Why representation of olim in Knesset is vital for Israeli society

“There are many opportunities for olim to get involved on multiple levels, not only in the Knesset, but also in NGOs and in civil society,” - Michael Oren

Becca Wertman, a Canadian-born aide (photo credit: Courtesy)
Becca Wertman, a Canadian-born aide
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Israel is a country largely built by, and made up of, immigrants. One finds olim walking down the golden streets of Jerusalem, working from cafes and on the Tel Aviv beaches – they are an integral part of the fabric of Israeli society and culture. They are often leaders of Israel’s start-ups, businesses and nonprofit organizations, where their language skills and broad perspectives bring innovative thinking and connections to international audiences.
So why are there so few immigrants in Israel’s Knesset?
There is MK Yosef Taieb (Shas), who was born in Paris and immigrated to Israel at 17; former MKs Dov Lipman (Yesh Atid) and Yehudah Glick (Likud), who are American-born-and-raised; a few Ethiopian-born MKs, including current Minister of Immigration Penina Tamanu-Shata (Blue and White) and Gadi Yevarkan (Likud); as well as “perhaps 10 or so” MKs from the Former Soviet Union (FSU). There are also a few MKs who were born in Israel but have had other citizenships, such as Israeli-Canadian MK Michal Cotler-Wunsh (Blue and White).
Apart from MKs from the FSU, which has its own party headed by Avigdor Lieberman, said Lipman, there are very few MKs who are olim, and perhaps even fewer parliamentary aides who are olim.
While olim make up a relatively sizable percentage of Israel’s population, they do not comprise an equivalent ratio of representation in the Knesset. If the Knesset were a demographic reflection of the population, there should be four or five North American-born MKs.
“There should absolutely be more olim in Israel’s parliament,” said American-born former MK (Kulanu) Dr. Michael Oren. “Olim bring with them a sense of social responsibility and klal Yisrael, with Americans also bringing a centuries-long history of democratic development.”
They also need to bring a substantial amount of stamina. Oren noted, “The first greatest challenge is Hebrew – you need to be able to speak and give a speech on television in Hebrew while people are screaming at you.” And second, he voiced, the “political culture of the Knesset is radically different from that which exists in most English-speaking countries. The yelling is shocking, but even more shocking is the fact that much of this yelling is only for show. It is common to see people having coffee together minutes after screaming bloody murder and calling each other racists, especially when television cameras are present.”
He added, “There is tremendous ignorance about American Jewry within Knesset,” with a lot of the sentiment being that Americans are naïve, unhelpful and “undeserving of favors” – something he believes could be mitigated by increased involvement with elected officials.
“There are many opportunities for olim to get involved on multiple levels, not only in the Knesset, but also in NGOs and in civil society, which interacts with elected officials every day,” he emphasized.
Lipman concurred about the potential of olim to contribute to Israeli society by serving in Israel’s legislative body. “We come with a passion for tzionut, with a freshness about the State of Israel and what it could be, and we add a tremendous amount just from that alone. In addition, because we come from other cultures, societies and other governments, we have ideas that are viewed as out-of-the-box here, but could be helpful for things to be done very differently.”
When asked why things are the way they are, despite it not necessarily being the most beneficial or logical way, many Israelis will answer “Cacha” (just because). However, Knesset members, according to Lipman, would tell him that Israeli society is often jaded and his being from another society enabled him to come up with fresh ideas.
Still, even after having to renounce his American citizenship (a requirement for all of Israel’s members of Knesset with additional citizenships), Lipman reported, “I was afraid people wouldn’t accept me because I didn’t spend time in the army,” but “they ultimately respected that I made a sacrifice to make aliyah. Culturally, the camaraderie wasn’t the same [because of the Hebrew and army language barriers], which was a big challenge. It also took me time to learn how to scream [like an Israeli] and not say ‘please,’ ‘excuse me’ and ‘thank you.’”
Foreign-born aides emphasize great challenges – and even greater opportunities    
Jonathan Javor, born in London but raised in Metulla, works as an aide in the Knesset for MK Michal Shir (Likud). Before beginning that role, Javor was largely dedicated to the needs of olim, founding TLV Internationals and helping to codify “Aliyah Day” into Israeli law.
“Aliyah makes and continues to make an enormous contribution to Israeli society,” maintained Javor. “And it’s olim, returning home from all corners of the earth, that make this contribution… the olim that make it here have a burning desire to shape this country, to work hard to improve it – a sense that ‘the destiny and direction of my country is in our own hands and we have the power to make an impact.’”
