Meet the Anglos who whisper in the ears of Israel's leaders

Here is a look at a dozen of the top Anglo advisers who roam Knesset corridors and inspire others to follow in their footsteps.

October 4, 2017 17:54
The Knesset building

The Knesset building. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

Immigrants to Israel from English-speaking countries are not particularly strong in numbers. Current American-born MKs Michael Oren and Yehudah Glick are rare exceptions to the rule of few Anglos getting elected to the Knesset. The only other time there were two at the same time was when American-born Marcia Freedman and Yehuda Ben-Meir briefly served simultaneously in the 1980s.

But that does not mean Anglos lack influence in Israeli politics. Behind the scenes, more and more immigrants from English-speaking countries are serving in key roles.

One can even say a trend has developed of top politicians appointing English-speaking immigrants as key advisers. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who himself spent the formative years of his childhood in the suburbs of Philadelphia, can be credited with starting that trend.

He likes surrounding himself with talented, intelligent advisers who speak to him in English, and he has promoted them to top roles in the Prime Minister’s Office.

The director-general of the Prime Minister’s Office, one of the most powerful posts in the country, is Eli Groner, who was raised in Binghamton, New York, and is a former writer and editor at The Jerusalem Post (see page 14).

Netanyahu’s foreign policy adviser, Dr. Jonathan Schachter, made aliya from Chicago. The prime minister’s spokesman for the foreign press is David Keyes, who is from Los Angeles and lived in New York. Before them came the triumvirate of Ari Harow, who rose through the ranks to become Netanyahu’s chief of staff; senior adviser and now US ambassador Ron Dermer; and foreign press spokesman and current ambassador to the United Kingdom Mark Regev. Harow is from LA, Dermer from Miami Beach, and Regev from Melbourne, Australia.

The presence of Anglos in high places became noticed in the Hebrew media only recently, after Harow turned state’s witness against Netanyahu and made himself a household name. Suddenly there were profiles of Harow in every Hebrew me-dia outlet; he generally remained out of the limelight while he held one of Israel’s most influential positions.

It was Harow himself who best articulated the role Anglos play behind the scenes in Israeli politics in a tribute he wrote for the Post in October 2015, when Regev left the Prime Minister’s Office for London.

“To assume Anglos do not play a hugely significant role in national affairs would be a mistake,” Harow wrote. “Characterized by tremendous passion for serving the State of Israel and the Jewish people, ours is a community hungry to be at the forefront of national decision-making.”

Harow wrote that for a relatively small community, English-speakers play a disproportionately prominent role in Israel’s national affairs and always have, citing legendary figures like the late prime minister Golda Meir, former ministers Abba Eban and Moshe Arens, and former adviser to multiple prime ministers Yehuda Avner.

“What is the secret behind this Anglo eminence?” Harow asked in his article. “Much of it has to do with the Zionist values that play such a prominent role in the Jewish communities in which Anglos are raised. Jews in the US, Canada, Great Britain, Australia, South Africa and elsewhere are so often instilled with an innate love for the Jewish people and a deep, unshakable commitment to Israel. Anglo Jews are invariably motivated not only to build their lives in Israel, but to make a profound difference when they arrive.”

The Jerusalem Post Magazine spoke to 12 current advisers to top politicians about their roles, how their background helps their bosses, and what they would say to encourage and inspire other immigrants from English-speaking countries to follow in their footsteps.

DAVID KEYES, 33, became Netanyahu’s foreign media adviser in March 2016. He made aliya in 2006 from LA, but lived in New York from 2010 to 2016. There is a tradition of public service in Keyes’s family. His father served two years in the US Public Health Service as a senior assistant surgeon. His grandfather was a US Air Force technical sergeant in charge of outfitting planes before missions departing from Italy during World War II. Keyes came highly recommended for his job after The New York Times praised his online human rights activism. A senior official close to Netanyahu actively recruited him for the highly sought-after position.
DAVID KEYES helps Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu take a more proactive approach to social media. He made aliya in 2006 from Los Angeles. (Haim Zach/GPO)

Since then, Keyes has been credited for Netanyahu adopting a proactive approach to social media, including a series of video clips that have gone viral. A video Netanyahu released following a hate crime in Orlando had 24 million views in a short period of time. Keyes said he hoped he could serve as an example to young immigrants getting their start.

