The Anglos behind the MKs

Four of the people doing heavy lifting in the Knesset are young immigrants working for MKs who proposed some of the most controversial bills in recent years.

Jonathan Javor holds a bill  benefiting agunot  370 (photo credit: Courtesy Jonathan Javor)
Jonathan Javor holds a bill benefiting agunot 370
(photo credit: Courtesy Jonathan Javor)
Behind every good MK there is a staff of two or more hard-working assistants. These assistants and advisers give MKs ideas for legislation, work out how to turn the MKs’ ideas into laws, give legal advice and handle media and other Knesset-related responsibilities. In the current Knesset, four of the people doing the parliamentary heavy lifting are young Anglos who happen to work for Knesset members who passed and proposed some of the most controversial and innovative legislation in the last few years.
These four parliamentary assistants and advisers come from different countries, religious upbringings and political parties, and all met their MK bosses in different ways. What they all have in common, though, is that they are happy to have made aliya, see their work in the Knesset as their way to contribute to their homeland and hope that more Anglos get involved in Israeli politics.
Name: Jonathan Javor Age: 30 Job: Parliamentary and foreign affairs adviser to MK Otniel Schneller (Kadima) Age at aliya: 26 Country of origin: UK
Jonathan Javor is known for two things in the Knesset’s hallways: his suits and ties, and his fast-talking style. However, behind his slick-politician persona is someone who has worked hard to reach a position of influence and has strong beliefs about Israel’s future.
After Javor made aliya, a friend of a friend helped him get an internship in Vice Premier Silvan Shalom’s office. Javor registered for classes at the Israel Center for Political Training (ICPT), which, despite a recent controversy involving a professor in the lobbyist course teaching unethical methods, is able to help most of its graduates find jobs in the Knesset. Javor, who has a master’s degree in Intelligence and International Security from King’s College London, worked hard on improving his Hebrew as he took the training course for parliamentary and governmental assistants.
“The course was amazing. It taught me how politics work – not just who does what, but how they got there,” he explains. “Plus, the ICPT helped me get past [the adage] ‘it’s not what you know but who you know.’” The political training school found job offers for Javor with three MKs, but he chose Otniel Schneller (Kadima), because he focuses on security and religious affairs, the issues Javor finds most interesting.
Schneller hired Javor one year ago, after two interviews. Javor is most proud of taking part in passing a bill to help agunot, women whose husbands refuse to give them a halachic bill of divorce, or get, by imposing more restrictions on the husbands.
He is also excited to be working with Schneller, who was “part of the peace process from the beginning,” as a member of former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin’s team in the Oslo Accords.
Javor’s affinity for a well-tailored suit helps him stand out among parliamentary assistants – “I’m known as the ‘suit guy,’” he quips – though the trend is beginning to catch on and Schneller’s adviser is happy to spread the new dress code.
Of course, Javor pointed out: “I’m English – I know that you look good in a good suit.” He says he would never go to parliament in London without wearing a suit, and Israel’s parliament deserves the same amount of respect.
“Legends walked these halls. Wearing a suit is the least I can do,” he says. “Turning up in jeans and flip-flops is just missing the point.”
Javor calls it an “amazing, humbling experience” to work in the Knesset. “I get up each morning, go to parliament, make a difference and try to change for the better. I wouldn’t want to do anything else. That’s Zionism!” His goal is to be the first UK-born MK, which he says would be “accomplishing the Zionist dream.”
Meanwhile, Javor enjoys being a parliamentary adviser because he is close to the political action and hopes, in the short term, to be able to move up the ladder to ministerial adviser.
“Zionism and ideology are important, but I love politics,” Javor says with a grin.
Name: Rachel Gur Age: 27 Job: Legislative director for coalition chairman Ze’ev Elkin (Likud) Age at aliya: 17 Country of origin: US
Rachel Gur got her job with coalition chairman Ze’ev Elkin (Likud) the way many do in the Knesset – through protekzia, or connections. Gur met Elkin through mutual friends over four years ago, when she was working as a legal clerk in a major firm after getting a law degree at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya. She became friendly with Elkin’s wife (and former parliamentary assistant), and later he offered her the political appointment of legal counsel.
