Aiming to be Jerusalem’s first female mayor, MK sees thaw in religious tensions

Aiming to be Jerusalem’s first female mayor, MK sees thaw in religious tensions

Just 10 years ago, Rachel Azaria was fighting to have her face featured on Jerusalem bus ads; a decade on, former deputy mayor says her hometown in throes of change

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

Kulanu MK and Jerusalem mayoral candidate Rachel Azaria (Courtesy)
Kulanu MK and Jerusalem mayoral candidate Rachel Azaria (Courtesy)

Musing about her newly launched campaign to become Jerusalem’s first female mayor, Kulanu lawmaker Rachel Azaria wistfully spoke about “returning to Jerusalem” and underlined her longing for the city of her birth. Which was somewhat peculiar, considering that our interview was taking place in her office in the Knesset, firmly in the heart of Jerusalem. But in Azaria’s view, location aside, the hilltop legislative tower puncturing the capital’s skyline is far removed from the residents milling below its fortified gates.

“The Knesset, generally, is disconnected from the public,” said the former Jerusalem deputy mayor and council member for seven years, who entered Israel’s parliament and governing coalition in 2015.

As a lawmaker for the center-right Kulanu coalition party, “I would meet a lot of groups, a lot of people, and I would ask them, ‘how many MKs have you met?’ Mostly, they said I was the first. And I would ask another question, ‘how many of you have met your mayor?’ And nearly all of them raised their hands. That’s the discrepancy between the local councils and the national [politics],” she said.

Incisive and businesslike, at 4:30 p.m. Azaria is sitting down for her first cup of coffee of the day (“campaigns give you energy!”), amid a busy schedule to tie up various legislative loose ends in the Knesset before bidding the parliament adieu. Regardless of the outcome in October mayoral race, Azaria will retire from national politics and return to the Jerusalem city council.

Wrapping up her three-year parliamentary run, she cited five laws aiding working parents, including an extension of paid maternity leave, among the various efforts she is most proud of advancing while in the Knesset. Many of those proposals were amendments to laws, she gradually discovered, advanced by a young Golda Meir in the first decade of Israel’s existence.

Azaria, 40, announced in late June she would run for mayor of Jerusalem, joining a long list of candidates in the race, including her colleague in the coalition Jerusalem Affairs Minister Ze’ev Elkin (Likud), Hitorerut candidate Ofer Berkovich, Jerusalem council member Moshe Lion,  former municipal legal adviser Yossi Havilio, and little-known Avi Salman. The ultra-Orthodox community is also mulling fielding its own candidate, with Deputy Mayor Yossi Deitsch of the United Torah Judaism faction seen as the leading Haredi candidate, alongside fellow party member Yitzhak Pindrus, also a deputy mayor. The Yerushalmim faction, which Azaria founded, announced it would back her candidacy.

Dismissing widespread predictions that the broad array of candidates (including Berkovich and Elkin) appealing to the city’s secular and Modern Orthodox communities could leave the field wide open for an ultra-Orthodox candidate to win, Azaria, a modern Orthodox mother of four, maintained she broadens the pluralistic vote from the secular, to the religious and modern Haredi Jerusalemites.

Kulanu MK Rachel Azaria takes part in a Knesset Finance Committee meeting on November 6, 2017. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The head of the Knesset’s Reforms Committee, Azaria said she was not leaving Israel’s parliament out of discontent with her political role and maintained she did not view the change as a step down.

Rather, Azaria insisted she always intended to come back to work on a local level in the city, tackling what she views as its most pressing challenges: housing and urban renewal to ward off a looming congestion crisis; creating more employment opportunities and business hubs in its residential areas; combating its dire shortage of classrooms, particularly in Haredi schools; resolving property issues; and giving a funding boost to youth movements.

The real changes taking place in Israeli society and a gradual erosion of tribal boundaries are taking place at a faster pace in Jerusalem, she said of the largest city in the country with its diverse secular, Modern Orthodox, ultra-Orthodox, and Arab population.

Would Jerusalem elect a woman as mayor?

In Israel’s 70-year history, no woman has ever held the position of mayor in its three major cities of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, or Haifa. Currently, 98 percent of local councils are led by men, with just four exceptions out of 201 authorities — Netanya, Yehud, Or Yehuda, and Ganei Tikva, according to a Knesset report from March.

A longtime activist on religion and state and women’s issues, Azaria just a decade ago was mired in a legal battle (in which she triumphed) to have her face and those of female members of her Yerushalmim faction printed on bus ads in the city. The Egged bus company had declined over concerns the images would offend its sizable ultra-Orthodox clientele in the capital, where one-third of Jewish residents identify as Haredi.

Yerushalmim’s latest Egged bus poster in the party’s campaign against segregation in the public sphere (Courtesy Yerushalmim)

Ten years after a fierce fight over the so-called disappearance of women from the public sphere, does she think the conservative city would elect a woman as mayor?

By way of an answer, Azaria pointed to what she described as a broader thaw in the city between its disparate communities.

Internal research conducted by her campaign on Jerusalem residents found that 75 percent of 869 respondents who are eligible to vote rejected the statement that a mayor of the city must “choose a side” between the secular and ultra-Orthodox; 67% said real change will only come to Jerusalem when the secular and Haredim join forces; and among the ultra-Orthodox, some 30% say their rabbis’ opinion or endorsement will not determine their vote for mayor. Acknowledging that some segments of the Haredi community would never cast the ballot for a female candidate, Azaria said that her internal polling nonetheless gave her a fighting chance.

