To see how much our elected officials are willing to help and encourage young Americans who are indecisive about immigrating to Israel - we turned to dozens of our lawmakers from the different factions in the Knesset. We wanted to see to what extent they are aware of the issues that worry the Jews in the Diaspora, and how accessible they are to queries addressed by young people seeking to make aliyah, which is, to use clichés, the essence of Zionism.
We asked to interview them for one of the Jewish student papers at one of the largest universities in the United States. We told them that an aliyah conference was recently held at the university, where students considering immigrating to Israel were given the opportunity to discuss issues that concerned them about life in Israel.
The first difficulty was encountered was in accessibility to the public: Out of the 65 MKs we tried to contact numerous times (from all political parties in the parliament), only 37 answered the call. All the ultra-Orthodox MKs we contacted refused to be interviewed, in part because the appeal was made by a woman.
But the biggest obstacle was language: 14 MKs were unable to speak English, or refused to be interviewed for that reason.
Add to that the fact that an inquiry by ultra-Orthodox website Kikar HaShabbat" found that nine out of 13 ultra-Orthodox MKs are not fluent in English, meaning at least 23 parliamentarians are unable to have a basic conversation in English.
Eight MKs personally answered the phone call, but were not interviewed, with five of them saying it was because they were not fluent in English: David Bitan (Likud), Sofa Landver (Yisrael Beytenu), Yaakov Margi (Shas), Bezalel Smotrich (Bayit Yehudi) and Yoav Ben-Tzur (Shas). Three responded in excellent English, and referred us to their spokesperson or deferred due to scheduling reasons: Eitan Cabel (Zionist Union), Jamal Zahalka (Joint List), and Michal Rozin (Meretz).
Twenty-one spokespersons turned down the interview offer, or promised an answer and then never called back, with six of them admitting that the MK does not know how to speak English: David Amsalem (Likud), Yoel Razvozov (Yesh Atid) - who takes private lessons in English, Uri Ariel (Bayit Yehudi), Yisrael Katz (Likud), Tali Ploskov (Kulanu) and Moti Yogev (Bayit Yehudi).
Health Minister Yaakov Litzman's spokesman could not speak English himself. Litzman’s English, by the way, is not bad at all. The other nine Orthodox MKs who failed Kikar HaShabbat’s survey are Aryeh Deri (Shas), Meshulam Nahari (Shas), Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism), Uri Maklev (UTJ), David Azulai (Shas), Yitzhak Vaknin (Shas), Meir Porush (UTJ), Yisrael Eichler (UTJ) and Eliezer Moses (UTJ).
Thirteen other MKs declined the interview citing scheduling conflicts, or simply stopped answering the phone or responding to messages: Karin Elharar (Yesh Atid), Haim Yellin (Yesh Atid), Yoav Kish (Likud), Gila Gamliel (Likud), Oren Hazan (Likud), Nava Boker (Likud) and Anat Berko (Likud).
Only nine MKs agreed to be interviewed and answer questions that concern young American Jews, less than a fifth of the MKs we approached.
The most successful interview was held with MK Avraham Neguise from the Likud party, who redeemed the dignity of the Immigrant Absorption Committee. He spoke almost perfect English, and delivered an ardent Zionist message. We asked him about a family of two students with master's degrees, who are concerned that even if they can find a job with a similar income to what they are currently making in the United States, it will still take them almost a decade to buy a home.
Naguise: "This is exactly why the Absorption Ministry exists. It is responsible for absorbing new immigrants and helping them integrate into society. Be it is housing, employment, education, health and welfare. The government is ready to absorb millions of immigrants. I will tell you my story. I grew up as a shepherd in Ethiopia, I immigrated to Israel 31 years ago. I got an equal opportunity for education in Israel. While in Ethiopia I graduated from high school, here in Israel, I have five degrees, and I'm a legislator in Israel. I am one of the millions who settled here successfully."
Another Knesset member who spoke English fluently is MK Ayelet Nahmias-Verbin from the Zionist Union, who was asked about concerns over the security situation. "Israel is a very safe place to live in. When it comes to other issues of personal security, such as crime, Israel surpasses other countries. Of course it would be better when the situation in the region calms down, but I am raising three children here that I have no intention of raising elsewhere. They live a peaceful and pleasant life here."
Likud MK Yaron Mazuz asked to be interviewed only in writing. He was asked to respond to one of the students, who is afraid to immigrate to Israel after discovering that one of his relatives, who is a theater actress in Israel, was included in right-wing NGO Im Tirtzu's "plants" campaign. The student said he is against the occupation and wondered if he could express his views freely in the State of Israel.
"He is more than welcome to make aliyah," Mazuz said. "Israel is are one of the biggest supporters of the freedom of speech and the freedom to express any opinion, so long as it does not endanger national security. The problem raised by the student is part of the dark side of globalization and free media, but there are also many advantages."
MK Aida Touma-Suleiman from the Joint List responded immediately to the request for an interview. She was eloquent, courteous and displayed a rich English vocabulary. Her comments are probably less pleasant for Israelis who are in political center to hear.
