After 31 years at the helm of the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, outgoing director-general Ora Ahimeir can genuinely say she has achieved her vision. "I wanted to create something more friendly than a bureaucratic environment in some ministry, a place where being a woman or a mother to a toddler wouldn't be considered a handicap," she says.
Ahimeir, an elegant, soft-spoken woman, can look at her achievement with satisfaction: The JIIS is a well-respected research institution, the atmosphere she has managed to create and maintain over the years is serious yet very congenial, and it is regarded by both its scholars and outsiders as a place where women are treated equally.
After three decades of managing this major institute, which she admits proudly to have molded according to her ideals, Ahimeir is handing over to a new management an institution that has become almost totally identified with her.
Besides being a rarity as a woman at the head of such a prestigious institution, Ahimeir has what one would call "an agenda." She has a feminist approach, she believes in listening to different voices and opinions - even and perhaps especially when crucial issues are at stake - and, above all, she believes that to achieve the best results, a research institution must be open and democratic.
According to Ahimeir, real research has to get to the bottom of things, to deal with reality.
"I don't believe in research done from inside an office, disconnected from the real world. That is why all our scholars are always out there, aware of all the facts and nuances. It was my credo. I always encouraged them to step outside, and I believe one can tell the difference."
She recalls the days preceding the elections that brought Ehud Olmert to the mayor's office, ending the long reign of Teddy Kollek, and reveals that she made a not-so-easy decision: "When he [Olmert] announced his candidacy, I phoned him and invited him to come here, to acknowledge the institute and to read some of the books we published here. I did it because I thought he had a chance of winning the election, and my role, as I understood it, was to give him all the tools this institute was able to offer any mayor - and he came."
The oldest of three children, Ahimeir was born in Jerusalem in 1941 and has lived here all her life, except for a few years that she spent in the US with her husband, IBA anchorman Ya'acov Ahimeir. She was born in the lower-middle-class Shmuel Hanavi neighborhood and was sent to study at the Beit Hinuch Leyaldei Ovdim, a stronghold of the Labor circles in the city.
"I come from a very socialist family, and my marriage to Ya'acov, who came from a revisionist family, was not easy to understand on both sides," she recalls. At 15, she got her first job as a secretary in an insurance company, a job she did after school and is still very proud of. "That way, I could help my parents out a little."
In Jerusalem met her on her last day as director of the institute, housed in one of the beautiful structures in Rehavia, for an overview of her time there, a summation that brought with it her personal insight into the city's situation and the hopes and difficulties that still lie ahead. Dressed in a black pants suit and a white silk shirt, subtly made up and wearing tasteful jewelry, Ahimeir took us into the office of the dean, Prof. Yehuda Bar-Simantov, graciously relinquishing the simple room that had been her office until two days before to her replacement, Meir Kraus, who was already busy trying to work his way into his new responsibility.
Who created the JIIS and why?
The JIIS was a result of Teddy Kollek's vision. He wanted to give Jerusalem an independent yet close and involved institution that would serve as a think tank for the Jerusalem Municipality and people, the kind that had begun to appear in the United States, especially in Washington.
What for exactly?
The Jerusalem Institute was modeled on the Urban Institute of Washington. Teddy understood that the municipality was too busy taking care of routine issues, sometimes even putting out fires, and he wanted to have people close at hand who would see things objectively, differently, or take a comprehensive look at the needs of the city - things the politicians could not do, among other reasons, because of their own interests.
So Teddy Kollek created an institute that was to deal with Jerusalem's issues yet stay independent and out of his - and any politician's - range?
Absolutely. That was Teddy's greatness. He understood that this city needed an academic, close and handy but totally independent tool to help him manage it. After a while Teddy's deputy, Meron Benvenisti, took it forward and brought the concept to fruition.
How did you get involved?
Meron hired me for the position. It was 1978, and I was just completing the three-year task of coordinating Ora Namir's Committee for the Status of Women in Israel.
What was that committee about? And what was your role?
It was a committee set up to discover what exactly the status of women was in Israel - and to propose ways to improve it. Later on, the committee became what is now the Authority for the Status of Women at the Prime Minister's Office.
What made you decide to leave that job and join the new and as yet non-established project?
I was offered the opportunity to stay at the Prime Minister's Office, but I wanted to work in a less formal place, one that would be women-friendly - where the fact that you were a woman or pregnant or the mother of a toddler wouldn't be considered an obstacle. Later on, dissent between Teddy and Benvenisti prevented the latter from carrying on with the project. It was Prof. David Amiram, a geographer from the Hebrew University, who created the institute and was appointed its first academic director, while I began to take over its management.
What were your plans upon entering your new position?
My principal interest in this new endeavor was to
give something valuable to this city. On one hand, I was given an exciting opportunity to create a place that would work according to democratic principles, a place where the employees would receive the greatest support to fulfill their potential - be they women or young scholars. But I also wanted it to keep that special local characteristic, you know, what we call "a Jerusalem flavor." I wanted a place that would have the typical Jerusalemite humility and would refrain from any politicization - that was my dream.
It was also a place where different political positions were legitimate. We didn't - and still don't - have any particular "political color" as happens so frequently in serious and important institutes here, and abroad as well. We didn't employ scholars only from the Left or only from the Right. It became known as the special tone of the JIIS. It also came out in our work: The results of our research on Jerusalem and its future always presented the widest range of possibilities and solutions. All the options were presented to the public, including the leadership.
In this context, it is worth recalling an incident from the days of Camp David 2000: Prime minister Ehud Barak put the city on the negotiating table, but realized that neither he nor his team had the required knowledge regarding the possible options for solutions in the Holy Basin of the city. An urgent phone call was made to the institute in the middle of the night, and the remarkable work of Prof. Ruth Lapidot, who conducted extensive research on that particular issue, was urgently requested by the prime minister's team.
