragen says.