JERUSALEM — Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, has had members from almost 50 countries around the world — some of which no longer exist.
But until now, only one was a New Jersey native: Newark-born Marcia Freedman, who served from 1974 to 1977 as a representative of the Civil Rights Movement that is now part of Meretz.
That could change in the Jan. 22 Israeli election, when New Brunswick-born environmentalist Alon Tal hopes to become not only the second New Jersey-born Knesset member, but also the first American-born MK since the late extremist Rabbi Meir Kahane, whom, ironically, Tal helped prosecute when he worked for the Israeli attorney general.
An environmental law professor at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and chair of Israel’s Green Movement, Tal is a Knesset candidate for the Tzipi Livni Party, the eponymous party formed by Israel’s former foreign minister.
Tal is the 13th candidate on the party’s list, which received 11 seats in a poll published last week by the Israeli news portal Walla. To help his party gain support, Tal has canvassed the country, taken bike rides to the Knesset with Livni and other candidates, and debated other American-born candidates from other parties.
“I think Tzipi Livni would make a much better prime minister” than Benjamin Netanyahu, Tal told NJJN between campaign stops. “She has gained experience, and polls show more than half of Israelis want her to be in charge of Israel’s foreign policy. She can lead Israel to an agreement with the Palestinians that can guarantee Israel’s future as a Jewish-democratic state.”
Tal was born Albert Rosenthal in 1960 at New Brunswick’s Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, back when it was known as Middlesex Hospital. His father worked at Squibb Pharmaceuticals, while his mother studied at Rutgers University.
While the family moved to North Carolina when Tal was a child, he maintained his connections with New Jersey, and many years later, two of his books were published by Rutgers University Press.
“I still have fond memories of growing up on Livingston Avenue,” Tal said.
Tal, who moved to Israel in 1980, earned a law degree from Hebrew University and a doctorate in environmental science and policy from Harvard. As one of Israel’s leading environmentalists, he founded the Israel Union for Environmental Defense and the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies at Kibbutz Ketura.
Three other parties are offering candidates who are former Americans: Atlanta-born Jeremy Gimpel is running in the religious-Zionist Bayit Yehudi; Boston-born Kahanist Baruch Marzel is a candidate in the new Strong Israel Party; and Rabbi Dov Lipman, a fervently Orthodox rabbi from Maryland, is a candidate on Yair Lapid’s new secularist Yesh Atid list, which shares his aversion to Orthodox coercion.
‘Dream of peace’
Each of the candidates has put an emphasis on representing American immigrants to Israel in the Knesset. Livni appointed Tal to head her party’s efforts to advance religious pluralism in Israel and its campaign among “Anglos.”
That has special meaning for Tal, who is a committed Masorti, or Conservative, Jew and the gabbai (sexton) of the Masorti Shalhevet Hamaccabim synagogue in Maccabim-Re’ut, between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. His 17-year-old daughter was recently harassed by police for wearing a tallit at the Western Wall.
“She got a sad lesson on how religion works in this country,” Tal said. “I am concerned about the extremism that has captured governmental institutions and delegitimized us.”
Tal said Livni shares his concerns. He said she describes herself as a Masorti Jew and her sons attended the Masorti movement’s Noam youth group.
If elected, Tal hopes to organize the first egalitarian minyan in the Knesset synagogue. He said he would give Livni the first aliya.
“I am thrilled to be in a party led by someone who understands that Jewish tradition can be manifested in more than just an Orthodox tradition and that there is room for all expressions of religious affiliation in our country,” Tal said of Livni. “She had the opportunity to become prime minister, but she refused to capitulate to ultra-Orthodox blackmail.”
When campaigning among American immigrants, he tells them that the U.S.-Israel relationship has gotten worse, due to Netanyahu’s perceived connection to the Republican Party and his problematic relationship with U.S. President Barack Obama.
Tal is especially appreciative that Livni adopted his environmental agenda. He said the Netanyahu administration failed to fight pollution and make progress on other environmental causes.
“Livni has ‘green’ in her DNA,” Tal said. “There has never been a large party that cared about environmental issues.”
Despite declining poll numbers, Tal said he is convinced that he will become a Knesset member on Jan. 22. If he does, he promises to celebrate with a Knesset “hootenanny” starring his Arava Riders bluegrass band.
“Many people are still undecided,” Tal said. “I am an optimist, and so is Tzipi. I am not willing to give up on the dream of peace that we pray for. Israel’s diplomatic, social, and environmental problems can be solved. Israel just needs the kind of vision to get us beyond the present situation.”