“I jumped at the opportunity to learn from the best,” Gur says. “[Elkin] is a brilliant man.”
As coalition chairman, Elkin was in some way involved in almost every major bill in this Knesset, whether it was changing the way Supreme Court justices are selected or giving a tax exemption to pro-settlement donations.
However, for Gur, her greatest achievement is a law that was passed at the end of the Knesset’s winter session, which gives additional benefits to former captives who are veterans of underground organizations in the time of the British Mandate.
She recounts seeing a group of elderly people walk into offices in the Knesset.
They told her they sat in British prisons for years, and their medical needs and trauma symptoms have only increased with age.
Elkin’s bill, which Gur helped compose, gave former captives over age 80 a 20 percent increase in annual benefits.
“We gave them the gratitude and recognition they’re owed; it’s an incredible feeling,” she explains. “After the late nights, headaches and phone calls, 1,500 elderly people are waking up with money in their account. That’s worth more than anything.”
Being an Anglo in the Knesset is a challenge for Gur, but she finds inspiration to overcome the disadvantages she faces in Elkin and other MKs from the former Soviet Union. She said she learned to take pride in being an Anglo from Russian-speaking politicians, who are not embarrassed to make occasional mistakes in their Hebrew.
“If they have something to say, they expect you to wait quietly for them to formulate your sentence,” she points out, adding that this is a lesson Anglos hoping to become involved in Israeli politics should learn. “Don’t be embarrassed to make mistakes.”
Gur calls for more Anglos to be politically active in Israel, saying that they should join parties, NGOs and protest movements, as well as try to integrate outside of English-speaking communities.
“Be enfranchised, demand answers,” she says. Israel is a small country, she adds, and it is not difficult to arrange a meeting with an MK. She explains that Americans in particular come from a “rich tradition of involvement” and have much to contribute to Israel, in that they are familiar with a model of religious life without state involvement.
Her goal for the future is to assume a senior position in policy-making, which she called “something between law and politics.” She would like to work on issues of religion and state, which she believes are the most critical challenges in Israel today, even more than the conflict with the Palestinians. Ideally, she thinks Israel should meld Judaism and democracy, by drawing from Jewish law while maintaining civil rights.
Meanwhile, Gur feels privileged to be part of building Israel.
“I am a Zionist, I want to build my life here on a personal level and on a national level, as a Jew,” she says.
Name: Noah Slepkov Age: 30 Job: Adviser to MK Einat Wilf (Independence) Age at aliya: 27 Country of origin: Canada
Noah Slepkov met Einat Wilf long before he was living in Israel and she was an MK, when he was working in Israel advocacy at the University of Western Ontario, and she was on a lecture tour as adviser to then-vice premier Shimon Peres.
“Einat was the best Israeli speaker I had seen in eight years on campus,” Slepkov recounts. “She was professional, spoke without notes and easily disarmed hostile questions.”
The two stayed in touch, with Slepkov hiring Wilf to give lectures on missions to Israel that he organized.
Slepkov made aliya in 2008 and began Political Strategy studies at the IDC Herzliya, when he found out that Wilf was running in the Labor Party primary and offered to help. What started as a visit to Wilf’s Tel Aviv apartment to organize lists on Microsoft Excel ended up as a paid position on her campaign.
Wilf did not make it into the Knesset in 2009, but after MK Ophir Paz-Pines (Labor) announced his resignation, Slepkov received an SMS: “Be prepared to join me.”
Slepkov has been Wilf’s adviser since she replaced Paz-Pines as a Labor MK in January 2010, continuing in his position after Wilf became one of five MKs to leave Labor and establish the Independence faction.
