Handing back the keys

When Amram Mitzna volunteered to be Yeruham’s appointed mayor in 2007, many saw it as a political gimmick to gain popularity.

October 29, 2010 17:00

Amram Mitzna 311. (photo credit: Ron Friedman)

At the end of November, Amram Mitzna will hang up his hat and step down. After five years of serving as Yeroham’s appointed mayor, he will turn over his post to a new, elected one.

Though it took slightly longer than the three years first scheduled for his term, his job is done. The town, and the town hall, have overcome the challenges that forced the government to install an external official and things are now in good enough shape for the power to return to the people.

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Light at the end of the tunnel

In a special end-of-term interview with Metro, Mitzna spoke about his time in Yeroham, what he has accomplished and what he hopes will happen to the town in the future.

Many eyebrows were raised when Mitzna first came to Yeroham in 2005. Two years after his loss to Ariel Sharon in the 2005 Knesset election, Mitzna, a former mayor of Haifa and a retired general, resigned from his seat in the Knesset and volunteered for the job at the request of then interior minister Ofir Paz-Pines.

Though Mitzna was adamant that he was doing it out of civic spirit, many saw the move as a political trick or gimmick to gain popularity and suggested that he would shortly be back among the national leadership. Some cynically said Mitzna was going to Yeroham to “atone” for his loss in the elections.

Five years later, even his deriders would have to admit that the move was neither a gimmick nor an attention-seeking ploy. For five years, Mitzna has been making the weekly Sunday morning drive south from his home in Haifa to his office in Yeroham. For five years he has been living in a small, plain apartment in the town. For five years he has been running meetings, making phone calls, greeting dignitaries, writing reports, attending events, all on behalf of the town and its residents.

In short, Mitzna has spent five years backing up the statement he made in his resignation speech from the Knesset, where he said: “I believe that in going to Yeroham I will contribute, through my experience, to the rehabilitation of the town, and at the same time provide an example and strengthen the volunteering spirit in Israel. I am full of hope that doing this will prove that retired generals, members of Knesset and former mayors can, and should, continue to contribute – not just in government and the halls of power, but also at the front lines, in the field, coping with problems.

“The reasons for [going to Yeroham] were multifaceted.

One was the lack of personal satisfaction and meaningful action as an MK. Another was the desire to be on the frontlines of social action – and there is nowhere like Yeroham for social action. A third reason was to better understand what goes on in development towns like Yeroham, to see firsthand where the country’s social gaps come from, and figure out ways to cope with them.”

MITZNA SAID that when he first arrived in Yeroham, he was met with open arms. The idea that someone of Mitzna’s stature, a one-time candidate for the most powerful position in the country, would come to their small desert town of 8,000 people to aid them in a time of real crisis, after decades of political infighting and corruption in the town hall, made him a welcome figure.

For a town that had experienced three decades during which power shifted between two candidates representing rival factions, families and neighborhoods, where the role of the mayor was to deliver favors and benefits to his backers, Mitzna, a man with no local history and no political alliances, was just what the doctor ordered.

According to Mitzna, the greatest accomplishment of his time in Yeroham was changing the residents’ perception of themselves.

“Today, more of the residents, I don’t want to say all of them, but a large portion of them, are proud to be residents of Yeroham,” he said.

A humble achievement, you may think, but for a place like Yeroham, it’s saying a lot. Yeroham, like many other development townships in the Negev, has long suffered from an inferiority complex. Far from the bright lights of Tel Aviv and the global magnetism of Jerusalem, Yeroham was for decades a symbol of the neglected periphery. High unemployment, negative immigration, crumbling infrastructure, low housing prices, struggling education systems all fostered a climate of dejection and low self-esteem among its residents. A successful Yerohamite was one who managed to leave, but according to Mitzna, that’s changed.

“Civic pride means that people want to live here.

There has been a dramatic shift from emigration to immigration. Families are waiting in line to come here. There is a 15 percent rise in registration for the schools. People who left are coming back, and people are coming from places like Jerusalem or the center,” said Mitzna. “Today Yeroham is perceived as a quality place to live.”

FOR MITZNA, education is at the heart of the change, and the youth of Yeroham enjoy a place at the top of his priorities. While he is willing to live with the nationwide trend of young people’s migration to Tel Aviv, he said he does all he can to get them to stay and link their fate with the town.

In a recent study conducted among Yeroham highschool students, 65 percent of the participants said they were proud to live in Yeroham, and 50% said they felt like they had influence and were listened to.

“We call Yeroham’s education plan ‘from infancy to academia,’ said Mitzna. “We take care of the whole gamut, from day-care centers to primary schools and high schools to young people’s centers for 18- to 35- year-olds. The results are that people want to stay.”

According to Mitzna, one of the town’s most pressing problems is a lack of available housing for people who want to come. He said that last month, 450 people participated in a draw to win the chance to purchase a house in Yeroham.

“In a couple of weeks we are approving a new master plan for the town. The plan is aimed at solving the housing shortage. It will take time, but we will build new neighborhoods and people will compete for them. For a place like this, that’s huge,” he said.

One of the main sources of new blood in Yeroham is the construction of a large military base on the outskirts of the town. Mitzna, after a lifelong career in the IDF, said that with thousands of officers and enlisted men moving to the south, together with their families, in the next three years, Yeroham is sure to see more demand in the future.

Perhaps the biggest challenge of keeping a place like Yeroham alive is providing jobs for its residents. Once a factory town, supplying manufacturing workers for two or three large factories, today Yerohamites work in a range of jobs both within and outside town.

