Meet the new MK: Rachel Azaria

Kulanu’s Azaria is optimistic her party can cut the cost of living

RACHEL AZARIA speaks at The Jerusalem Post Wednesday afternoon. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
RACHEL AZARIA speaks at The Jerusalem Post Wednesday afternoon.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Name: Rachel Azaria
Party: Kulanu
Age: 37
Hometown: Jerusalem
Family status: Married, four children
Profession before becoming an MK: Member of Jerusalem City Council since 2008, founder of the Yerushalmim party, ran NGOs for social change, including directing Mavoi Satum, which helps women denied a religious divorce.

Why did you decide to enter politics?

I went into local politics because I felt Jerusalem was changing and all my friends were leaving the city, and we felt we had to do something about it. Someone from Green Course, an environmental organization I was very involved in, said the real way to make a difference is in politics.
I never imagined myself in politics, but I wanted to get the job done, and started Yerushalmim... Our goal was to make a change. We wanted to lower the cost of living for families in Jerusalem... I was [on the city council] for five years and worked a lot on this issue. Then, people started telling me I should meet with [Kulanu chairman Moshe] Kahlon, because we speak the same language, care about the same things. Once we met, it was clear that this could work, and I joined Kulanu.
What are the first three bills you plan to propose?
The main issue I want to deal with is to take the basket of expenses for a family and figure out what can be made cheaper. Childcare is very expensive here. Transportation is a problem – in other big cities in the world, people make do with one car, but in Israel, people can live in a major city and still need two cars because of the state of our public transportation.
There are also a lot of laws that were passed in the 1950s and still stand, and they need to be updated for today. For example, the way vacation days are determined. Back then, people worked in the same place from when they were in their 20s until they were in their 60s and gained vacation days over time.
Today, people work in a place three or four years and move on. Few reach a fifth year and gain vacation days. The employment market works in a totally different way than it did when the law was passed, and now it makes it difficult to have a family.
What was the most interesting experience on the campaign trail?
The issue of tribalism among Israelis was a significant issue in the campaign. I wasn’t surprised by it, because I dealt with it in Yerushalmim, but the force it had surprised me. Then I saw people who voted for Kulanu – young families with small children, older people, former Likudniks, Russians – there was a huge variety and that was very meaningful to me. It meant the tribal conversation changed.
This Knesset has a record high number of women and Israeli Arabs. How do you think this will affect the way it functions and the kinds of changes it brings?
I think the number of women grows from one Knesset to the next, and that’s a good thing. It’s a process that takes time, but things change.
I saw in the Jerusalem Municipality that people think and make decisions based on their past experiences... The more people from different parts of Israeli society take part in politics, the more their needs will be taken into consideration in the decision-making process. It’s very important that everyone be represented.
I was often the only woman around the table [in the municipality] and people would have proposals and I was the only one who realized they won’t work. It occurred to me that the men weren’t thinking about the other 50 percent of the population.
We’re a long way from having the right proportion of women [in politics], but it’s an ongoing process.
What is your position on talks with the Palestinian Authority and a possible Palestinian state?
I got into politics for social issues. If [talks with the PA] come up, Kulanu has a clear stance, which is centrist. We’ll support an agreement that meets four criteria: a united Jerusalem, recognition of Israel as the Jewish state, settlement blocs kept intact and for the Palestinians to give up the right of return.
However, social issues are at the top of our agenda. Socioeconomic issues are the challenge the Zionist effort has to overcome today. Every generation has a challenge – there was a generation that established the state and one that fought the Six Day and Yom Kippur wars... Now I think we have a challenge to make sure everyone gets to enjoy our strong economy. We have a very centralized, concentrated economy... That’s our biggest challenge and that’s why I will focus on it.

What impact do you think the tension in US-Israel relations will have on us in the next few years?
It’s very important to remember that we have a strategic alliance with the US and not break it, even if we have disagreements on the complex issue of Iran... I think Americans understand us and see us as partners. We need to maintain that, strategically, because there is a deep connection. The US was also established as a promise for a better life and the pioneering spirit is important in both the American narrative and in ours. The American dream is similar to the Jewish, Zionist story. It’s important not to forget that.

What should the government’s response be to growing global anti-Semitism?
First of all, around the world anti-Semitism is not legitimate and is seen as something that should not exist, on principle. I want people to come to Israel, but not because of anti-Semitism. I don’t think that’s a reason people make aliya. I want them to make aliya because Israel is a good place to live, and that is the challenge we have to work on now.
Do you support maintaining the status quo on religion and state – including issues like marriage, public transportation on Shabbat and kashrut?
For 10 years, I’ve dealt with issues of religious and state and touched on almost every related topic. The conclusion I came to is that the discourse was run by extremes. Orthodoxy says the country should be a certain way, and the secular people don’t want the rabbinate involved in their lives.
We haven’t heard what the silent majority wants; most people aren’t on the extremes and aren’t part of this discourse of a struggle. Solutions don’t come from fighting.
Disputes on religion and state won’t be won with a knockout...Think tanks can play an important role in finding solutions that suit our society.
It was good that [prime minister David] Ben-Gurion established the status quo at the time, but now we can deal with these issues, which are central to our identity and our narrative.
What can be done to lower the cost of housing?
Kulanu has a very organized plan. There is no magical solution, because the prices went up for a lot of reasons. Local authorities prefer to build office buildings, which bring in money, as opposed to homes, which cost them money, for example. The process from planning to building takes an average of 13 years, as opposed to two or three in other countries, and that extra time costs money.
The Israel Lands Authority has a monopoly. All these factors have to be dealt with together. Kahlon spent two years working on a plan that deals with all the different factors, and now we want the tools to implement it... We have to, because the situation in which anyone born after 1980 can’t own a home in Israel can’t continue.

What should the government do to lower the poverty rate?
There are two central groups among poor people. There are those who aren’t working, and we have to get them jobs. Then there’s the working poor. The cost of living is so high today that even if you work you can’t make ends meet, and that has to change.
The way to change it is to lower prices. We also need to create more mobility. Where you were born influences your ability to succeed – if you were born in the periphery, the state’s investment in you is much lower... There is very little social mobility. My father was born to a family of 10 from Tunis, and he has a doctorate – mobility was possible then, and today it’s less so. A society with more social mobility is stronger.

Is there something else people should know about you?
My father made aliya at age six from Tunis with a family of 10 children, and they lived in a ma’bara [transit camp] in Yavne. My grandfather owned a spice shop. At age 14, my father had to pass a test for the state to continue paying for his education – otherwise he’d have to go to work. He passed the test, but he couldn’t afford a bus to school and had to ride a bicycle. When his bicycle broke, he signed up for [agricultural boarding school] Mikve Yisrael. After that, he became a paratrooper, and got a scholarship from the army. He went to study social work at the Hebrew University, and that’s where he met my mother, who made aliya from the US at age 18. They both wanted to work to build a better society. I knew about social gaps from a young age, and I also grew up in a very Zionist home with strong commitment to Israeli society – that is my strongest motivation.
We must and we can make changes. Israelis like to say that politicians don’t do anything and nothing will change, but I did a lot in my seven years on the Jerusalem City Council, and I think I will do a lot in the Knesset, too. I’m optimistic.