Tel Aviv City Council debate shows immigrants have clout

Tel Aviv City Council debate shows immigrants have clout

At event sponsored by political movement aimed at new arrivals, eager candidates from five parties go toe-to-toe to woo votes

A view of the audience at a Kol Oleh-sponsored debate in Tel Aviv, Monday, September 16, 2013 (photo credit: courtesy Guy Seemann)
A view of the audience at a Kol Oleh-sponsored debate in Tel Aviv, Monday, September 16, 2013 (photo credit: courtesy Guy Seemann)

Candidates for Tel Aviv City Council faced off in the first ever moderated, English-language candidate debate in front of 135 Tel Aviv residents, most of whom were new immigrants.

On the rooftop of the offices of Wix in the northern port on Tel Aviv on Monday night, Tamar Shchory (Labor), Micky Gitzin (Meretz), Alon Solar (Rov Ha’Ir), Noah Efron (Ir LeKulanu), and Jonathan Javor (TLV1) argued passionately for their platforms and the lists they represent. At times the debate turned into an all-out referendum on the policies of Mayor Ron Huldai (TLV1), who is facing reelection after serving 15 consecutive years in office.

The event was sponsored by Kol Oleh, a movement started by local political activist Guy Seemann to educate Tel Aviv voters, and new immigrants in particular, about the upcoming elections and the parties participating. Monday night’s debate was the first of several candidate forums to be held in the run up to municipal elections on October 22. Kol Oleh currently has a membership of 1,500 Tel Aviv residents.

Jonathan Javor (TLV1), a UK native and the only Anglo new immigrant running for office, made a strong pitch for other new immigrants to support his and Huldai’s vision for the city.

“I am here to be your voice among the decision makers,” Javor said. “We all came here for Zionistic reasons. We want to live in Israel. Mayor Huldai has been laying out his plan for this city for the past fifteen years and with your help he will continue to do so.”

Recognizing the need to provide better employment opportunities and services for new immigrants, Javor asked the audience, “Who came here to be an online marketing manager for a casino? Mayor Huldai understands that olim (new immigrants) who come here will only stay here if they have good solid jobs. We can go forward with the mayor and make sure we all stay.”

Current city council member Noah Efron (Ir LeKulanu) urged Tel Aviv’s immigrant community not to focus only on their own issues.

“Who will do the best for olim?” Efron asked. “Olim are citizens of this city. What happens to everyone in this city matters. The politics of this city will become immeasurably better if we all work together.”

In a heated attack against Huldai, Efron said, “The mayor’s office has created 33 affordable apartments in the past 15 years. We need 20,000 more housing units. We need public housing like they have in nearly every other major city in the world. That will lower the cost of housing in the private sector. We need a modern, rapid transit system like they have in Haifa and in Jerusalem.”

“There are 40,000 African refugees in Tel Aviv. One out of every ten residents is an African refugee. The mayor has done nothing on these issues. There is major gentrification going on. It’s becoming a city only for the wealthy. The artists are being evacuated. Teachers can’t possibly afford to live in this town. My daughter told me that she wants to be a teacher. It broke my heart because I know that if she wants to be a teacher there is no way she will be able to live in this city. Under Mayor Huldai, City Hall makes it easier only for the wealthy. He doesn’t recognize that the power of Tel Aviv is with the people, all the people. There is genius in these streets.”

Adding to Efron’s criticism, Mickey Gitzin (Meretz) called out the mayor on his administration’s lack of transparency and, most notably, his decision in his last term to close municipal meetings to the public.

“None of us know how the city works, not only olim,” Gitzin said. “Huldai makes it impossible for everyone to understand… The way Huldai sees the city is not the reality. We have over 40 children per classroom in this city because he didn’t plan ahead in terms of revamping the educational system. On the mass transit system, the transportation minister himself wants to do it, but Huldai is holding it up. We need to replace the policy and replace the mayor.”

The Meretz party’s candidate for mayor, former Knesset member Nitzan Horowitz, represents the main credible threat to Huldai’s chances for a fourth term. The Meretz party was an active part of Huldai’s governing coalition for four out of the five years of the last term.

Tamar Shchory (Labor) focused on why the Labor party list will implement real change in city council itself. She reminded the audience and the other candidates that the debate was not supposed to be a discussion of Huldai’s policies. When Tel Aviv residents vote in October, there will be two separate ballots, one for the mayoral election and the other for city council.

“The city that never sleeps is facing a huge gap,” Shchory declared. “The branding of Tel Aviv has been very effective for tourism, but there’s a gap between the branding of the city and the lives of the city’s residents. We are committed to working to lower the cost of living and providing affordable housing. We believe in making the city council an active democracy.”

Labor did not run for Tel Aviv City Council in the last elections. Huldai is a member of the national Labor Party and previously included Labor candidates on his TLV1 list. Shchory argues that while Labor continues to support Huldai in the mayoral race, he has gone too far to the right on social and economic issues. Returning Labor to city council will provide balance in Huldai’s next term.

The final candidate who appeared, current city council member Alon Solar (Rov Ha’Ir), mentioned in halting but effective English all the accomplishments his party has wrought in the last five years.

“We brought scholarships for university students to move into disadvantaged neighborhoods, we promoted the green bikes, we brought the Tel Aviv marathon back from the dead, instituted night bus lines, and so much more,” Solar stated. “Give us more time to continue building this city. We are okay working with any of these other parties because at the end of the day we have proven we can act. All we want is to continue to work for you.”

Rov Ha’Ir, a party founded by people in their twenties in the last election, represents the second-largest party in the City Council. Their candidates are not publicly supporting either Huldai or Horowitz for mayor.

The debate got especially heated over the issue of housing. Efron (Ir LeKulanu) told the crowd that he and his wife were able to save up for a down payment on his then-$68,000 Tel Aviv apartment from working for one summer in the US when they were students. Today that apartment is worth nearly $1 million.

“I’m almost a millionaire,” Efron cried. “But I feel so, so sorry for you young people.”

Efron’s words touched a nerve with Sarah Groner, 26, an American-born Tel Aviv resident.

“It was like he was really speaking my language,” Groner said. “As an olah (immigrant) who has been in Israel for eight years, I see myself as Israeli. He really spoke to my needs as an immigrant and as an Israeli.”

David Cohen, 32, a native of Sydney who now calls Tel Aviv home, thought it was interesting that none of the candidates mentioned anything about issues that typically come up in developed Western cities.

“What was not discussed that would seem strange to an outsider?” Cohen rhetorically asked. “Exactly the issues that would be the top priority in a US city. Crime, dangerous or dirty streets, drugs, garbage collection, recycling, and city debt. We had a whole city council debate where none of the normal issues surfaced. Are we so lucky that these issues are not problems, or do the young olim really just live in a bubble?”

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