Kadima candidate Dan Ben-David makes a point at a parlor meeting in Jerusalem. (Photo: Isaac Harari)Israel has always had leaders who spent their formative years in the United States, and then brought their democratic values with them when they moved to Israel.
Two former prime ministers were raised in the US: Golda Meir moved to Israel from Milwaukee, and Binyamin Netanyahu attended high school in Philadelphia and college at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston.
Four young politicians with American backgrounds hope to follow in this tradition by running for seats in Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, in the March 28 Israeli general election.
The combination of growing up in America and later living in Israel inspired each of them in different ways to try to make their own unique contribution to Israeli politics.
Between the four, they lived in seven states: California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Mexico, New York and North Carolina, along with the District of Columbia.
Knesset candidate Dan Ben-David, 49, of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s centrist Kadima Party, was born in Israel and moved to Ithaca, New York, at age five when his father studied for his PhD at Cornell University. As his father advanced through different teaching jobs, Ben-David’s family moved to Raleigh, North Carolina, Chicago, back to Ithaca and Albuquerque, New Mexico, before Ben-David went to Israel without his family at age 17 to serve in the Israeli army.
Following his service and studies in Israel, Ben-David returned to Chicago to get his doctorate in economics under the supervision of Nobel laureate Robert Lucas at the University of Chicago. Ben-David credits his experience at the University of Chicago with giving him the knowledge necessary to become an award-winning professor at Tel Aviv University’s School of Government and Policy and a Knesset candidate.
Sharon invited Ben-David to his office to inform him that he wanted him on Kadima’s Knesset list on January 2, two days before he suffered the stroke that ended his political career. Acting prime minister Ehud Olmert, who will lead Kadima in Sharon’s place, honored Sharon’s commitment and placed Ben-David in a realistic slot on the party’s list.
Ben-David’s experience following the government in America convinced him that Israel should adopt a presidential system with direct representation and fixed periods of office. He said that Israel and the United States can learn a lot from each other about how to make the two countries even more democratic.
“What makes the Israeli and American democracies so similar is the heterogeneity of our societies,” Ben-David said. “We are both countries of immigrants trying to make things better for our kids. We are vibrant and optimistic societies, where everyone has a chance, no matter where they come from.”
Ben-David is involved in writing Kadima’s new socio-economic platform. He said that Israel is unique in that a newcomer like himself can suggest sweeping changes to the nation’s educational system and they can be implemented shortly thereafter.
“I learned in grade school in America that if you think there is a problem, you should go to the government and try to fix it,” Ben-David said. “Israel is an open-minded country where ordinary people have the power to change things for the better. The fact that someone like me can come out of nowhere and make an immediate impact says something good for the system.”
Ben-David said he told Sharon before his stroke that Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, was the country’s George Washington and that “he had a chance to be our Abraham Lincoln and save the country.”
New York has three representatives among the Knesset candidates: Ben-David, who spent time there growing up, Tzvia Greenfield of the left-wing Meretz Party and Mitchell Barak, who ran in the primary of the right-of-center Likud Party.
Another candidate, and a unique figure in Israeli politics, Greenfield was also born in Israel. She came to Boston with her husband in 1973 to allow him to attend Harvard University’s medical school. The Greenfields lived in the US for seven years in Boston, New York City and Los Angeles.
Raised in an ultra-orthodox community in Israel, Greenfield’s time in the United States opened her eyes and taught her about the importance of social and political activism. She said she learned about democracy from Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and the protests against the Vietnam War.
“It was the first time I had seen demonstrations against a government’s policies,” Greenfield said. “It impressed me a lot that people could criticize their government, because at the time, Israelis were expected to support the government’s actions. It was a turning point for me that really made a profound impact on me.”
Since returning to Israel, Greenfield became active in a number of social and political causes. She was one of the few Orthodox signatories to the Geneva Initiative, in which Israelis and Palestinians agreed on a permanent solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
In last month’s Meretz primary, Greenfield won sixth place, immediately after party chairman Yossi Beilin and the party’s incumbent Knesset members. One of the main issues on her agenda is to separate religion and state in Israel just like in America.
“America can be a model for us,” Greenfield said. “Religious Jews here are worried about the ramifications of separating religion and state. I tell them that Jews in America express their religious commitment without involving the state and that America’s experience proves that the Jewish community can thrive without the state.”
Barak, a native of New Rochelle, New York, ran unsuccessfully in last month’s Likud primary. After graduating from George Washington University in Washington DC with a degree in political science, Barak worked on Capitol Hill for the Republican Jewish Coalition before moving to Israel 14 years ago.
Barak served as a speechwriter and communications assistant for Sharon, an aide to former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and an adviser to several former finance ministers. He is managing director of Kidron Strategies, a Jerusalem and Washington-based political consulting firm, where he has worked on campaigns in Israel and the US and experienced the similarities and differences between the two democracies.
“I was motivated to run because Israel needs more of America’s transparency, good governance, accountability and stability,” Barak said. “But it can be said that Israel is a more vibrant democracy than even the US, because with the multi-party system, there is a wider base for voters to choose from. The proportional parliamentary system truly represents the will of the people.”
Israel has 14 political parties currently in the Knesset to represent people with views across the political spectrum, including minorities like Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews, who have their own political parties.
Uri Bank of the rightist National Union Party, 37, was born in Detroit and raised in Chicago before moving to Israel at age 12. He is running for Knesset for the second time with the National Union Party, where he is ninth on the party’s list. He hopes to represent Americans who have moved to Israel regardless of their political views and become their “congressman in the Knesset.”
“I want to help strengthen the democratic element in the Israeli political system by bringing the western culture of accountability that impressed me in the American system while I was growing up there,” Bank said. “Israeli politicians need to have a better sense of a constituency that they cater to and not only ahead of an election. The fact that American politicians have a home office in their districts where they spent a big portion of their time is something that might have been forced by the geographical size of the US, but it’s a necessity that inspired a more representative democratic system.”
Bank said that another aspect of democracy that is important to him is the necessity to adhere to a political platform and be accountable for promises made to the voters. He said that in Israel, where some issues are matters of life and death, this is especially important. Bank said that one of the strengths of Israeli democracy is the fact that the country has one of the highest voter turnouts of any country in the world.
“Israeli citizens are much more involved and care about politics than in many democratic countries,” Bank said. “One of the reasons might be the precarious security and diplomatic situation. People know that the history of the state of Israel and the Jewish people is being written as we speak and they want to be a part of it.”