Jerusalem-born MK sees ‘living, breathing city’ choked by lack of building
Jerusalem Day 2017

Jerusalem-born MK sees ‘living, breathing city’ choked by lack of building

A former deputy mayor, Rachel Azaria is not clamoring for US embassy move, calls capital a microcosm and trailblazer for the nation

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

Kulanu MK Rachel Azaria outside the Old City walls in Jerusalem, March 23, 2015. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Kulanu MK Rachel Azaria outside the Old City walls in Jerusalem, March 23, 2015. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

When Rachel Azaria, a Knesset member from the Kulanu party, speaks about two Jerusalems, she is not referring to East versus West.

There is “an imagined” Jerusalem for those who don’t live here, mused Azaria, a former deputy mayor of the capital and lifetime resident. It’s a city of “angels, and holiness,” of “mountain air as clear as wine,” she said, quoting lyrics from Naomi Shemer’s iconic “Jerusalem of Gold.” For nonresidents, there are also those who view Jerusalem “as everything they fear, that threatens them: Arabs, Haredim [ultra-Orthodox]… constant fighting,” she added.

And then there is the other Jerusalem — the day in, day out city of its residents.

“The truth is that Jerusalem is a complicated city and is also holy and wonderful. But first and foremost it is a city with nearly one million residents,” said Azaria.

Day in, day out Jerusalem, said Azaria, is an “extreme” microcosm of the State of Israel, embodying many of its social and economic and religious challenges but also presenting an opportunity for applying local solutions to national problems. And in this Jerusalem, the residents are paying a “heavy price” for the lack of construction over the years as the government held round after round of (failed) peace negotiations with the Palestinians, she argued. It’s a city where the smallest moves of city bureaucrats on planning committees become fodder for diplomatic wars and international fallout, in her description.

Azaria, who entered the Knesset two years ago on Moshe Kahlon’s center-right Kulanu party list, spoke to The Times of Israel last week ahead of US President Donald Trump’s visit, during which he lavished praise on the holy city, its beauty and its storied history but refrained from recognizing it as under Israel’s sovereignty. It also came as Israelis geared up to celebrate on Wednesday the 50th anniversary of the melding of the city’s eastern and western halves after the Six Day War, and with Jerusalem in the international headlines over whether Trump would make good on his promise to relocate the US embassy to the city.

US President Donald Trump visits the Western Wall, Monday, May 22, 2017, in Jerusalem. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
US President Donald Trump visits the Western Wall, May 22, 2017, in Jerusalem. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Wearing a red dress, a photo with Hillary Clinton framed behind her desk, Azaria is direct and to all appearances solution-oriented and averse to whitewashing the problems she sees in Israel.

But in a somewhat surprising departure from many other voices in the coalition, Azaria — the sole Jerusalem-born female lawmaker in the Knesset — refrained from cheerleading the promised relocation of the US mission.

“Since we liberated Jerusalem during the Six Day War, Jerusalem has developed and grown. It is our capital and we don’t need approval from anyone,” was her comment on the subject.

“Our relationship with the Americans is significant and deep and that is what matters more than anything else,” she added.

‘6 housing units in Pisgat Ze’ev’

During her tenure as Jerusalem’s deputy mayor, Azaria recalled as surreal her approval of half a dozen housing units in a Jewish neighborhood, Pisgat Ze’ev, as part of the humdrum bureaucratic procedures of the city’s Jerusalem District Planning and Building Committee. With the world’s eyes eternally cast toward contested Jerusalem, these building approvals opened the news broadcasts that night, she said.

“It was incredible,” she said. Pisgat Ze’ev, which falls over the Green Line, is considered as much an illegal East Jerusalem settlement by the international community as it is an indisputably Israeli Jerusalem neighborhood by Israelis. “Every discussion suddenly became a very dramatic diplomatic discussion. And what I often felt is that they don’t understand that it’s just a city.”

“It’s a breathing, pulsing, living city,” she said. “You can’t just say you can’t build anything.”

The planning committees “have their own pace,” she said, denying high-level political involvement in its day-to-day activities. Even the now-infamous announcement of housing units during then-US vice president Joe Biden’s visit to Israel was simply a project that “was in the pipeline. And it came up that week,” she said.

“Six units in Pisgat Ze’ev,” she murmured again, flummoxed. “It killed me.”

‘It’s a breathing, pulsing, living city. You can’t just say you can’t build anything’

What the city really needs is more building, she declared, noting that while freezing building for several months as a goodwill gesture for peace talks was understandable, the years-long stalling has hit the city hard.

“What they did in Jerusalem, where they froze building for several years, took a heavy toll,” she said.

Azaria described a project she led a few years ago, when the city made a successful push to bring young families to such neighborhoods as Gonenim, Armon Hanatziv, Kiryat Yovel and French Hill.

A playground in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Pisgat Ze'ev with the security fence in the background (Photo credit: Kobi Gideon/Flash90)
A playground in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Pisgat Ze’ev (Photo credit: Kobi Gideon/Flash90)

“We took aging neighborhoods and turned them into young neighborhoods,” she said, by building schools and kindergartens and encouraging families to move. While that bid was successful, the lack of construction has since made housing opportunities in the capital disappear, she said.

“There were opportunities to buy, and today there aren’t. The prices are very high. There is nearly no building. It’s a problem,” she said. Jerusalem appears to be “returning to those same challenges that we thought we had resolved.”

