Israel Updates

Aiming High – Jerusalem Post Cover Story

Jpost Cover Story Aug-10-2012-1

Americans Ari Abramowitz and Jeremy Gimpel made aliya. Now can they rise to the Knesset?

Photo by: Marc Israel Sellem /The Jerusalem Post

Leaving behind a relatively easy existence to face the challenges of a potentially more special and meaningful life. That is the risk that hundreds of thousands of immigrants to Israel from the United States and other English speaking countries have taken. Houston native Ari Abramowitz, and Jeremy Gimpel, who moved here from Atlanta, have already done that once. And now they are doing it again.

They were content running TheLandofIsrael.com, one of the largest video content providers from Israel internationally, which aims to show the world the beauty of the Jewish state and its people. But they decided to try another risky leap – this time to the Knesset.

Abramowitz and Gimpel are seeking seats on Habayit Hayehudi’s list for the next Knesset in a primary that will be held on November 13. For them to succeed, they must sign up as many new members as possible in the party’s membership drive that ends September 9.

To that end, they are conducting parlor meetings and information sessions across the country every night, sometimes together, sometimes separately so they can do two a night. Some of their events are in Hebrew, but most are in English in an effort to galvanize other immigrants from English-speaking countries like themselves into a political force.

More than 20 Anglos have run for the Knesset over the past decade – almost all unsuccessfully, with British-born Kadima MK Yohanan Plesner the most notable exception (see sidebar). Most of them tried in one way or another to use their backgrounds to help them politically.

But never before have thousands of immigrants from English-speaking countries been targeted in a primary of party members aimed at getting their representatives top slots on the list of a party currently in the Knesset.

That approach has been used with Arabs in Kadima, Druse in Labor and Russian immigrants in multiple parties, but never with Anglos.

“We are not reaching out to English-speakers because it’s their language but because we are running on messages of Zionism and aliya that English-speakers believe in,” Abramowitz says. “It’s about ideas. Others may have tried to run before but Ari and Jeremy have never tried. Sometimes it takes a different approach.”

Their approach is to first solidify their power base of English-speaking immigrants in Jerusalem and Gush Etzion, and elsewhere around the country. Then, when the membership drive ends, they will target undecided voters in Hebrew.

Gimpel, who moved to Israel with his family 21 years ago at age 12 and served as a platoon sergeant in the Givati Brigade, believes their positive messages about the Jewish state and the need for religious Zionism to unite its sectors will resonate with native Israelis.

“For years Ari and I have been traveling around the world, spreading the true message of Israel,” Gimpel says. “Now we want to take our message to Israelis. We have promoted ideals of the perfect Israel and now we can convert these ideals into policy.”

GIMPEL WENT to high school in Efrat, earned degrees in law and business at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center and studied for his rabbinic ordination at the Otniel yeshiva. He lives with his wife and children in Neveh Daniel in Gush Etzion.

Abramowitz, who, like Gimpel, is 32, came to Israel in 1998 and served in the IDF. The brother of former Jerusalem Postliterary editor Miriam Abramowitz Shaviv, he received rabbinic ordination at Kollel Agudat Achim in Jerusalem’s Old City and lives near the capital’s Mahaneh Yehuda market.

Ten years ago, Abramowitz and Gimpel formed TheLandofIsrael.com, which produces videos that reach millions of Americans on cable and satellite television. Their Facebook page has 300,000 likes and their latest video on Iran has three million hits. They hosted Tuesday Night Live variety shows from Jerusalem for three years and then took them on tour to large auditoriums in the US.

Now Abramowitz and Gimpel are trying to make a seamless transition into politics.

They launched their campaign at a soldout English debate at Jerusalem’s Heichal Shlomo between Habayit Hayehudi leadership candidates a month ago and have been on the road ever since.

“I want to go to the Knesset because it’s the logical conclusion to what we have done until now,” Abramowitz says. “People want a positive message of ideology. We are not running away from anything. We are running to. We have a chance to speak up and be leaders in a world seeking leadership. As we go around Israel, we see how excited people are getting.”

Gimpel sees parallels between Israel in the world and religious Zionism in Israel, which have both failed to properly present their messages. He wants to re-brand how Israelis and the world see religious Zionism.