Assuming that Arab MKs will be less interested in encouraging Jewish immigration, we asked her to talk to us about the proposed Suspension Act and the declaration made by some of her colleagues in support of Hezbollah.
When asked about Balad and Hadash's (factions within the Joint List party - ed.) recent condemnation of a decision by Gulf nations to label Hezbollah as terrorist organization, Touma-Suleiman replied: "First of all, the condemnation was against Saudi Arabia and the countries of the region who support organizations such as the Nusra Front. In our opinion, these countries do not have the right to determine who is a terrorist and who is not. Saudi Arabia financially supports ISIS.
"On the other hand, I understand that there is a particular sensitivity to this issue on the Israeli side, but as a woman living in a place that suffered Hezbollah’s bombardment, when there was a need to condemn the bombing of a civilian population, we were the first to do so. And when it was necessary to condemn the Israeli government - we did that too. I believe that this gives us the right to make complex observations, since the situation is complex."
MK Masud Ghnaim from the Joint List also immediately responded to the request for interview, and gave clear and to-the-point answers. When asked whether his party members will follow up on their threat to resign from the Knesset if the Suspension Act passes, he said: "It was said more as a form of protest designed to show how serious we consider this bill to be. Ultimately, if the bill passes, we will sit together and decide what to do. The statement was made to show the coalition that it has gone a step too far with anti-democratic legislation, it violates the freedom of expression."
Among those seeking to improve their mastery of the English language is Itzik Shmuli from the Zionist Union. He understood the questions, but gave cumbersome answers, and found it difficult to get his message across.
"Of course we have to solve the conflict with our neighbors," he said on the issue of security. "I believe that if the Palestinians’ future is good, then our future will be even better. But reducing the conflict to the story of good versus evil is simplifying the situation and that's not smart. We need to reach an agreement with the Palestinians and separate if we want to protect the vision of a democratic and Jewish state. But sometimes there is frustration in Israel, as Israelis feel that people in many countries don't understand the complexity of the conflict, and I say this as an enthusiastic supporter of the two-state solution."
Likud MK Miki Zohar could do with some work. While he demonstrated great confidence, it unfortunately didn't match his level of English. In response to a question from a Jewish student who opposes the occupation, Zohar said: "The Jewish nation cannot be occupying its own country. This is the Jewish state, and it was created 3,500 years ago. We don't think there should be a Palestinian state, there's only one state and that is the State of Israel. We need to maintain this situation until the end of time. We are willing that the Palestinians live here because they were born here. But they cannot establish their own state here. We want to live alongside them in peace, but not on their terms."
Are you talking about a one-state solution?
"Yes. The Palestinians must understand that if they want war, they will lose. If they want peace, we will live here together."
Another issue concerning some students is the attitude towards non-Orthodox Jews. One student is afraid to immigrate because she would not be able to get married here.
"In Israel, there's no problem being non-Orthodox, most people here are not Orthodox. The problem is with those who want to be Reformists. If you are a Reformist and you are trying to change the Jewish culture and create a new culture, that is a problem, but if you're merely non-orthodox, it's absolutely fine, you can be an atheist."
The definition of "non-Orthodox" refers to Reformists and Conservatives.
"It is okay to be non-Orthodox, but it is not okay to try and change the 3,500-year-old Jewish culture. They can be non-Orthodox, but it may be harder for them to live here if they are Reformists or Conservatives. But again, most people in Israel are not Orthodox and they live here just fine."
Two of the interviews were conducted as a game of telephone. The interview with MK Nissan Slomiansky of Bayit Yehudi was done with the help of an interpreter. Unfortunately, the questions were translated carelessly, while MK Slomiansky’s answers were also not translated accurately.
For example, he was asked a fairly detailed question about the security situation, which was condensed in Hebrew in “She's asking if it is safe here."
"Tell her it is very safe here," said Slomiansky, "and that the land of Israel was acquired through suffering, meaning if we hadn't been willing to pay the price, we wouldn't have the land of Israel, like the price paid by those in the United States ... the price paid to establish the United States. But emphasize it is very safe," Slomiansky said to his spokesman in Hebrew.
The translation from the spokesperson was a little different, "He said the founders of the state fought for the country and unfortunately, we have to sacrifice for the nation. The world is not perfect, as you can see in the news. But life goes on, I for example live in Jerusalem, and sometimes it is safer here more than in the US."
Another Knesset member who was interviewed in this manner was Mickey Levy. The entire interview was conducted while Levy was voting at the Knesset. The spokesperson translated the question, Mickey voted, called after a few minutes, and so on. The problem? This was more of an interview with the spokesperson than with the MK. Levy gave the spokesperson speaking points, ran to vote, and left the spokesperson to formulate his own creative position.
For example, when asked about non-Orthodox marriages, he said: "It is true that Israel has no freedom of civil marriage, but the discourse has been very progressive in recent years. We do not believe there's going to be civil marriage in Israel, but hope to have a civil partnership agreement equivalent to marriage, perhaps not in the current government, but at least in one of the governments that follow." Someday, this spokesperson will give great interviews as a member of Knesset.