“Being in the Knesset is a dream come true,” Slepkov says. “I always wanted to be in parliament in Canada and help Israel like [former Canadian justice minister and current MP] Irwin Cotler. It makes more sense to do it in Israel.”
Slepkov’s Knesset dream became even sweeter after it came true, as he met his wife, Channel 2 reporter Liran Denesh, when she was working for the Knesset Channel and interviewed Wilf.
Coming from abroad, Slepkov feels he has a better perspective on Israel’s problems than many others in the Knesset, a trait he says he shares with Wilf, because she lived in Washington, New York and Cambridge. According to Slepkov, Israelis tend to exaggerate and most countries have similar problems to Israel’s.
He is happy to be working with a member of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, as foreign policy is the topic he finds most compelling. Plus, he feels lucky to be working for an MK who has many contacts abroad, as he is still struggling with his Hebrew.
“I can’t totally be myself in Hebrew,” he explains. “In English I’m very talkative and don’t shut up. In Hebrew, I just listen. I seem shy and quiet, ironically.”
He is putting long-term goals on hold for the moment, focusing mostly on learning Hebrew so he can be more active in politics one day. In the meantime, he wants to stay behind the scenes.
“I don’t want to be like Quebecois MPs who don’t speak French,” he says.
Name: Jeremy “Man” Saltan Age: 27 Job: Parliamentary assistant to National Union chairman Ya’acov “Ketzale” Katz Age at aliya: 11 Country of origin: US
If you need a sense of humor to get by in the political world, Jeremy “Man” Saltan has it in the bag as a stand-up comedian and co-owner of the Off The Wall comedy club in Jerusalem. Due to his success in the comedy business, Saltan has been able to dedicate himself to making a difference with a less lucrative job assisting MK Ya’acov Katz (National Union).
Saltan has been working with the National Union since its inception under then-leader Bennie Begin in 1999, when he volunteered for the party’s first election campaign, and has helped in every election since.
He stood out as a volunteer in 2009 as the head of the party’s campaign in the Beit Shemesh area, which gave the National Union a higher percentage of the vote than any of the other top 20 largest cities in Israel.
“The 2009 elections got me into the Knesset. People in the party noticed my hard work and involvement, and I became better known,” Saltan explains.
At first, however, there were no positions open in the Knesset, so Saltan took the parliamentary assistants’ course at the ICPT, with Javor. After graduating the course, he persuaded the National Union to give him an unpaid internship. Today, he is paid as a parttime worker, although he has been working in the Knesset full-time for two years.
“Little by little, I was given more responsibility helping Ketzale and [faction administrator] Uri Bank, because I am willing to be a ‘nudnik’ and get things done,” he says.
He is most proud of his work on the Grunis Law, which canceled the minimum tenure for the Supreme Court president position, clearing the way for Asher Dan Grunis to get the job.
Saltan also works hard on “Knesset Jeremy,” the only blog in English that documents all plenum discussions and bills passed, and writes about Israeli politics in The Jewish Press. He says that blogging gives him an advantage in that he remembers what MKs have proposed in the past, and knows whom to contact when Katz needs co-sponsors for a bill.
Saltan’s American background helps him in his work in the Knesset, for example, when foreign dignitaries visit, but he has been in the country long enough and served in the IDF, so he feels he understands Israeli culture well. These two factors help him communicate with Israelis, but bring ideas from abroad.
He calls for more Anglos to find work in the Knesset, to raise the quality of work. He says that being from the US helps him approach his job as a civil service and a responsibility, not “just another gig.”
“People respect me even if my views are different from the mainstream,” he explains. “It reflects well on my party that we’re not just a bunch of crazy people on a hilltop.”
Katz’s assistant would like to stay involved in the Knesset behind the scenes, and is more hesitant about becoming an MK.
“I am very loyal, and I would find it personally difficult to run against friends that I respect. I need good answers as to why I should be in the Knesset and not them,” he says. “Everyone makes compromises and sacrifices to get in the door, whereas now I can be a 100 percent ideologue.”
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