The Anglo factor

The role of Anglos in Israeli politics has lately been the subject of much discussion.

Two new Olim taking an excited selfie upon landing in Israel (photo credit: SHAHAR AZRAN)
Two new Olim taking an excited selfie upon landing in Israel
(photo credit: SHAHAR AZRAN)
John F. Kennedy famously said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
That might have made a great slogan for Israel. A billowing speck of blue and white licked by flames all around, Israel is built on the spirit of collectivity. The national embodiment of arevut (the Talmudic principle of mutual responsibility), our Jewish state is such a small pond that every little fish can change the current.
In reality, however, JFK’s call to action presents a somewhat false dichotomy. Although an attitude of entitlement is never the path to great accomplishment, the motivation and ability of citizens to contribute to the greater good naturally correlates with how well they are integrated in and positioned to wade into the public sphere.
The role of Anglos in Israeli politics has lately been the subject of much discussion. The Jerusalem Post’s own Caroline Glick turned in her pen to join the new New Right Party’s list under Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked. This prompted a nasty tweet from Yediot Aharonot columnist Raanan Shaked that demeaned “Isramericans” as, essentially, nobodies in their birth country who think they can be somebodies here. Clearly, he doesn’t care for the right-leaning and increasingly vocal Anglo sector eating into the electoral map.
Ofer Berkovitch – the charismatic, bilingual City Council member who directed much of his campaign to marshaling the enthusiastic support of young Anglos in the capital – narrowly lost the Jerusalem mayoral race, while English-speaking, National-Religious candidate Aliza Bloch swung the Anglo mecca (but also heavily haredi Beit Shemesh) her way to become its new mayor. Olim Beyachad – a party championed by American transplant Liami Lawrence, the force behind the advocacy organization Keep Olim in Israel – got some votes, but surprisingly, not enough to win any seats on the Tel Aviv City Council in November’s race.
But more important than how many Anglo-Israelis will break through in politics is the question of the extent to which Israel’s governmental players – from mayors and city council representatives, to Knesset members and cabinet ministers – should pay serious attention to English speakers, who trail only Russian speakers in proportion of olim.
How much consideration should the needs and interests of the estimated 300,000 Anglos in this country merit? Should resources be allocated for English-speaking services – and not just the ones that say “press 3 for English” but then take you to someone whose command of the language ends at A-B-C? Should government offices have English-speaking representatives available, even if only by appointment or on selected days, to reduce the personnel costs?
Anyone who makes aliyah must be prepared for challenges, and if you can’t speak or learn Hebrew, then language will be one of them. Ulpan courses can be useful, but they require an extensive commitment of weekly hours during the most hectic time just after immigrating, and they are not for everyone. Do we really want to put immigrants through a linguistic hazing – sending the message that if they can’t cut it in Hebrew, they should just cut their losses and leave?
That’s exactly the type of situation Lawrence and his 40,000-plus-strong Facebook group want to prevent. The law the Knesset passed last year allowing experienced drivers from other countries to receive an Israeli license without the need to take lessons and a road test (a law which one might question from a safety standpoint) made it through because of the intense lobbying of Keep Olim. So change is possible, and presumably the more Anglos get elected, the more we’ll see our interests brought to the fore.
THE STEREOTYPE of Anglo olim as financially well-off and more self-sufficient in acclimating successfully, compared to other immigrant groups, runs deep. According to a government document quoted in this newspaper last year, “The Education Ministry’s director-general issued directives that singled out no special needs for immigrants who speak English, but it did allocate special funds for pupils who came from other countries, who speak Russian, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Amharic.” This all-too-common attitude piques like a backhanded compliment.
Indeed, in the recent Jerusalem mayoral race, then-candidate Moshe Lion, when asked about how he’d serve the city’s Anglo constituency, said he’d focus more on the French community, because English speakers are “more set.” I live in a heavily French neighborhood, and that perception does not reflect the reality on the ground here. The bottom line is that Anglo olim – and more importantly, their children – who do not receive adequate support might not reach their full potential, not only as individuals but as productive citizens.
If I were to pick up and move to, say, Korea, Guatemala, or Greenland, I could not expect to have my own familiar language readily available to cushion the adjustment. But Israel is not a random country to which Jews choose to relocate for adventure, economic or professional opportunity, or cultural affinity. Israel belongs to the Jewish people, and those of us who arrived here more recently are no less connected, integral, or potentially impactful than locals who can trace their roots here back generations. Over the course of our history, we were exiled time and again from this land, and have been returning in waves and trickles ever since. We are all natives and we are all returnees. It’s a beautiful paradox.
To the extent that it is fiscally possible to embrace the needs of Anglos, especially in areas with large concentrations of English-speakers, the results can only be positive. The more a group feels welcomed and valued for their unique qualities, the more inclined its members will be to pursue, not only their own well-being, but that of the larger community.
To take one example, many Anglos come with solid educational backgrounds, including professional degrees in areas of medicine that are sorely understaffed in Israel’s health care system. Drawing them into – and keeping them in – the system requires some serious strategizing. (My friend, an American ER doctor who was practically pulled off the plane and into the hospital when she arrived on aliyah, left the job after a few years because of miserable pay and even more miserable working conditions.) The same goes for credentialed accountants, lawyers, teachers and other professionals. The red tape is confounding enough, but if you can’t even decipher it, you’re rowing without a paddle.
Despite all that, the contributions of Anglo olim in science, technology, medicine, business, the arts, the military, and religious life have been manifold – and in many cases so seamlessly woven into the national landscape as to escape special notice, until President Reuven Rivlin or Nefesh B’Nefesh has an award to give out.
At the end of the day, however, the gifts and talents each group of olim brings to the table are not their ticket to acceptance. If you’re a proud Jew, you belong here. Hopefully, whatever language you speak, the government will help provide the tools you need to build a forever home.
The writer is a contributing editor to The Jewish Press and holds a J.D. from Fordham Law School. She lives with her family in Jerusalem.