Yes, this is true, I remember it. Dr. Reuven Merhav, our scholar who conducted the research with Prof. Lapidot, was invited to join the Israeli team at Camp David. At the institute, we worked night and day to prepare the papers needed. It was the result of nine years of quiet and discreet work on the issue of the future of Jerusalem. We talked, heard and listened to everyone, checked every proposal, every idea, every suggestion.
What made your work, the work of the institute, so special?
We always did our utmost to provide leaders with the best and most wide-ranging information available. We never took any position, never judged any decision. But we have always been here, with as many as possible answers and options. And it has obviously been appreciated.
Yet the JIIS does not make headlines in the local news.
We do not usually make a lot of publicity noise. It is a choice that has to be made: Either you want to be advertised or you want to influence. It doesn't work both ways; you have to make a choice. Our choice was, right from the beginning, to bring reliable and copious information and to influence at the highest level. That's what we have done here for years.
This institute was created by a legendary mayor, but over the years it has encountered other mayors. It was not always a pleasant encounter.
You are right. Ehud Olmert, who came after the 28 years of Teddy, literally went after us. He accused us, through the media, citing only the most extreme solutions for Jerusalem that we presented, neglecting to mention all the others we proposed.
Once a year, the institute publishes the statistics of the year in the city, and great emphasis is put on the figures of migration out of the city. Was that another cause of friction between mayor Olmert and the institute?
Yes, he took it as a personal criticism, which of course it was not.
Were there also attempts to freeze
I guess there were some attempts, but since Teddy built this institute in a way that guaranteed its independence, there was no harm. The institute is totally independent from the municipality. I think Teddy knew exactly why it was so important.
Was Olmert's period problematic also in terms of the daily work?
During all those years (from 1993 to 2003), the municipality worked in total harmony with us. It was a professional thing. Politics couldn't get in the way.
Who finances the institute?
Since 1981 a Jewish American foundation, the Charles H. Revson Foundation, has been our main source of funding. It was, again, Teddy's doing: He heard they were looking for some new and exciting project, and Teddy told them about us. He presented the institute as a breakthrough in this domain, and they agreed to finance us for one year. And then another year, and then another year, until now. They finance between 30 and 40 percent of the institute's budget; the rest is financed through special projects we propose.
What kinds of projects would you not approve?
We do not deal with issues that are not connected to the heart and core of this city. We do not deal with history, for example. What we are interested in are issues connected with Jerusalem's present and future, not history. Today we are also very involved in environmental issues in the city.
Under your leadership, what other kinds of projects was the institute involved in?
One of our major projects is the series of books on architecture by David Kroyanker. The books are not only highly aesthetic, but they also serve as an extremely important tool for the municipal engineer. They give important indications regarding what should be preserved and why.
How do you ensure that the many projects - embodied also in the many books - do not become irrelevant after a while? What makes these projects more than just another row of beautiful books on shelves?
Well, first of all, we have a steering committee that includes both scholars and researchers, and the representatives of the decision-makers for each project. I turn them into partners and thus ensure that the project will be implemented. But I also have never agreed to publish anything that was not based on the personal experience of the researchers. Every fact, every detail, every piece of information has to be examined first.
Take for example our latest publication, just printed this week - A Policy for the Preservation and Development of the Kidron Valley - the Visual Basin of the Old City (edited by Dr. Israel Kimhi). The researchers were in contact with the population in each neighborhood, on every street. They can tell you where the post office is, where the bus stop is, where the school or the kindergarten is. We also employ Arab researchers. It's part of our policy, and that's the result I wanted for our publications. It has become our trademark, and I am very proud of it.
Let's go back to the city's leadership. We have a new mayor since last year. Can you already make some comparisons?
Yes. Although I think it is still a little early, but we can see things. For example, Nir Barkat used to come here a lot when he was head of the opposition to talk to us and look at our books. It was obvious that he wanted to learn things.
That's very nice. But on the political level, has the institute become an enemy or is it still held in high regard by the new administration? In other words, is your independence still intact?
Oh, yes, I wouldn't worry about that. Of course, the mayor comes less since he was elected - in fact, he hasn't been here since. But that's understandable.
What would be in your eyes a decision that would show he has integrated your views?
I wouldn't put it that way. But one thing I can say is that the steps that must be taken regarding the Old City and the Arab part - it is urgent. We have presented our understanding - like the need to build and to whitewash at least part of the illegal construction there, or the imperative need to improve the level of municipal services there. After all, it is unacceptable that east Jerusalem should look the way it looks. We always said that it is important to strengthen the Jerusalemite identity of the Palestinians in the eastern part - and that is not something you achieve through discrimination.
Would you say that this mayor has the knowledge gathered by your institute in his mind?
Well, he has established a number of committees on which our people sit. And yes, some of his decisions were clearly born here; for instance, the metropolitan partnership. Instead of just talking about annexing the peripheral towns to Jerusalem, a plan that caused a lot of resentment toward his predecessors, he presented this project of partnership in the framework of a metropolitan complex, and it works.
The mayor has a representative on our board, Roy Folkman - and that is very positive.
What can you say about this new administration? Do you see it going in the right direction?
In my 31 years here, I have seen quite a variety of styles and ways of administrating this city. This one is certainly closer to the hi-tech style of management, but these are only questions of management styles.
What are you going to do now?
I will have time, at last, for my family - my husband, my two children and my six grandchildren.
What else do you have in mind besides the joy of family?
I am going to write a book. It will be a novel based on the history of my family, a story I have been busy researching for the past three years. That's all I can say for the moment.