“Israel truly is a land of opportunity,” Keyes said. “Serving the prime minister and the state is a unique honor. I encourage all Israelis, and particularly new immigrants, to get involved. We all can contribute to Israel’s continued prosperity, strength – and hopefully one day – peace.”

JONATHAN SCHACHTER, 47, is Netanyahu’s senior foreign policy adviser. Born and raised in the US, Schachter was a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University before he joined the National Security Council. After Dermer was appointed ambassador to the US, Schachter replaced him as the prime minister’s foreign policy adviser. Schachter regularly participates in cabinet meetings that deal with foreign policy issues. Together with Dermer, he is the prime minister’s point man for Israel-US relations.

JASON PEARLMAN, 35, has been President Reuven Rivlin’s foreign media adviser for three years. He made aliya 10 years ago from London after growing up in Sunderland, England. Pearlman assists the president’s Hebrew spokesperson in contacts with the international press, making statements, and giving interviews. He also assists the foreign media in covering the president, helps Rivlin draft English statements and speeches and contributes to discussions that lead to the president’s decision-making on relevant policies.

Prior to his current role, Pearlman worked at the Israeli Embassy in London and then at the Government Press Office in Jerusalem for four years. He advises the Economy and Tourism ministries and the Jerusalem Tourism Authority.

Like Keyes, Pearlman has a tradition of public service in his family. His great-grandmother Rose was a British delegate to the Zionist Congress in Basel. Pearlman has a picture of her with Theodor Herzl in his office at the President’s Residence.

“It reminds me of the honorable position I have attained after growing up in a coal-miners village so far away,” he said.

Pearlman said watching Rivlin implement his vision for Israeli society has allowed him to look at Israel from a wider perspective, while his background has helped Rivlin as well.

“Everyone brings something different to the table in the president’s office,” Pearlman said. “As an Anglo oleh, I bring a different perspective and experience, that of a young family from England who has experience working with foreign media from around the world.”

When asked about Harow, Pearlman said, “Ari hasbeen an example for so many Anglo olim for coming to Israel, making an impact and contributing to the future of the Jewish people.

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JASON PEARLMAN has served as President Reuven Rivlin’s foreign media adviser for three years. He made aliya 10 years ago from England. (Marc Israel Sellem)
“Watching him deal with the difficulties he has faced has been distressing, because he is a great person,” he said. “I wish I could reach the level and make the impact he did.”

Pearlman said he receives many calls from young immigrants who come to Israel with a dream to contribute to Israeli society.

“Every call like that is inspiring because it reminds me of what my dreams were a decade ago,” he said. “When I sit in meetings with the president and foreign leaders, I pinch myself and remind myself that I came from a long way away. It’s a massive honor and you have to appreciate it. The young people who call remind me how lucky I am.”

YAIR ZIVAN, 32, has been the foreign policy adviser and international media spokesperson for Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid since 2014. Prior to that, he held a similar role with president Shimon Peres for two and a half years.

Zivan returned to Israel in 2009 from London, after originally coming to Israel from Leicester, England, where he was raised. His father is also active in public service. He received a medal from Rivlin for volunteer work he does with the Beduin. Zivan described his role as helping Lapid’s outreach to the wider world.

“Lapid is dedicated to fighting for Israel’s interests and image in the international community,” Zivan said. “He meets with senior ministers and heads of state on a regular basis and engages constantly with the Jewish community across the world. Having someone within a wider, strong and hardworking team who is dedicated to foreign affairs and has experience with the international community provides Lapid with the resources to make the maximum impact.”

Zivan said he was happy to be in a role that allows him and his boss to help Israel.

