Meet some of Israels diverse new Knesset members

Last week’s Israeli election saw a major shakeup in the country’s government, with 53 new members elected to its 120-member parliament, the Knesset.

Some already have received wide attention, including Yair Lapid, the middle class-focused chairman of Yesh Atid; Naftali Bennett, the high-tech entrepreneur who chairs the Jewish Home party (and whose parents are former members of San Francisco’s Congregation Emanu-El); technocrat Yair Shamir, Yisrael Beiteinu’s No. 2; and Moshe Feiglin, the nationalist settler who finally landed a Knesset seat with the ruling Likud Party.

Though lesser known, many of the other new faces in the Knesset are no less interesting. Meet five of them: a woman with a doctorate in Talmud, an Ethiopian immigrant, a mother of 11 from Hebron, a socially conscious venture capitalist and an American-born rabbi.

Rabbi Dov Lipman (Yesh Atid)

Rabbi Dov Lipman

He’s a haredi Orthodox rabbi in a party calling for haredi army service. He’s been an advocate for coexistence in a city fraught with interdenominational conflict. Soon he’ll be the first American-born member of Israel’s Knesset since Meir Kahane.

Dov Lipman, 41, originally from Silver Spring, Md., was a Jewish educator in Cincinnati and Maryland before moving to Israel with his family in 2004. They ended up in Beit Shemesh, a Jerusalem suburb with a large haredi and Anglophone population that also has been a flashpoint for conflict between haredi and Modern Orthodox Israelis. As the city’s conflicts escalated in recent years, Lipman tried to serve as a bridge between the two sides.

He says he believes that there’s no contradiction between working, serving the country and being haredi, and he wants to bring that ethic to Israel. It’s a challenge: Many of Israel’s haredim are unemployed, few serve in the Israeli military and many are avowedly non-Zionist.

“In America, haredim have education, there are opportunities and they work,” said Lipman, who hopes his presence in Yesh Atid will allow him to help integrate haredi Israelis into the rest of Israeli society. The party campaigned for universal national service, including for haredim.

Ruth Calderon (Yesh Atid)

Ruth Calderon, 51, is a Jewish scholar who, like Lipman, advocates interdenominational understanding. But unlike Lipman and most Jewish scholars in Israel, Calderon earned her degree at a university, not a yeshiva.

But that didn’t stop her from starting one. Calderon, who holds a doctorate in Talmud from Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, founded the Elul Beit Midrash in Jerusalem in 1989, one of the city’s first Jewish study houses where secular and religious Israelis can learn Torah together. More recently, Calderon founded Alma, a center for Hebrew culture in Tel Aviv with a mission to combine Jewish, Israeli and universal culture.

Erel Margalit (Labor)

Erel Margalit

The Labor Party’s campaign this year, driven by party chair Shelly Yachimovich, advocated for middle-class and poor Israelis. One of the campaign’s central slogans declared that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “is good for rich people. Shelly is good for you,” and one of the party’s most public new faces was 2011 social protest leader Stav Shaffir.

Now one of the party’s freshmen is one of Israel’s wealthiest and most successful venture capitalists.

Erel Margalit, 51, founder of Jerusalem Venture Partners, has been declared “king of the exits” by the Marker, Haaretz’s business magazine. From 2000 to 2010, he presided over seven $100 million exits, or sales of stakes in companies — the most in Israel.

But Labor’s social-democratic values speak to Margalit. He grew up on a kibbutz and in 2002 founded JVP Community, a fund to address social issues in Jerusalem. One of its flagship programs is Bakehila (Hebrew for “in the community”), which organizes educational programs for disadvantaged Jewish and Arab children.

After Labor split and fell to a historic nadir of eight seats in 2011, Margalit founded the Labor Now organization to recruit new members to the party and reinvigorate its values.

As a child, Margalit lived for two years in Detroit. He later earned a doctorate in philosophy from Columbia University.

Orit Struk (Jewish Home)

Orit Struk

Orit Struk lives in one of the most ideological communities in the West Bank —Hebron, where she runs the Jewish community’s legal and diplomatic division and has made her home for 30 years.

A mother of 11 and grandmother of 12, Struk also is the founder and chairwoman of Human Rights in Yesha, an organization that advocates for settlers’ rights. In that capacity, Struk has fought against alleged abuse of settlers by soldiers and policemen, and advocated for those who protested Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in 2005.

Struk, 52, also runs the Land of Israel lobby in the Knesset that fought for settlement expansion and legalizing outposts.

Days before the election, in the wake of the release of a video of Jeremy Gimpel, another Jewish Home candidate, speaking enthusiastically about the Dome of the Rock exploding, Struk said, “We pray that the Temple will rise again in Jerusalem.”

Struk at times was described as a liability in Bennett’s campaign to present Jewish Home as an inclusive right-wing party, not a settlers’ party. But Bennett denied that.

“I’m not hiding Orit Struk,” he said. “In every party, people vote with their conscience and it’s OK that among 15 people, we’ll have a representative of the right.”

Shimon Solomon (Yesh Atid)

Shimon Solomon, 44, has come a long way to the Knesset. When he was 12, Solomon set out on foot with his family from  Ethiopia,  traveling to Israel via Sudan.

Later, after becoming a social worker, he returned to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, from 2005 to 2007 to help others follow in his footsteps. He also works with Physicians for Human Rights as an advocate for refugees and is a former director of the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village in Rwanda, a center for orphans of the Rwandan genocide.

The future of refugees and migrants in Israel has been a topic of heated debate over the last year or two. Solomon promotes an ethic of service. “Everyone needs to give of what he has, even if he doesn’t have much,” he said.

Solomon served in the Israeli Defense Forces’ paratroopers unit and is a reserve officer. He is one of two Ethiopians on Yesh Atid’s list along with Pnina Tamnu-Shata, the first Ethiopian woman to be elected to the Knesset.

Ben Sales
Ben Sales

JTA reporter