With a salary of over NIS 38,000 a month, a Knesset member – especially a single one with no children – could probably afford to live almost anywhere he or she wants, but a year after his inauguration as a freshman legislator, MK Itzik Shmuli (Labor) is bringing his ideology to life in Lod.
Lod, the mixed Jewish-Arab city only a 17-minute train ride from Tel Aviv, has long had a bad reputation for underprivileged residents and a high crime rate.
That didn’t scare Shmuli away, though.
“When I chose to stay in Lod as an MK, people raised their eyebrows and asked why I would live in an apartment block where the ceiling is crumbling,” he said.
“Lod is my compass. The simplicity of this place protects me. When I come home late every night from work and see the problems of Israeli society in my stairwell, I can’t forget why I’m in the Knesset.”
Shmuli recounted receiving a visit from Luba, a woman living in his building who immigrated from Russia 10 years ago, doesn’t speak much Hebrew and was threatened with eviction.
“She knocked on my door and said that she doesn’t know what to do. Some of the people in my neighborhood had their water cut off. I hear their complaints,” he said, explaining that as a result, preventing water stoppages to people in debt has become one of his pet projects in the Knesset.
Two years ago, as chairman of the National Union of Israeli Students which played an active role in the 2011 social protests, Shmuli, 34, launched the “Re:Lod” project, which combined finding affordable housing and creating community volunteer opportunities for students. Since then, he’s been living next door to a noisy elementary school yard – “I wake up to the national anthem every morning,” he joked – in an apartment block inhabited mostly by longtime Lod residents, immigrants and several students.
Sitting last week in his fourth-floor walk-up apartment, impeccably decorated with a bright-green motif, with Granny Smith apples on the coffee table, plenty of books, including a biography of Labor’s Zionist intellectual forebearer Berl Katznelson, and a fluffy white kitten named Zoe crawling around, Shmuli said his choice to live in Lod is about deeds, not just words.
“When I moved here, I was the only student without a shekel to fund the project, but I had an idea that it isn’t enough to talk about social justice, you have to act on it. We young people have to be the change we want to see,” Shmuli stated.
Today, there are 250 students participating in Re:Lod spread around the city in neighborhoods in which “the government not only doesn’t help, it doesn’t recognize their existence,” he said. He called the project “modern Zionism – leaving your comfort zone and entering one of the most difficult social cases in Israel to build a better society.
“We have achievements in personal security, education and culture,” Shmuli said, “but our biggest one is that people have hope for their city, that it can really be a place they are proud of. We can go from a crisis zone to a success story.”
However, government help is needed to make that transformation, Shmuli said.
“Students can bring Zionism and enthusiasm and a desire to make change, but we need the government.
Their intervention is sporadic, not regular,” he explained.
“The situation here isn’t stable. One of my battles is to put Lod on the national priority map. Our ‘no violence’ budget was cut, as were funds for education and personal security. Why? The city still needs it,” he stated. “We got attention in recent years, but now we’re out of the national priority map. It’s absurd that settlements were added, but Lod was left out. It’s just a wrong decision.
“Ideologically, I think the government needs to be responsible for welfare in a place like Lod,” Shmuli added.
Shmuli showed a clear love for the city and its people on a tour of Lod that he and NUIS Department for Social Involvement chairman Yuval Bdolach gave The Jerusalem Post. Stops on the tour included a park that was once a hotbed of criminal activity, until students began holding events like community picnics and pushing the municipality to landscape the area and install a playground.
Adjacent to the park is an apartment block housing a diverse population – Israeli Arabs, Russian and Ethiopian immigrants – whom students taught to start a “house committee” to solve infrastructure problems with help from donors and the municipality.
One project planned for the future is a “social café,” run by students, which will include a quiet study room and will be built in an old water tower.
“We should call it Café Shmuli. Or Café Buji – that’ll help me in the next primary,” Shmuli joked, referring to Labor leader Isaac Herzog’s nickname.
The MK expressed hope that Lod could become a tourist spot, showing off the Khan el-Hilu community archeological project, excavating an early Ottoman caravanserai. Nearby are a church – including the Shrine of Saint George that Christian pilgrims visit – a mosque and a synagogue, all housed in one building complex in the underprivileged Ramat Eshkol neighborhood.
