It is not often that you meet a man whose face has decorated the cover of Forbes magazine, and on whose office walls, hang photos of his smiling self next to a beaming Hillary Clinton and Itzhak Rabin.
Today I meet the thoroughly unconventional, groundbreaking mayor of Yoqneam, Simon Elfassi. A man who 28 years ago embarked on a journey to transform the tiny peripheral Israeli town, into an enviable success story.
Nearly three decades ago, Simon Elfassi introduced his ethos of fusing solid business acumen with a great social conscience, to the Israeli political scene. The mix saw Yoqneam flourish and rise from a failing town without prospects, to a highly desired location. It went from depending on a single factory (Soltam) and high unemployment rates, to a prosperous high-tech indutry as the number of residents grew from 5000 in 1993 to over 24000 today.
I meet Elfassi at his spacious Yoqneam office and begin our conversation by asking Elfassi to what he attributes his remarkable success. “Success is not an easy thing to explain” he replies with a smile, “besides, I am a modest man and not a boaster who blows his own horn. What I can tell you is that I am a man of action, I do not believe in moaning and complaining but in being pro-active and finding solutions to problems, that has been my motto throughout my life, from when I arrived to Israel from Morocco at the age of 16.”
Pointing to a charming photo hanging on his office wall, Simon proudly speaks of his late mother’s legacy of kindness and the impact it has had on his eventful life. “More than anything” he says fondly, “I attribute my success to my late mother who was a metaheret in the cemetary (washed dead bodies ahead of Jewish burial), she did it voluntarily as a mitzvah. I got my kindness from home, from my mum who always wanted well for others, she even wished my competitors well.”
Simon Elfassi is a legend among fellow mayors and Yoqneam’s own residents. Picked by Forbes as a top five mayor for his exceptional leadership and vision, Elfassi’s Yoqneam reign remains comfortably uncontested as he continues to enjoy sky-rocketing approval ratings. His astounding success at transforming the once failing development town (Ayarat Pituach) serves as an inspiration to fellow leaders, who admit to being in awe of the robust education system, world renowned high-tech industry and high quality of life.
“I have a creative mind and am creative in business too” continues Elfassi, “I had a number of commercial ventures before running for mayor and I did turn a few failing businesses into successes. Generally speaking I would say that I believe in taking risks but they have to be well calculated risks and you must always have a plan B” As Simon’s assistant brings in a distinctively Moroccan mint tea, Simon speaks of his unexpected venture into political life nearly thirty year ago.
“I never planned to be mayor” he explains, “ever since I can remember I always found a way to volunteer, I have taken on many unpaid roles but did everything voluntarily. I love giving even if I don’t have much to share. It so happens that in 1988 I was approached by several Yoqneam residents who urged me to inject my business magic into the struggling community. There was great deal of unemployment, the place was a terrible mess without proper provision and it was no surprise that people didn’t want to live here. I was asked to run for mayor but I felt inadequate in a way. I decided to go for it and in many ways, treated the failing town like a business that went of favour and needed rescuing.”
I cannot help but draw similarities between Elfassi and the newly elected US president. “like Trump” I tell Elfassi, “you come from a business rather than political background and like him, you were prompted into action by what you saw as a community in need of rescuing” Elfassi agrees with regards to sharing a solid, pragmatic, business approach with Trump, “I said it even during the election that I will run the town like a business, I told others and myself that I will not succumb to cronyism and that I will dare to do unconventional stuff, after all, I was building a town from scratch”
Elfassi’s vision was of a proficient and self sufficient town where people will aspire to live, “I didn't was to just import factories to the city in order to create jobs, I wanted a town that stands firmly on its feet. One of the first things I did was shut the religious school in town as it only attracted failing children.” Elfassi’s vision was “futuristic in a way, investing tons of money in education” and building a school system that would fully serve resident’s needs” and stop youngsters from travelling to schools in nearby towns. “I made a personal sacrifice too” he says, “with my own girl staying in Yoqneam to study in the newly formed school here, instead of going elsewhere”.
In a bid to draw people and developers into Yoqneam, Elfassi decided to “bring people from Russia” and in 1993, approached Itshak Rabin and asked for national priority in education and employment. “Rabin agreed and was keen to see how I will utilise his help, once I got the incentives we needed I travelled a great deal to convince high-tech firms to come here and it worked. The town has gone from 5 thousand residents in 1993 to 24 thousand today, with an award winning education system and after school provision.”
Is national politics the next step for Elfassi? “I don't think so” he replies, “Knesset is not a place where I can influence, In the Knesset you abide by whatever the relevant committee has decided (vaadat sarim), if there were a house of Lords in Israel I would go there. Also, I am not a person driven by a big ego, I don't want to stand at the Knesset and deliver a speech just so the world would see me as some kind of star, that will not have the direct impact on people’s lives.”
Elfassi is passionate about education and the conversation soon focuses on the struggling Ethiopian community which “no one wanted to absorb at the time.” Elfassi tells me of the greater Yoqneam community being worried about the danger of Ethiopians “driving house prices down”. Against public opinion, including protests outside his office, Elfassi decided to absorb 25 families for whom he secured new flats. “I slowly got objectors to see the beauty in helping the newcomers and soon after, 300 extra families came to Yoqneam. The municipality currently spends five times the education budget on Ethiopian kids in a bid to bring them in line with rest of society. “I didn’t want the Ethiopians to feel the discrimination and ill feeling we felt as Moroccans years ago.”
Holding a copy of Elfassi’s autobiography I share my impression of a harmonious town where religious freedom and sense of community reign.
“The way I see things” concludes Elfassi, “we as new Moroccans arriving in Israel, felt discriminated against. We didn't moan or focus on envy because this is not what brings change, its about what you do to avoid the cycle, its about you being the master of your own destiny.”