The East Jerusalem neighborhoods of Issawiyah and Shuafat. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
The East Jerusalem neighborhoods of Issawiyah and Shuafat. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

As for the alleged disparities in city services between its predominantly Arab eastern sector and mostly Jewish Western side, Azaria argued that it’s “complicated.”

“It’s very hard to compare,” she said.

The land in East Jerusalem is nearly entirely privately owned rather than public property, she said, blocking city planning of parks and schools.

There is a “huge investment” by the city in an attempt to minimize gaps by paving roads, setting up infant health centers, and building “many” schools, but “there are so many missing classrooms that with everything you build you barely cover the natural growth, because the infrastructure is so lacking.”

East Jerusalem residents also don’t vote in local elections, she added, describing that as a “challenge,” though the city works closely with representatives from its local community managers. On services such as garbage collection, Azaria said she doesn’t “recall there being a difference” in treatment.

From Jerusalem’s problems, Israel’s solutions?

“Jerusalem is the State of Israel in the extreme,” Azaria asserted. “Arabs, Haredim, secular, religious, a lot of poor people, it’s all more unyielding than it is in reality in the [rest of the] state.”

“And we have to deal with it,” she added with a laugh. “I think that’s one of the reasons we always come with solutions to things.”

Since entering parliament two years ago, Azaria and her Kulanu party have championed socially minded economic reforms, including tax benefits for working parents and a a small increase in maternity leave. While some have criticized her party leader Kahlon for caving in to coalition demands on various pieces of controversial legislation, Azaria touts him as a moderating force, seeing to it that certain legislation was softened before it was approved. “Kahlon knew how to navigate and find solutions for every incident,” she said.

(Azaria won’t comment on the prospects of the coalition lasting in its current form until 2019. “They asked Kahlon, what’s the chance the coalition will survive. And he said ‘whoever says he knows what’s happening is lying.’ So I also won’t answer. There isn’t really a way to know. And we continue working,” she said.)

‘Jerusalem is the State of Israel in the extreme’

While stressing that changes won’t happen overnight, Azaria, who is Orthodox, envisions shifts on religion and state even though she sits in a coalition with the ultra-Orthodox parties, who forcefully reject any change in the religious status quo. She predicts changes in the following order: ritual bathing in mikvehs and the presence of attendants (“already changing”), kashruth (“on verge of change”; “You have a system that doesn’t work, admit it doesn’t work, deal with it. Open it up for competition. This isn’t a halachic matter. It’s a procedural matter”), Shabbat (“I think there is a debate going forward” though “we aren’t there yet”), marriage and divorce (“already more complicated”), and conversion.

Interior Minister Aryeh Deri (R) speaks with Kulanu MK Rachel Azaria (L) during a plenum session in the assembly hall of the Israeli parliament on July 15, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Interior Minister Aryeh Deri (R) speaks with Kulanu MK Rachel Azaria (L) during a plenum session in the assembly hall of the Israeli parliament on July 15, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

On the first three, Azaria attributes the changes to local initiatives, noting that a Jerusalem-based organization Hashgacha Pratit that seeks to privatize kashruth has spurred the national religious Zionist Tzohar movement to consider a similar plan. She mentioned that the High Court ruling over mikveh attendants began as a Jerusalem fight and ended with the rabbinate changing its directives on ritual immersion. Talk on Shabbat reforms are largely based on the Gavison-Medan principles, something “we discussed a decade ago” in Jerusalem, said Azaria, who along with other coalition members and opposition members is spearheading a bill to permit limited public transportation on Shabbat and cultural and entertainment venues to remain open, while shutting down commerce.

“I don’t think there will be decisions that will suddenly change everything. Rather, there is a process here,” she said. “I think part of it is the changes happening in the state. Once it was the secular vs. the religious. It was very clear. Whoever was secular was opposed to the rabbinate, regardless of anything… and whoever was religious was in favor of the rabbinate come what may.”

“Now, the picture is much more complex. You have religious people saying ‘yes, but’ and secular people saying ‘yes, but.’ I think we need to have a discussion that is a little less contingent on identities, a little more real – what’s good and what’s bad [in terms of substance].”

Identity politics, specifically the need to create a shared Israeli identity, looms large for Azaria, who lists it as one of the biggest challenges facing Israel, along with its security and economic gaps.

‘Once it was the secular vs. the religious… Now, the picture is much more complex’

Describing Israel’s social divides as deeper than before, Azaria recalled a recent discussion she took part in on the radio with former MK Roni Milo and United Torah Judaism MK Menachem Eliezer Mozes to illustrate the point. During the discussion, Azaria said Milo asked why the two lawmakers were not pushing for a national unity government with the Labor party, to which they replied that they had tried. Azaria said she asked Milo if the divides had worsened, to which he replied that once it was obvious that different groups would work together.

“People hated each other, and there was anger, but it was obvious you need to cooperate. And today, each group tears the other apart,” she said, paraphrasing Milo.

“What scares me most,” she added, her voice dipping slightly, in a comment that came days before Israelis celebrated the five-decade mark of recapturing the Old City of Jerusalem, “is that twice we had a state — during the First Temple and the Second Temple — and twice we fought among ourselves, and twice an enemy came from the north to destroy us. And I tell myself, we cannot let it happen again.”

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