Pitting the secular against the ultra-Orthodox is the “politics of ten years ago,” she said, pledging not to inflame tensions between the various communities in her campaign for political gain.

‘It’s no ‘Hallelujah,’ and ‘We are the World.’ It’s very challenging… But what we are seeing is a process of change.’

She attributed the shift away from identity politics and toward inter-communal cooperation in her strategy to focus on population-based policies — such as for parents to young children, the elderly, and so on —  based on common interests and problems rather than community-based benefits.

“There are a lot of populations that aren’t receiving due treatment because we’re used to seeing things according to tribes,” she said.

In pushing for policies targeting groups by age or demographic, rather than religious or political affiliation, the rigid divides between the various groups “soften,” she asserted.

“I think that for every group, there was a time when they had a dream that another group would disappear,” before ultimately realizing “that’s not going to happen,” said Azaria.

A Jewish man waving the Israeli flag argues with an Arab woman as thousands celebrate Jerusalem Day by dancing through Damascus Gate on their way to the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem, May 13, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“We don’t necessarily love each other, we are even sometimes afraid of one another,” she continued, noting in passing her MA in Conflict Resolution. “But we understand that no one is going to disappear. And when you start to realize that you say, ‘okay, this group has children who need a classroom, and this one has children and needs a kindergarten, a bike trail, a pedestrian path.'”

In the end, Jerusalem is a city and its residents can find common cause in the nitty-gritty details of day-to-day life and services, she said.

“It’s no ‘Hallelujah,’ and ‘We are the World.’ It’s very challenging, it’s a challenging city. But what we are seeing is the process of change. If ten years ago, we never imagined that even the secular and religious would be partners in such a process, now we see that the Haredim are partners in this process. It’s a process of a lot of people saying, we want to live here together.”

Church lands, housing, employment hubs

Among the most pressing issues Azaria sees facing Jerusalem are housing and urban planning. With little room to expand in the west and east, the capital faces a housing squeeze that Azaria said could be rectified by speeding up urban renewal projects, known as “pinui-binui,” and requires improved building planning overall. While her generation was still able to purchase apartments in the capital at a reasonable rate in outlying and developing neighborhoods, said Azaria, who lives in Katamonim, those just eight years her junior are already priced out of purchasing homes in Jerusalem.

As a lawmaker, Azaria also championed regulating property issues, most prominently in a bill to confiscate lands in Jerusalem sold by churches to anonymous buyers in exchange for monetary compensation. Some 1,500 homes are built on the land under a 99-year lease, set to expire in the coming years and putting the homeowners’ future in jeopardy.

In a dramatic turn, Orthodox and Catholic church leaders in February shuttered Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre to protest Azaria’s legislation and a new municipal tax policy, capturing global attention. As a result, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appointed a special committee headed by Likud Minister Tzachi Hanegbi to oversee the legislation.

The Greek Orthodox Patriarch (center), flanked by other church leaders, announces that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is to be locked until further notice in protest over a Knesset bill to limit the churches’ ability to sell land and Jerusalem Municipality moves to freeze church assets until they pay disputed city back taxes. (Mab-CTS)

Azaria lauded the formation of the committee, saying it was hammering out a compromise with the real estate developers, and adding that she would be passing the torch on to other government lawmakers.

“If everyone acts reasonably, there is no reason to get to land expropriation. But if they start to hurt 80-year-olds, who live in their apartments [for decades],” the government will step in, she said.

Jerusalem also must improve its employment offerings and create business hubs outside the downtown area, said Azaria. Despite generous tax breaks for companies, particularly for hi-tech, “there is nearly no dialogue between the companies and the municipality,” she said. Pledging to create a special unit in the municipality dedicated for this purpose if elected, Azaria also vowed to convene frequent meetings and stringent oversight for all projects being advanced by the municipality to secure results.

“In the end, it’s management, management, management,” she said.

‘A lack of trust’ between city hall, East Jerusalem

“In my eyes, Jerusalem is one city. All the talk of division is, in my view, not relevant,” said Azaria,

On East Jerusalem, the former deputy mayor said the main gaps between the east and west of the city are education, construction planning, and public transportation. On education, additional schools must be built, while planning and public transportation plans require “a lot more dialogue,” she said, noting a chronic “lack of trust” between East Jerusalem leaders and the municipality.

But marking improvements in recent years, Azaria said it was no longer accurate to say housing units were not approved by the municipality for East Jerusalem, and lands that were designated for schools in the east were less likely to be immediately set upon with illegal construction.

Palestinians run as Israeli police fire tear gas after Friday prayers in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Wadi al-Joz, July 28, 2017 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

And there were examples of trust and cooperation, she said.

In late 2014, during an uptick in violence, many of the assailants were East Jerusalem children and teenagers who would flee the Israeli authorities by entering Palestinian schools, she recalled. Israeli Border Police were set to enter the schools to retrieve the assailants when the Jerusalem municipality reached a deal with Arab principals: Ensure the children are in school, keep them indoors with extracurricular activities funded by the city until the evening, and the Border Police will keep out.

“The principals agreed. It reached a point where they would come to the children’s houses, pull them out of bed, and bring them to school,” said Azaria, who was deputy mayor at the time. “It was very impressive.”

“I think Jerusalem is one of those cities where, because it can explode at any moment, it doesn’t,” she added, applauding civil society efforts on top of the Shin Bet security service operations.

“And one of the reasons it doesn’t happen is because a lot of people are working very hard so that it shouldn’t.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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