The tour ended in Lod’s shuk, where Shmuli walked into Humous Sabahi, also known as the “Peace Restaurant,” which the MK said is the best humous in Israel. In fact, he brings some to his parents when he visits them every Friday night.
“Everyone comes here – Arabs, Jews.
We leave politics outside and talk about life. Everyone knows each other here,” Shmuli explained, then backing up his words by schmoozing with members of the Sabahi family and the restaurant’s patrons.
WHILE SHMULI helped students find affordable housing in Lod, he has plenty to say about the issue around the country.
“This government, especially [Finance Minister Yair] Lapid, is sure that change begins and ends with a headline. He has a press conference, a bombastic headline in the paper, and only after that does he think about the details,” Shmuli posited.
“I’m concerned that he wants headlines that end with nothing. Despite the headlines, there’s no solution and prices are still rising.
“Young people are at the edge of despair. They thought the big promise after the social protest was Yesh Atid, and they were led astray. They were sold something in a center-left wrapper that turned out to be ultra-right.”
According to Shmuli, the decisions to instate target prices for housing on land sold by the government and to cancel VAT for young families buying their first home show that “the government understands the current crisis can’t be solved only through the free market.”
However, Shmuli said the plans are “half-baked” and will raise the demand for housing even though there is already a 100,000-home gap in the supply. As such, he fears the current plans will raise housing prices even more.
“I’m glad to hear the socialist spirit entered the housing cabinet. It’s an important move, but we need more aggressive intervention by the government,” he added.
Housing isn’t the only area in which Shmuli’s time as NUIS chairman gave him ammunition to succeed as an MK.
He’s also uniquely experienced in fighting Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel, especially in the academic field.
Boycotts are not constructive, Shmuli said, because “it hurts all Israelis instead of criticizing a specific policy of encouraging settlements. I don’t think collective punishment is moral.
“It’s not effective, because today most Israelis support a two-state solution and understand that the necessary price for that is giving up territories,” he stated.
“Whoever supports BDS is hurting attempts to reach peace.”
Shmuli doesn’t believe in boycotting settlements, either, saying that “peace and normalization won’t come because of things like that. I invest my energy in other things.
In 2011, Shmuli was doing reserve duty in Kalkilya when the head of the NUIS international department called him to tell him the European Students Union was holding a meeting in Finland in which some of the member countries proposed to remove Israel from the group.
“Once I got there, I realized their proposal wasn’t fact-based,” he recounted.
“It was based on assumptions, prejudices and distortions. They ignored the fact that conflict is complicated. This isn’t good guys versus bad guys. We want to solve it too, and pushing Israel into a corner won’t work.”
Shmuli and his team managed to block the ESU decision, and then decided to work to increase student involvement in explaining Israel’s position abroad and fighting academic boycotts.
The Labor MK also recognizes a need for Israelis to learn more about what is happening abroad, and started this week by joining a Ruderman Foundation delegation to the US to meet with Jewish community leaders, his official first trip abroad as a lawmaker.
“Our connection with the Jewish community in the US is strong and unshakable, but the time has come that we in Israel ask ourselves what we can do for them and not just think what we can get from them,” he stated. “As someone who makes policy in Israel, I have to be aware of matters that concern US Jews, like rising anti-Semitism and Jewish identity issues, and see how I can deal with them in my daily work.”
One issue Shmuli found especially outrageous is treatment of non-Orthodox denominations.
“It’s unbelievable that in the US people are worried about keeping Jews affiliated, but in Israel, the Jewish state, Jewish people from the ‘wrong’ stream of Judaism are excluded because of the Orthodox monopoly,” he said.
Still, Shmuli said he went on the trip “to learn and listen, although I know that’s not in politicians’ nature. We usually talk a lot.”
That attitude is part of the reason Shmuli was nicknamed the “responsible adult” of the 2011 protests. Despite his passion for the issues, Shmuli always keeps his cool and his mild manner, speaking at a much lower volume than most of his colleagues.
The Labor MK said that “despite not being a blunt screamer, I manage to pass on my messages assertively without compromising on my truth by a millimeter.
“I wasn’t impressed during the protests or in the Knesset when people were populists and shouted, but had nothing behind it. I think one of the reasons people supported me… is that I bring a different kind of leadership to politics. I don’t yell at people, I explain to them and try to make them understand. I connect to the ideological side.”