“I want to see olim not just living in Israel but thriving and having careers in politics, at the heart of the decision-making process of our country,” he continued, also relating that “the biggest challenge is language.”
“Hebrew is a difficult language to learn and six months of ulpan doesn’t give you proper Hebrew to be able to write legislation, a speech or a motion, to work in a fast-moving public arena where there is no time to teach you Hebrew, so you must come in with fantastic Hebrew. In such a competitive arena, they won’t hire someone just to speak to the foreign press,” said Javor.
Becca Wertman, a Canadian-born aide of Cotler-Wunsh, related that language is a central, but not the only, prohibitive factor in the number of olim represented in the Knesset as aides. “The jobs for parliamentary or political aides are not posted on job forums for olim necessarily, and are mostly acquired through recommendations.”
In the Knesset, she said, “Everything is in Hebrew, it is rare to hear English in the halls, and there are very heated debates with people yelling and not waiting turns to be called on.”
After participating in debates in the UN Human Rights Council as part of her former work as managing editor and Canada liaison at NGO Monitor, a Jerusalem-based research institute, Wertman recalled, “It is so different. In the UN, you only speak during your turn. Sometimes I also watch Canadian parliament debates, and even when there is drama, people are respecting the waiting of turns.”
Despite the challenges, Wertman stressed that bringing the “language of the foreign audience” helps in speaking and getting through to foreign audiences – something that Israel is not an Israeli strength. “There are a few of us and it’s important. Israel is a society made up of olim, so it’s important to have some representation.”
Javor agreed. “You need a lot of chutzpah to deal with a government ministry. Western olim are more polite, but you need the confidence to make an impression. You can get to an interview with personal connections, but you still need to impress and have an elevator pitch. I’d like to see many more olim in the Knesset talking about issues that are critical to them, shaping Israel as Israelis, not as minority groups who see themselves as foreigners in our own country. After all, we came here to be Israelis. Being an oleh is temporary; being an Israeli is forever.”
David Menco, Holland-born former aide to MK Itzik Shmuli (Labor), moved to Israel as a toddler, and although he considers himself “just Israeli,” he similarly expressed that “there are not enough olim and English speakers in the Knesset,” despite their potential to “think of more creative and innovative ways to deal with Israel’s challenges. I think there should be more internship programs for olim in the Knesset, maybe through Masa. We should think of a way to involve olim in daily work in the Knesset and should look at their foreign-language skills as an asset that makes the Knesset more accessible to other communities.”
Furthermore, Javor noted, “It’s important to promote the notion that working in the Knesset is an achievable goal for olim. It’s important to encourage olim that working for and with MKs is not something that only Israelis do. Yes, it’s hard; yes, the language barrier is a 10-foot wall that we have to overcome. But it is something we can overcome with hard work and a little help from friends who have already made it. If we will it, it is no dream – but we also need a little chutzpah and help from those who made it so that others can do so, too.”
Jonathan Javor, born in London but raised in Metullah, is an aide for Likud MK Michal Shir (Credit: Courtesy)Jonathan Javor, born in London but raised in Metullah, is an aide for Likud MK Michal Shir (Credit: Courtesy)
Idealistic mindset
Javor hopes that more MKs will be “willing to take a chance with an oleh, who can see that an oleh may lack certain connections and cultural references but can bring a whole variety of other qualities and experiences.”
Praising Javor for his “passion and a Zionist drive that you often don’t see in others,” Shir noted, “Everyone has a chance to make it. That is the beauty of democracy whether or not you came home to Israel yesterday, a year ago, 25 years ago or more. It’s not just about promoting olim, it’s inspiring olim to become more politically active. It’s about finding the diamonds in the rough and giving them chance to shine. It’s about seeing the individual qualities of the person and not just if they muddle up an ‘aleph’ or an ‘ayin.’”
Wertman similarly stressed the importance for more MKs to “understand the value in having olim as an integral part of their team, and work with organizations like the Jewish Agency and Nefesh B’Nefesh to ensure these job opportunities are accessible to olim.”
“I would do anything possible to push for more olim in Knesset,” declared Lipman, who maintained that “the most important thing is for people to realize that it’s possible” and they should not be overwhelmed by the cultural and language differences.
“Get involved in the local level, throw yourself in, break your teeth and don’t be afraid,” he insisted, calling on olim to use the very same leadership and idealistic mindset that they needed to make aliyah, and apply it in Israel.

Tags Knesset olim