By Judy Lash Balint/JNS.org
You could say that Yishai Fleisher was destined to be a Jewish activist. Born in Haifa on the day of the 1976 Entebbe hijacking to refusenik parents who struggled to escape from the Soviet Union, Yishai’s brit milah (circumcision ceremony) took place just as the hostages were being freed in Israel’s most daring rescue operation.
Today, the trilingual Fleisher serves as international spokesman for the Jewish community of Hebron, a demanding and sensitive job that puts him front and center representing a city that is a lightning rod for controversy.
Elie Pieprz, director of international affairs for the YESHA Council, is another U.S.-trained activist playing a leading role in one of Israel’s most controversial issues.
Pieprz, a native of Silver Spring, Md., is a member of the team responsible for presenting the face of Israel’s settlement movement to the world. Pieprz was part of the delegation of leaders from the Jewish communities of Judea and Samaria who attended the recent inauguration of President Donald Trump. Makor Rishon, a leading Hebrew-language newspaper, just described Pieprz as "the Israeli who seems to have the best contacts with the new [U.S.] administration, apart from [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu, of course."
Like Fleisher, Pieprz cut his teeth as an activist in the U.S. before making aliyah and bringing his experience to bear to work on one of the core issues of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Roots in education
Despite their different backgrounds, both men credit their education in the U.S. as a central part of the preparation for their current jobs. Fleisher, 40, grew up in New Jersey after his family left Israel, and attended The Frisch School, a coed yeshiva high school, before graduating from Yeshiva University (YU) and Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law.
“I cut my activist teeth at YU,” says Fleisher, who in addition to his role as spokesman for Hebron is a writer and broadcaster with a large social media following. “I learned the power of the pen and how to write there,” he adds regarding his alma mater.
Pieprz, 44, attended the Yeshiva of Greater Washington and is also a YU graduate. Today, Pieprz spends most of his time exposing opinion makers from the U.S. and other English-speaking countries to the civilians and leaders of Jewish communities in the disputed territories. Many of them are elected officials he got to know while he traversed the U.S. political landscape, beginning in the 1990s.
Growing up in a Torah-observant home in Silver Spring, Pierpz was surrounded by family and community members who had government jobs. “I don't remember a time when I wasn’t interested in politics,” he says.
His first foray into Jewish activism came during his student years in New York. “I was inspired by people like Rabbi Avi Weiss, standing in front of the U.N. waving a huge Israeli flag demonstrating against the Oslo Accords,” he recalls.
Pieprz joined Weiss’s activist group—Amcha-The Coalition for Jewish Concerns—in protest of the activities of the Nation of Islam movement, and organized American Israel Public Affairs Committee activities at YU before joining The Israel Project (TIP), a high-profile independent Israel advocacy group, in its early days. TIP works extensively with elected officials, and Pieprz says he learned “the art and science of political campaigns” during those years. He got to know prominent pollster Stan Greenberg and political consultant Frank Luntz, and took his first post-college job with Luntz as a lobbyist in Washington, D.C.
Fleisher left high school to join the Israel Defense Forces as a paratrooper. “Being a soldier is second nature to anyone with a Russian background,” he explains. “Defending your own people is a natural thing.”
For Fleisher, who is tasked with presenting the complexity of the situation in Hebron to the outside world, his varied background helps him relate. “I had an Arab nanny in Haifa and we lived next to Arabs when I was a young child. Today I live in a neighborhood next to Arabs; my parents were originally not religious and carried a Russian ideology, but I was educated in a Torah framework,” he says. “I learned the American Jewish mentality growing up in the U.S.” All that helps him figure out how to lay out the case for Hebron to different audiences, he says, emphasizing how the Palestinian-majority city is a place that “has been meaningful to the Jewish people forever.”
‘Time to agitate for aliyah’
Fleisher returned to the U.S. after his army service “hungry for knowledge” to back up his passion for the Jewish homeland. While he was earning his undergraduate degree in political science and law degree in New York, Fleisher was disturbed to discover that “New York Jews seemed unaware of the incredible effort to build the Jewish state, in my mind the most monumental and central project of the Jewish people in 2,000 years.”
“I was thinking about Israel all the time,” Fleisher exclaims. Joining with a few fellow students, “we decided it was time to agitate for aliyah.” They formed the Kumah (Arise) aliyah organization. Fleisher admits, “We didn't know the first thing about activism. But we organized conferences, built a website, wrote op-eds, led two Birthright trips to Israel and developed the ‘aliyah revolution’ idea.”
He met his wife Malkah, a fellow law student and active Zionist originally from North Texas, at Cardozo Law School.
“We learned the ways of activism during protests against Cardozo when they honored Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Bill Clinton,” Fleisher says.
The couple got married during the height of the second Palestinian intifada in 2002 in Hebron, marking their strong connection to the place where Fleisher says he put in place “the pillar of nationalist activism, in addition to aliyah activism.”
After graduation in 2003, the couple was invited to work at Israel National News Radio, with the stipulation that they live near the studios in the settlement of Beit El. During their eight years there, Fleisher says he felt he was “on the cutting edge of live audio technology and sending out a broadcast signal from Beit El, Israel to the world. My parents when they were in the Soviet Union, were highly influenced by secretly listening to short wave radio from Israel, and now we were able to do that kind of work.”
Fleisher still hosts his own online radio show and podcast, and was program director at the Voice of Israel Network before joining the Land of Israel Network. He is a frequent guest on international radio and TV networks that brought him to the attention of leaders in Hebron, who appointed him as their international spokesman in 2015.
Pieprz’s road to aliyah, meanwhile, took a few different twists and turns. After managing several political campaigns and advising many state legislators, in addition to stints at Microsoft and as marketing director for author and radio host Rabbi Daniel Lapin, Pieprz says he and his wife “had an epiphany.” In 2010, they arrived in Israel with their three young daughters, with no immediate job prospects.
With his extensive political and marketing experience, Pieprz was sought out by other young activists looking to promote Israel. In 2012, he founded iVote Israel, a non-partisan group that registered more than 80,000 U.S. citizens living in Israel ahead of that year’s presidential election. His efforts caught the attention of Dani Dayan, then the chair of the YESHA Council, who asked Pierpz to help set up the organization’s International Desk.
For Fleisher, a central challenge he tries to convey to the many important visitors he guides around Hebron is “to normalize the city, as a national heritage site—like Big Ben, it should be preserved and cared for and developed as a tourist destination. Jews should be able to buy and sell homes here in a normal fashion, and expand to meet the natural population growth needs.”
Pieprz wants opinion makers and the media to understand the diversity of thought in Judea and Samaria, and “to shatter the image of what settlers are and lessen the hyperbole that’s so out of touch with the reality of what’s going on here.”
Today, Fleisher and Pieprz no longer describe themselves as “activists,” but prefer to say they’re involved in “public diplomacy.”