“There is no greater satisfaction than working in public service and doing your part to make the country we all love a better place,” he said. “In Yesh Atid, we have a vision and a plan for where we want the country to go. Finding the vision that speaks to you and working to make it a reality is an incredibly enriching experience.”

YAIR ZIVAN (second from left) is the foreign policy adviser and international media spokesperson for Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid. Zivan was born in Leicester, England. (Courtesy)

ASHER FREDMAN, 32, is the chief of staff for Gilad Erdan (Likud) in his role as the strategic affairs minister, and the foreign affairs adviser in Erdan’s Public Security Ministry. He has worked in the Strategic Affairs Ministry since 2012 on the professional staffs of ministers Moshe Ya’alon, Yuval Steinitz and Erdan. In March 2017, Erdan promoted him to chief of staff.

Fredman grew up in Scarsdale, New York. He made aliya in 2008 after completing a bachelor’s degree in government and a master’s degree in Middle Eastern studies at Harvard University.
ASHER FREDMAN is the chief of staff for Gilad Erdan (Likud) in his role as the strategic affairs minister, and the foreign affairs adviser in Erdan’s Public Security Ministry. He made aliya in 2008 from Scarsdale, New York. (Marc Israel Sellem)

He took a break in the middle of his studies to serve in the IDF. When Breaking the Silence came to Harvard on its first campus tour, he debated the organization’s representatives’ claims against the IDF, as a former IDF soldier with positive experiences in the army.

In 2007, Fredman interned in the Knesset with Likud MK Michael Eitan. He later worked at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, NGO Monitor and the National Information Directorate in the Prime Minister’s Office. Fredman’s wife is an Ethiopian-Israeli from Netanya. His experience gives him the ability to work well with the intelligence community, government ministries, the IDF, Israeli NGOs and think tanks.

“I bring to my job an innate understanding of Western politics and media and the Jewish and pro-Israel world and the ability to communicate well with all of those circles, heads of the Jewish community, pro-Israel organizations, diplomats and international politicians,” he said.

Seeing Harow’s legal trouble reinforced to Fredman the importance of being extremely careful, especially because he performs similar functions to what Harow did for Netanyahu. JCPA head and former Foreign Ministry director-general and ambassador to the UN Dore Gold was a model for Fredman as a successful immigrant from the US who has made vast contributions to Israel.

Asked what advice he would give current immigrants, Fredman says they should seek to integrate well into Israel, and should be able to write and speak effectively in both English and Hebrew. Initially, he said, Hebrew was a problem, but eventually he was able to bring it up to a high level. He also recommends serving in the IDF and working for organizations to gain relevant experience.

“It’s not always easy to break into the government and political world right away,” he said. “But the world around it – think tanks, NGOs, lobbies are a good way to get to know people and be involved when the opportunity comes up. Never be afraid to try new things, even if they are beyond your comfort zone.”

Fredman said his short-term goal was “staying in the nexus of politics and diplomacy/security.”

“It has been a great journey so far,” he said. “I will keep doing the best I can and see where it takes me.”

TAL HARRIS, 33, took over as Zionist Union MK Amir Peretz’s spokesman in both Hebrew and English, and became the MK’s foreign affairs adviser in July 2016. He coordinates Peretz’s relations with international organizations and supporters abroad, writes his English material and advises him on foreign policy.
TAL HARRIS is Zionist Union MK Amir Peretz’s spokesman in both Hebrew and English, and his foreign affairs adviser. Harris is a native Israeli, but his father was born in Johannesburg. (Marc Israel Sellem)

Before that, Harris was the director of the propeace organization One Voice and ran the two-state caucus the organization sponsors in the Knesset.

Harris is a native Israeli, but his father and aunts were born in Johannesburg, where his grandmother was raised. His paternal grandfather, John Harris, is from London and was a navigator in the British Royal Air Force during and after the Second World War. John Harris came to Israel in 1948 to help future president Ezer Weizman set up the Israel Air Force. He fought in wars and took part in covert operations through the 1973 Yom Kippur War. He was part of a group that tried and failed to capture notorious Nazi Josef Mengele in Argentina. He worked most of his life for El Al and died two years ago.

