The green municipal garbage bin outside Mariam al-Hen’s family house in Lod’s poorest Rakevet neighborhood had long been a source of frustration for the college student, with garbage always strewn about outside. She even attempted to rally her neighbors to take care of the trash as a project for one of her college classes but that was short-lived.At the start of his tenure two years ago, Mayor Meir Nitzan also wondered why the neighborhood’s garbage never seemed to make it inside the bins. So he went to the people and asked. It turns out the children who were sent to throw out the garbage couldn’t reach the opening of the bins, so they just tossed it to the side. Nitzan brought in shorter bins and now, usually, says al-Hen who participates in a special student project – also initiated by Nitzan – volunteering with the neighborhood children, the garbage makes it inside.“You just have to ask the people and listen to them,” says Nitzan.
Two years ago, the city of Lod was repeatedly in the news because of a spate of murders, mainly in the Arab sector – constituting a startling 8.2 percent of all murders in the country – and residents confessed to being afraid of going out at night. In March this year, the police force of this mixed Jewish-Arab city with some 70,000 residents received a Ministry of Public Security award for being the best police station in the Central District.And that gives Nitzan, an appointed transitional mayor, reason to be proud as he sits beaming behind his desk, in his tidy office in the city’s unassuming municipality building, located downtown on the side of a shabby outdoor shopping mall. One of the first things he did was move his office there from the quaint historic building near the old city, where previous mayors had held court. All the administrative and managerial offices are in this building, and this is where he needs to be, he says.In his move to his new digs, Nitzan also got rid of some bureaucratic clerical employees and brought in people with managerial experience. “I need more engineers, I need economists… I need people in the field of education,” he says.Nitzan replaced reserve Brig. Gen. Ilan Harari, who served as transitional mayor for four years. The city’s transitional council was appointed by the Interior Ministry six years ago, when it ousted then-mayor Benny Regev, who was suspected, and later convicted, of accepting bribes.Now, every Sunday afternoon, the city’s police chief and the head of the municipal inspectors sit down together in his office and coordinate their work, says Nitzan.For some, like 30-year-old candy store owner Sawalhi Sharif, whose store does a fair business in the old city area of Lod, it means there are more tickets given out, and he grumbles about how a friend was given a ticket for jaywalking with his son; but he admits that in the past few years, he also has seen how Nitzan has been working to improve the city. He just wishes the man would go a bit easier on the tickets, he says.In the nearby landmark Abu Michel humus restaurant, owner and family patriarch Michel Abu Tabik, 68, gushes with praise for Nitzan’s tenure in office, which will come to an end in October, with municipal elections to be held in Lod for the first time in six years. He has seen many a mayor come and go in the city, says Abu Tabik – from the iconic Maxim Levy, who was much beloved by the Jewish residents and less so by the Arab residents for having gutted out parts of the historic old city where they live without rebuilding, to the disgraced last elected mayor, Benny Regev.“Nitzan is the best that God created. The minute he came to the city, he tried to move things. He speaks the truth and is a very honest man. He has only one interest and that is the residents,” Abu Tabik tells The Jerusalem Report.What’s best, says Abu Tabik, is that the crime rate has gone down.Indeed, Nitzan boasts that the last murder in Lod was in 2011; and four months ago, he says, the municipality facilitated a sulha, a traditional Arab conciliatory meeting, between two feuding families aimed at reducing tensions in order to avoid any bloodshed.Alo ng the way, Nitzan has also balanced the budget and has even come up with a surplus of 5 million shekels, which he invested back into the city, including infrastructure improvement. The formula was simple, he says – raising taxes and collecting municipal property taxes from people who never paid.He may not have the energy of his younger days, when he served five terms as mayor of the nearby city of Rishon Lezion, starting in 1983; but, shrugs the 80-year-old Nitzan, he does have life experience. And now, thanks to Lod, he has also read the Koran in Hebrew.Before he came to Lod, which is close to Ben-Gurion Airport, he knew little about the city and its illustrious history. Indeed, he says, at 8,000 years old, Lod is the oldest continuously inhabited city in Israel – older than even Jerusalem.It is also the traditional burial place of Saint George the dragon slayer, considered to be the patron saint of the Holy Land, as well as England and many other countries. Muslims believe Lod is the place where the End-of- Days battle will take place and during the time of the Mishna and the Talmud, the city was an important Jewish spiritual center regarded as “second to Jerusalem.”