“As far as unemployment goes, we are a happy medium. We are on a par with the national average,” said Mitzna. “Whoever wants to work will find a job.

It might mean that they have to drive an hour to get there, but people in the center stand in traffic for an hour too.

“In the upcoming year, we will open a new hotel with 50 units. There is a great potential for tourism in the town, and we hope to capitalize on it,” said Mitzna. “There are no hotels between Beersheba and Mitzpe Ramon, and if we play it smart, we can become a viable option for both local and foreign tourists.”

Mitzna’s plans to draw in tourists rest on the natural beauty of the area, its proximity to the large and small craters which are unique geological attractions, its man-made lake and the surrounding park, used for fishing, picnicking and walking trails, and a new offroad cycling park.

Mitzna’s achievements in his five years in Yeroham include practical things like the opening of a new girls’ middle school and a new yeshiva high school, the reopening of the town pool, the renovation of old buildings, the rehabilitation of Lake Yeroham and the construction of a new traffic circle in the center of town; but more important for him are the non-tangibles, like the town’s active cultural life and the cohesion among its residents.

“When I got here, I told the residents that whining and complaining achieve nothing. It used to be that if you’d put a microphone in somebody’s face, they’d immediately start expressing grievances and making excuses. That chases people away. If you keep saying you are poor and downtrodden, people will believe you in the end. It’s important to broadcast optimism and vitality, and people have come around to it,” said Mitzna.

One sector he is especially interested in fostering relationships with is American Jewry. For him, a strong link will benefit both sides. During his time in Yeroham, Mitzna has raised upwards of $20 million from US Jews, a sum that eclipses the NIS 15m. allocated to the town by the government.

But money is not the only reason he is interested in strengthening these ties. No less important for Mitzna is the religious and cultural bond that ties the Jewish people together.

“The State of Israel was created for all Jews, whether they live here or not. When I was mayor of Haifa, I nurtured the relationship with the Jewish community in Boston, and here I have established a link with the Jewish community in Miami. I convinced them to take Yeroham under their wing, and there is widespread activity between the two communities.

“Just last week, a delegation of youth came back from Miami. We have young people from Miami who live here and volunteer teaching English in the community.

The relationship is very important to me, and I think we in Israel don’t understand its significance sufficiently.

“We are shooting ourselves in the foot dealing with issues like “Who is a Jew,” and with our attitude to conversions and the Reform movement. We are cutting off the branch we are perched on – not just because of the money and the support, which are important in their own right, but because Israel’s legitimacy, strength and values provide assurances to many Jewish communities,” said Mitzna.

“I don’t think it’s right for us to tell Jews abroad that they should come to Israel. What we should do is create the quality of life here that will make more Jewish families choose to come,” he continued. “We need to create a reality where Jews will be proud of the State of Israel. Our decisions and actions heavily influence the lives of Jews abroad.“ On November 23, the residents of Yeroham will be going to the polls to choose a new mayor. Mitzna said that the political environment in the town today is one of healthy competition between people who really seek to benefit the town as a whole, and not the political factions of the past.

“My replacement will receive a functional and smoothly operating town hall. The municipal mechanisms are in good shape, the budget looks good, the jobs are all filled by professionals.

Whoever wins will have a fertile platform to work with,” said Mitzna.

However, he has no intention of making a clean break, and has repeatedly expressed his desire to stay on in an advisory capacity.

“I think it would be helpful if I retained some sort of role, and if I’m asked, I will do so gladly and, of course, voluntarily. The elected mayor’s job will be much more difficult than mine, if only because he’ll have to dedicate more of his time to politicking.”

As for Mitzna himself, he has no plans to return to his old position anytime soon.

“Politics is like a virus that you catch and never really recover from. It may lie dormant for a while, but it is never cured. The desire to change and influence Israeli society has always been inside of me and still is. The reason I don’t see myself going back to politics is because I’ve been there already, and know how the mechanisms work. As long as I am not convinced that there is a new path that I can be part of, I won’t go there.”

Mitzna said that he is still a member of the Labor Party and was even slated in the symbolic 112th place on its Knesset list, but added that he is not an active member and barely participates in party functions.

When asked if the party can be revitalized, he sounded skeptical.

“The problem is not the party, it’s the voters. In order to gain 20 Knesset seats, you need roughly 700,000 people to vote for you. Labor simply doesn’t have that kind of support anymore,” said Mitzna.

“At this stage, I don’t even know if a revolution within the party is possible. The Labor Party was always the big tent under which many different sectors could convene. Today people are being drawn to the extremes – the Arabs, the new immigrants, the religious – everything is sectarian. It feels like there is no more room for compromise and that rigidity is the only way.

“The Israeli public today, to my great sorrow, is apathetic to reality, both internally and externally,” said Mitzna. “It is a syndrome that comes from a complete lack of trust. There is no faith that problems can be solved, there is no faith in peace, there is no trust in politicians, the police, the courts, even the army is suffering from a crisis. The basic trust between one man in another is no longer there.

“When there is no trust, it becomes impossible to motivate people. You end up saying ‘F--k off to the world, f--k off to my neighbors, f--k off to social problems, I’ll take care of myself.”

“That [sort of apathy] is the most pressing issue in Israeli society,” said Mitzna, “and the only way it will change is if people start by changing their attitude, taking an interest in their surroundings and acting to make a difference where they can.

“That’s what I tried to do in Yeroham, and that is the legacy I hope will remain after I leave.”

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