Both Tal Harris and his father followed his grandfather into the IAF, serving as medics, and Tal followed John into public service. Harris said the Harow story was a reminder about the need to proceed with caution.

“People who work with senior politicians bear responsibility and face pressures,” he said. “It’s not House of Cards in Israel, but there are people who are sources of power in Israeli politics. What happened to Ari [Harow] teaches us to be extra careful. Everything that we do for our jobs, our values and our politics needs to remain within the realm of what is legal.”

AARON KALMAN, 29, is an adviser to Education Minister Naftali Bennett, and has been dealing with diplomacy, Diaspora affairs and foreign media since May 2016. He was born in Jerusalem to a mother from Toronto and a father from London. Before his job with Bennett, he worked at NGO Monitor, was a Jewish Agency emissary in Sydney and a breaking-news editor at an English website in Jerusalem. Friends recommended him for the post when it opened up. Kalman said that as Diaspora Affairs minister and someone viewed by many in the public as a potential candidate for prime minister one day, Bennett enjoys having around him a team of advisers who complement each other with their abilities and backgrounds. He said he would encourage everyone to contribute to Israel and the Zionist dream.
AARON KALMAN advises Education Minister Naftali Bennett on issues pertaining to diplomacy, Diaspora affairs and foreign media. He was born in Jerusalem to a mother from Toronto and a father from London. (Marc Israel Sellem)

“Growing up as a child of immigrants who moved to Israel, developing Israel and keeping it connected to Diaspora communities and the world at large were part of my core values growing up,” Kalman said.

“That is what I continue to do today as an adviser to one of the most senior ministers in the cabinet. Anglo olim have an ability to communicate and a perspective that can only help. Israel was built by immigrants, and the knowledge and abilities they brought from abroad helped Israel become the amazing place it is.”

JEREMY SALTAN, 33, is the Anglo Forum chairman of Bennett’s Bayit Yehudi party and his English social media manager, which he said makes him an informal political adviser to Bennett. He runs Bennett’s English Facebook and Twitter accounts and his YouTube videos and represents Bayit Yehudi to ambassadors. Saltan made aliya at age 11 in August 1995, from Chicago. He was a parliamentary aide to National Union leader Yaakov (Katzele) Katz, then served as campaign manager for Bayit Yehudi Knesset candidate Jeremy Gimpel.

That led to him becoming English campaign manager for Bayit Yehudi’s 2013 general election campaign. Saltan said his role models included Harow, Gold, and Glick’s chief of staff, Uri Bank, who has performed various roles in the Knesset for more than 20 years.

“Ari’s a nice guy and his story shocked me more than anything else, because he is the last person you would expect to be indicted,” Saltan said. “He is a straight shooter, and any Anglo who has been involved in politics in the last decade has viewed him as one of the role models who shows you how far an Anglo can go.”

Jeremy Saltan and Naftali Bennett (courtesy)

Saltan said he would advise young immigrants from English-speaking countries to start at the bottom, prove themselves and work their way up. He recalled that in the 1999 general election, he gave out bumper stickers at a street corner, then worked his way up to organizing and coordinating events, and gradually proved his worth and advanced in his career.

“Immigrants should understand that there are no shortcuts and you have to prove yourself,” he said. “Politics is not easy anywhere. You have to put in the hard work.”

RACHEL GUR, 33, is an adviser to Environmental Protection Minister Ze’ev Elkin (Likud) and is thought to be the only female native English speaking adviser to a cabinet minister. She made aliya at age 17 from Baltimore.

RACHEL GUR is an adviser to Environmental Protection Minister Ze’ev Elkin (Likud) and is thought to be the only female native English speaking adviser to a cabinet minister. She made aliya at age 17 from Baltimore. (Courtesy)
A lawyer, she deals with legislation, petitions to the Supreme Court, interaction with other parts of government and the State Comptroller’s Office. While other Anglo advisers were politically motivated, Gur entered the field because she found it interesting professionally.