“[Syrian dictator] Bashar Assad is killing thousands of people, but Israel is painted as the evil oppressor in the Middle East,” Gimpel says. “Religious Zionists are doing so much important work in the army, the workforce and society but they are demonized as revenge-taking, settler rock-throwers.

We in religious Zionism have the power to bridge between secular Israel and Jewish Israel.”

To bring haredim closer to Israel, Gimpel has a four-step plan to solve the problem of equalizing the burden of IDF service. He would expand the Nahal Haredi battalion, recognize current volunteer programs of haredim as national service, give higher child welfare payments to haredim who serve, and only fund yeshivas that send 50 percent of their students to serve.

To bring the secular closer to Judaism, Gimpel would promote inclusive, open-minded Judaism. He laments that religious councils, conversion and kosher certification have become dominated by haredim, in part because of the bond between the Likud and the haredim.

“We need power to ensure that at least 50% of the religious court judges and city rabbis will be religious Zionists,” Gimpel says. “A vote for Likud is a vote for the haredim to continue to have power. Haredim only care about their institutions. Our issues are non-sectarian and affect all of the nation of Israel.”

Gimpel says many American immigrants have told him they don’t want to waste their vote on a small party. But he says that in a parliamentary system, every seat in the Knesset means millions for religious-Zionist institutions.

In an effort to woo Likud members to Habayit Hayehudi, Gimpel challenged Moshe Feiglin, the best-known face of religious Zionism in Likud, to a debate last week. Feiglin responded by challenging Habayit Hayehudi leadership candidate Naftali Bennett to a debate instead, but Gimpel got his point across.

“The only way for the religious Zionist community to lead an agenda is to create a big, unified party that can yield influence,” Gimpel says. “We saw how in the Knesset the haredim won their battle against universal service while we lost the battle over the Ulpana [neighborhood in Beit El]. We need to learn from the haredim how to advance our interests and protect our agenda.”

Abramowitz praises Feiglin for what he has done for the Jewish people, but says he fundamentally disagrees with Feiglin’s political strategy of wooing right-wing religious Zionists to the Likud, which he says is “shticky” and has not worked. Abramowitz notes communities in Judea and Samaria where Feiglin’s Manhigut Yehudit movement signed up hundreds of residents as Likud members who then voted for the National Union in general elections.

“Politics has to be judged by results,” Gimpel says. “Joining Likud hasn’t strengthened our communities or changed policies. We need to change it with our own party.”

IF ELECTED, Abramowitz and Gimpel want Habayit Hayehudi to insist on the government taking responsibility for Western aliya, which it abdicated to Nefesh b’Nefesh, a non-governmental organization that relies on donations.

They say it is important for the government to send a message to potential Western immigrants that they are wanted.

Abramowitz and Gimpel have not made an endorsement in the November 6 Habayit Hayehudi leadership race between Bennett, Science and Technology Minister Daniel Hershkowitz and MK Zevulun Orlev. They say they would insist on whoever they endorse demanding control over the Knesset’s Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs Committee in the next term.

Recognizing the thousands of members Abramowitz and Gimpel have brought to Habayit Hayehudi, the three leadership candidates have met with them on multiple occasions, including this week. In an effort to obtain the support of Abramowitz and Gimpel, Orlev even announced last week that he would try to change the party’s bylaws to reserve a slot on the Habayit Hayehudi slate for an immigrant.

Habayit Hayehudi’s by-laws currently require that the fourth slot on the party’s list be reserved for a woman and the fifth for a candidate under 40, a category into which both Gimpel and Abramowitz fit. But if the women’s slot is won by a candidate who is also young, such as My Israel movement head Ayelet Shaked, the fifth slot would be open to anyone. Orlev’s proposal would make that slot go to an immigrant in such a scenario.

But Gimpel and Abramowitz do not want to have to rely on reserved slots to get into the Knesset. Gimpel says that their goal is to register more than 5,000 members and that if they had more time, they could get 10,000.

At some parlor meetings, everyone in the room signs up. The two have also have built what they call “an army of young volunteers,” who are working to spread their ideology and register people.

“Because the average age of Habayit Hayehudi members was in their 60s, we can fill a void and represent the younger generation,” Gimpel says.

“This campaign has been the best educational tool Hashem [God] has given us. We have found that a significant amount of religious Zionists not only agree with our message but want us to represent it in the Knesset.”