“I respect everybody here and I promise to leave something good. What they’ll do with it afterwards, I don’t know,” Nitzan tells The Report. He was born in Romania and was saved from being sent to Auschwitz by the advancing Soviet army. He arrived in Israel at 16, after spending time in a British displaced persons camp in Cyprus. A career army officer for 33 years, he has been married to his wife Naomi for 59 years.One of his main efforts has been in the educational sector and he has brought in educational networks such as ORT, the Rashi Foundation and the Atid Educational Organization to run schools in the city, helping also to free up funds from the municipal budget for investment in other priorities.For the long-neglected Arab Rakevet (train) neighborhood, this has meant the newly constructed and recently opened ORT Arab Science and Technology High School, which has the latest facilities, including a library, science labs and theater. The school, which had long been in the planning, was first opened in 2009 in the center of town and this year moved to its new home in Rakevet.Before 2009, there was only one Arab middle school in Lod, and no high school, notes ORT school principal Shirin Natour-Hafi, who was appointed principal of the school by previous mayor Harari. Now, there are two Arab high schools and one professional high school.Nitzan’s insistence that children from outside the neighborhood be enrolled in the school has also helped to break down prejudices and stigmas towards different communities in the city, as part of a way of creating a sustainable society, notes Natour-Hafi.“Before everybody was trying to get out of the neighborhood. Now people want to come to this school. With the support of parents, our goal is to turn this into a community school,” Natour-Hafi tells The Report. “Everybody is so pleased that suddenly after so many years of neglect, there is such a building in an Arab neighborhood.”Sometimes, when she doesn’t have anything to do, Al’a Eid, 12, likes to just come and sit in the wide open school courtyard, which hosts a school vegetable garden, simply to look at the new building. “It is beautiful,” she says. “We never had something like that in this neighborhood before. It is worth looking at.”It is impossible to see the results of having such a school in the neighborhood in just the six months it has been in use, or even in a year, says Natour-Hafi, but everyone’s fears that the grounds would be trashed and vandalized by the students and neighborhood ruffians proved unfounded.“We can see how the students take care of their school, how nobody pulls out the plants, nobody destroys school property. This is the result of a lot of hard work by a whole team, including ORT, the staff, the municipality, and a lot of good people,” she says.Though the plans of the school were in the works before Nitzan’s tenure, Natour-Hafi attributes its success and the improvement in general in the atmosphere in the city to Nitzan’s pluralistic and multicultural outlook.“He started a process here and I hope whoever is elected mayor will be able to continue that multicultural view,” she says. “When you see him, you see his respect towards all people and all religions. It would be a pity to lose all that momentum. Lod deserves it.”Inside the neighborhood, a short drive away from the school, Ziad Altouri, 35, sits with a few friends in front of a neighborhood kiosk whose front step leads right onto the dusty dirt road. “We pay taxes and municipal tax and look at the conditions of the roads here,” he complains to The Report. “The mayor hasn’t done anything. He brought money and underground sewage to the city but he forgot us. He brought his own cronies from Rishon, everyone is from the outside. There are only two Arab municipal clerks.”He charged that municipal workers were afraid to come into the neighborhood and he had to represent 22 families to fix a water pipe leading to their homes after it broke, and they were without water for three days.Some of the houses illegally built in the neighborhood, constructed without building permits over the years, have been demolished on the mayor’s orders and Ibrahim Yousef, 47, bemoans that they were not permitted to remain after being there for so long. “This entire neighborhood here was built without a permit,” he says, sweeping his hands towards the houses in front of him across the narrow road. “They were built out of necessity because they could never get permits,” he says.On the other side of town, Tommy Shay directs another one of Nitzan’s pet educational project – the educational organic farm. The project is run from the building of a former religious girl’s school and every week some 680 school children from 38 classes all over Lod come to work the land, plant, clean and create meals from their own harvest. The project’s staff represents a microcosm of Lod’s population and includes three female Arab teachers, three religious teachers, one teacher from a settlement, one local teacher and one kibbutznik. “The children see us working together and see that if the adults can get along, so can they. They see the reality of Jews and Arabs together,” says Shay, as he prepares for the afternoon’s classes. Originally from Ben Shemen, Shay was hesitant about accepting the offer to head his own educational farm in Lod, even though heading such a project had been a long-held dream of his. He admits that he had preconceived ideas about the city before he arrived.“I was quite nervous when I was offered the position. I lived for 23 years practically as a neighbor with the city but like everyone else I was influenced by the stigmas attached to the city,” he tells The Report. “The first time I came here, I was like everybody else who only knows that this is a terrible city. We usually don’t see its potential.”The farm has become a communal center for Lod and includes a theater workshop for mentally handicapped adults, who perform plays about the environment for the students who come to work the farm. There are also plans to create a community garden on the grounds and work with the Ethiopian community of the city, allowing them to grow their traditional crops.