She started working for Elkin seven years ago as his parliamentary adviser. Since then, she has worked for him in three different ministries.

Gur said she was not aware that she is the only female Anglo adviser to a top Israeli politician. She said the job was challenging for mothers, due to its very long and unpredictable hours. But she said Elkin is a supportive boss who himself has young children, as does everyone in his office, which makes it easier.

“It helps the minister to have someone who grew up in the US, has an American mentality and can help him understand the American-Jewish community,” Gur said. “If I have made a contribution to the country, it is in good governance. I hope when I leave that I’ll be able to look back and say I improved people’s lives.”

FRAYDA LEIBTAG, 31, is the senior adviser for international affairs and media for Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat. She is responsible for all his international engagements, with political contacts, corporations, global Jewish and Christian communities and even the celebrities who come to Israel’s capital.
FRAYDA LEIBTAG (left) is the senior adviser for international affairs and media for Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat. She made aliya from Passaic, New Jersey, in 2003. (Frayda Leibtag)

Leibtag made aliya from Passaic, New Jersey, in 2003 and at first worked in non-profit organizations and think tanks. She became the mayor’s deputy adviser four years ago after finishing a master’s degree in international relations and then was promoted to her current job when her predecessor left in January.

When asked how she advanced professionally, she said, “Like anything in Israel, it’s the people you meet, hard work, and commitment to public service and in my case, specifically to Jerusalem.”

Having come to Israel at a relatively young age, she said, she is able to use her knowledge of the American mentality to help Jerusalem and the mayor and be a spokesperson for the city.

Leibtag said she would advise young immigrants to “believe in yourself, have self confidence and know you are sitting at the table because you have what to contribute.”

AVI MAYER, 33, is the spokesman for the Jewish Agency and its chairman Natan Sharansky, as well as a prolific voice on Twitter, with more than 50,000 followers. He has worked for the agency for six and a half years, the last four as the spokesman.
AVI MAYER (left) is the spokesman for the Jewish Agency and its chairman Natan Sharansky. Mayer made aliya at age five from New York. (Sarah Levi)

Mayer made aliya at age five from New York. At 16, he moved with his family to Maryland, but he came back nine years ago after working at Hillel International, AIPAC, the House of Representatives and the Israeli Embassy. He served in the IDF Spokesman’s Unit, where he was the acting head of the North America media desk. After leaving the army, he got his job at the Agency by applying online, not using protektzia (connections).

“My background and knowledge of the Jewish community and Diaspora, knowledge of social media and innovative communication technology is helpful to Natan,” Mayer said. “He ensures anything that goes out under his name is very much his. We go through multiple drafts to make sure it’s authentically his.”

Mayer credited his parents with “raising us to be involved in the community in a robust way.”

His advice to young immigrants is “to be a voracious consumer of information, read news from multiple sources, gain multiple perspectives at once, develop and maintain relationships, be constant networkers in all settings.”

“Living in Israel leads to building connections and your career, being a tight-knit society that bleeds over into the professional realm.”

JONATHAN CUMMINGS, 45, has been the Hebrew and English spokesman and adviser to the deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, Michael Oren (Kulanu), since February 2017. He made aliya from Manchester, England, in 1994.
JONATHAN CUMMINGS has been a spokesman and adviser to the deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, Michael Oren (Kulanu), since February 2017. He made aliya from Manchester, England, in 1994. (Marc Israel Sellem)

He worked as a parliamentary aide before earning a doctorate in political communications. He researched Israel’s political diplomacy at Tel Aviv University, which helps Oren, who is himself considered an expert on the subject. “Everyone needs help with media, articulating a message and getting it out there, even Michael, who is extremely experienced in all of those things,” Cummings said. He said he would encourage young immigrants to Israel from English-speaking countries to enter public service. He said it was a much easier system to get into than the UK’s.

“If there’s one area where Israeli politics could benefit from greater international experience, it’s public diplomacy,” Cummings said. “The better Israel can articulate to international audiences, the better it will be for all of us.”  

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