Councilwoman Rachel Azaria is remarkably personable for a politician, and unerringly direct about what she wants for the future of her city.
The 34-year-old native Jerusalemite — married, nine months pregnant and a mother of three — has public service in her blood from her earliest days as a Hebrew University student activist with Green Course, one of Israel’s environmentalist movements.
After 10 years in activist circles, Azaria gradually moved from environmentalism to matters of Jewish law concerning women’s rights. With a bachelor’s degree in psychology and earning a master’s degree in conflict resolution, she helped establish the Yerushalmim political party in 2008, representing young, religious and secular Jerusalemites. It won one seat and established her as a council member. Two other members of the list, Conservative rabbi Uri Ayalon and Simcha Tsadok, are also heavily involved in the party; Ayalon as its director general and Tsadok as Azaria’s campaign manager.
The daughter of an Israeli father of Tunisian descent and an American mother, Azaria’s English is perfect and is the language in which she conducts many interviews and speaks to her kids. But her attitude and approach are all Israeli, particularly when she’s wielding a megaphone or petitioning the High Court of Justice — which she did first to prevent gender segregation in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods and later to ban advertising that censors images of women.
Following that anti-gender segregation bid last October, Azaria was summarily stripped of her portfolios on the city council by Mayor Nir Barkat, even though, she says, she warned him that she would be heading to the High Court.
Interviewed in her small City Hall office, Azaria first asks, disarmingly, whether she needs to put on makeup for a photo session. Told that wouldn’t be necessary, she stretches out her sandaled, unpedicured feet, rests her hands on her pregnant belly (except when she’s checking her BlackBerry), and sets sail.
Azaria says she never planned on getting into politics but now finds herself firmly ensconced in the field. She’s aiming now, she says, to upgrade playgrounds with better equipment, get Jerusalem’s sanitation trucks to collect garbage at night, make sure there are enough preschools for the capital’s kids, ensure that all train platforms offer shade to waiting passengers as well as bike stands and easy access for commuters… in addition to fighting gender segregation, empowering secular Jerusalemites and changing the face of urban planning.
How hard is it to effect change in Jerusalem?
When I first got onto the city council, it felt like there was a big, black curtain over everything, with a major mess once you opened the curtain. I think Jerusalem was neglected for many years; [Ehud] Olmert, God knows what he was doing and [Uri] Lupolianski really couldn’t care less about us. Even if nobody had bad intentions, for 15 years the city was neglected and people just stepped into the vacuum. If we had come right after Teddy Kollek, it would be a totally different world, but you can’t just give up on Jerusalem, it’s not an option.
Your party, Yerushalmim, captured only one seat on the city council, but is becoming known for its game-changing ambitions. What will be in the next election?
I think that everyone thought that once Nir Barkat would be mayor, everything would be okay. And it took us two years to figure out that we need the voices of Jerusalemites, fighting and getting things moving. People think that there’s a trick and there’s no trick, it’s just hard work, a lot of hard work and there are no shortcuts. The work is to come to meetings prepared with the numbers, knowing the city very well. You need to be on top of everything. We need many more seats on the city council, and we need to pull Nir Barkat toward us.
You’re credited with bringing the now oft-used term, hadarat nashim, exclusion of women, from the women’s studies textbooks to the frontlines of Israeli society while battling segregation on Jerusalem’s buses. Unfortunately, bus company Egged and the ultra Orthodox powers-that-be appear to have colluded to exclude all faces — male and female — from bus advertisements, caving in to extremism. What’s next?
There’s a very strong link between Egged and the radical ultra-Orthodox, a lot of behind-the-scenes work. Now they’re using that power for segregation and the removal of women from the public sphere. (The advertising company claimed it was fearful of vandalism and decided to get rid of all human images on bus advertising.) The big test will be in the elections for national and local government; I can’t imagine [Prime Minister] Netanyahu not being able to plaster his face all over the buses [during his re-election campaign]. We’ll be heading back to court on this one; it’s the not the end of this story.
Speaking of public transportation, any thoughts on the light rail and rerouted Egged buses?
People finally realize that they want good public transportation. The ultra-Orthodox realized it before, and they work as a community and they don’t feel embarrassed to say, ‘I can’t afford to buy a car.’ Now we’re going through a similar phase. The problem is most decision-makers never use public transport, ever. They really have no idea what we’re talking about and they don’t realize how important it is. The city is not built for all these cars and the solution is in public transportation.
The other term you’ve brought to the municipal table is ‘young families’ — that is, making it a known concept in the city. With young family enclaves established in Gonenim, East Talpiot, and Kiryat Hayovel, who’s next on the list of those you’ll champion?
Secular Jerusalemites — and the way Orthodox, not ultra-Orthodox, Jerusalemites perceive and rethink their relationship with secular Jerusalemites. When we started the Shabbat events for secular families, everyone was amazed that so many people showed up. They didn’t think there was anyone like them in the city. It has to do with the way you perceive yourself, and in Jerusalem, it’s about the way the non-Orthodox are starting to perceive themselves as they really are. Secular Jerusalemites had nothing to do in this city on Shabbat and we have to let them have what they need.
How has social activism changed Jerusalem?
Jerusalem was always a city filled with social activism but it’s become even more intense over the past few years. Go to a cafe on Emek Refaim and every three people are getting something going. That’s what we do in Jerusalem. But there’s power in the system. I spent a decade in social change organizations and four years on the city council and I got more done in my first year in the city council than in the previous decade.
What’s next for you?
I never planned on being a politician. I never had a 20-year plan. I get offers from different national parties but I tell them I’m in Jerusalem, at least until the end of the next term. What we’ll do here will be the turning point of the State of Israel. Everything here is the most dense, the most complex. What we do here, everyone will do, and you feel like it’s really coming together.