“In Lod we see a lot of difficult situations but they are trying to improve it,” says agricultural teacher Reem Aboshah, who is from the Arab village of Jatt in the Haifa area. “Here we see students who aren’t able to sit still and study come and understand the lesson. Here they have the opportunity to get up and work. And it gives them an opportunity for the future, they can work as farmers. I hope they will feel the treasure of the earth.”Six months ago, Laliv Sendner took over the helm of the Lod Foundation. A Ramat Gan resident, she describes Lod as a microcosm of Israel. “When you come to Lod, you find there is something about the city that makes you fall in love with it.”She credits the stamina and gumption of four local women for propelling the idea of community involvement in the improvement of the city: Mira Marziano, Yafit Khakin, Lea Steinberg and Fatem El-Zinati. Eventually their neighborhood quartet forum evolved into a group of 70 people, who joined forces to serve as a bridge between the residents and the municipality. The Lod Foundation has provided financial and professional support for the forum. Part of the work is getting the residents to take responsibility for their own neighborhood and in their own buildings, Sendner says.“With the failure of Ilan Harari, we knew we residents had to wake up and do something,” says Marziano, director of the Scouts in Lod.“When we succeeded in getting Mayor Nitzan in place, we decided to keep on with our work and we wrote a charter of what we really wanted to get accomplished. We developed a dialogue with different people within the municipality.”People in the community now also see the forum as an address for grievances and help, she says, and they have formed different committees to deal with various issues. They look into the schools, which need repairs, and which students need meals provided. “We see changes, it is not enough yet, but we see it going in the right direction,” says Marziano.One of their more recent struggles is against a planned move of the Central Post Office from its current location in a residential neighborhood to an industrial area, which will make it difficult for the poor and elderly residents to reach.Hopefully, Sendner says, Lod is finally getting the attention it deserves. “At some point, Lod stayed behind for many reasons.The government didn’t deal with it the way it should have,” she says. “Now I feel a very positive atmosphere with a lot of desire for cooperation with the foundation.”One of the projects funded by the Lod Foundation brings in jazz music teachers from the prestigious Rimon Jazz Music School in Ramat Hasharon to the city twice a week, providing classes for the 15 top music students from all sectors of the city. Another incentive brings businessmen to the city to meet with residents in the attempt to find business plans to support. Though sometimes, Sendner admits, it is like finding a needle in a haystack.The foundation also supported a government religious school with a large population of Ethiopians, and for the first year funded class trips for the students.All this is investment in the future of the city, she says. “We want these kids to return to their city. These programs are being conducted with a view towards the future.”Two years ago, during the summer of discontent and social protests, Nitzan rode the wave. He went to Tel Aviv and spoke with the protesters, urging them that if they really wanted to make a difference in society they should come to Lod. Yuval Bdolach, 28, the head of the social involvement department of the National Student Union and a selfdescribed “juvenile delinquent” during his youth in Jerusalem, took the mayor up on his word.Several years earlier, he had heard former Lod Foundation director Aviv Wasserman speak and had toyed with the idea of coming to Lod, but life got in the way and he put his plans aside for the moment. After receiving his diploma from the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, and speaking with Nitzan, he decided to link his future with the city one year ago. He brought with him a group of 30 other students who started renting apartments throughout the city, bringing with them their youthful energy and idealism.This year, there are now some 200 students from all over Israel participating in the project, he says, with 40 percent of them from Lod, including both Arabs and Jews, and they will hopefully stay in their city after they graduate.“We felt this should be the next project for the Student Union,” he says.Ideally located for almost any commute to any institute of higher learning and with low rents, Lod is in a perfect position to become a student city, he says. The students become part of the city community, volunteering their time and energy to improve the city through projects in informal education and civil empowerment, in cooperation with the municipality.“We want the students to want to help improve the city so they will stay here too,” adds Bdolach. “We are creating a community of students that they can be a part of for the rest of their lives.”Mariam al-Hen, 34, grew up in the Rakevet neighborhood and this year joined the group of students. She enjoys being part of the community and giving the children of her community opportunities she never had, she says, adding that there are 10 other students from the neighborhood volunteering in the project.Some houses in the neighborhood have been demolished, noted al-Hen, including some of her neighbors and they were relocated to a neighboring new neighborhood called Neve Shalom. Now the pathway to her home is wider and a new, if small, playing field has been put into place. Her brothers, who run a metal welding business making windows and iron bars for stair banisters and gates, on their own initiative made a couple of soccer goals so the neighborhood children could play.“I just hope nobody destroys it,” says al- Hen “It’s all a matter of awareness. A lot has improved in Lod since [Nitzan] came, but in our neighborhood a lot is still missing. ” Back at Sharif’s candy store, a middleaged Jewish woman walks in and makes her purchases. Originally from Tunisia, she praises Nitzan for his efforts in the city. There may still be pot holes in some roads, she says, but he has put in benches and tables around the city for people to sit and relax and enjoy.Yes, concurs Sharif in the end, “Life is good here. And we want to keep it that way.”