Changing the City

After Mayor Nir Barkat decided not to appoint her deputy mayor due to haredi pressure, city council member Rahel Azaria says she has no complaints.

Rachel Azaria 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Rachel Azaria 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
The way Rachel Azaria sees it, the whole kerfuffle around her (failed) nomination as deputy mayor has served her and even put her in a better position, politically speaking.
In her small office at Kikar Safra, a room surrounded by plasterboard walls – which she feels doesn’t provide her with the maximum amount of privacy she would like to have – she answered In Jerusalem’s questions not only about her recent experience but also about her political path, her frustrations and her plans.
Three weeks ago, what seemed like a done deal between Mayor Nir Barkat and Azaria ended in a farce, leaving the woman considered until then as the mayor’s most faithful ally alone in the arena, following a resounding refusal of the haredi members to accept her nomination as deputy mayor. Azaria, an Orthodox woman, has become a red flag in the eyes of the haredim, and the coalition against her gave rise to a very unholy alliance among the representatives of United Torah Judaism (haredi Ashkenazim), Shas and the National Religious Party.
The latter deserve special attention, since in many ways Azaria is part of this stream – Zionist and religious, educated, modern, yet observant. But in this case they preferred to join their traditional opponents, the haredim, instead of supporting her.
Meretz, the ones with the most to gain from Azaria’s failure, kept silent. And even if they did feel a little uncomfortable, they were very careful not to let anyone notice.
Barkat wanted Azaria as his eighth deputy mayor, there is no question about it. Veterans of the local political scene all agree that had he been a little more assertive, he could have imposed his decision. For many reasons, including some lack of experience in the political field, Barkat eventually withdrew and gave the title – and its accompanying salary – to Meretz leader Pepe Allalu.
Haredi opposition to Azaria’s appointment was a clear indication of who runs this city. How come after the last election, which brought to the helm a secular candidate, internal interests of the haredi parties forced the mayor to change his decision and renege on his intention to appoint a woman as his deputy mayor just because the woman disturbed them? And what does that say about the chances this city has of reaching the point where haredi, religious and secular residents will all be equally represented and work in mutual respect instead of using power, coercion and even threats? “By appointing me as his deputy mayor, Barkat would have sent a clear message – namely, that things have changed here, and that from now on haredim are partners, not bosses, of this city. The fact that it ultimately did not happen is a bad thing for Jerusalem, not for me personally,” she explains.
Aged 33, married and a mother of three daughters, Azaria, who lives in Katamon, was born in Israel to a Tunisian father and an American mother. She is a true representative of the typical local young religious families – Zionist, educated, struggling for more feminism, liberalism and equality in the religious world, devoutly religious yet careful not to be too easily identified by the way she dresses. Azaria wears trousers and short sleeves, and doesn’t cover her head during the week.
“I know that many young couples who live like me and my family love to live in Jerusalem because we have created some special codes here, as if you don’t have to flaunt your religiosity in order to be observant,” she says.
Yet she will always avoid physical contact with men.
Judaism and religion are major issues in her life “like so many other here in Jerusalem,” she points out.
Azaria went into politics about three years ago. She was involved in various activities of grassroots associations, including three years in an administrative position with Mavoi Satum, an organization that supports the struggle for the rights of agunot (women whose husbands refuse to give them a divorce). The decision to step into the political arena was not an easy one, but it was a strong and committed decision, which she made with her family’s advice and support, to be where “things have to change instead of standing in the distance and complaining” as she puts it.
While most of the attention is focused on her failure to overcome haredi opposition, she says that in her own way, which she describes as “quiet but effective,” she has managed to bring about a few considerable changes.
The story behind Azaria’s failed nomination is no less intriguing than what has been released so far. Azaria herself is very cautious not to say too much. One thing is sure – she has apparently learned a lesson on how to conduct political matters, and she is very careful not to sound too frustrated or angry.
“I’m looking ahead,” she says. “I look at what I did, in my own particular way, which means without too much publicity, and the record is not bad at all.”
Close assistants and sources at Kikar Safra who were aware of the details of the situation say that the first mistake was perhaps Barkat’s decision to use the opportunity given to him by the Knesset’s decision – that is, to have an eighth deputy mayor. Azaria agrees. “True, he didn’t really need it, and I certainly didn’t ask for it. I’m not here to obtain honors and a good salary,” says Azaria, who is a fellow at the Manel Leadership Institute.
She points out that while she supported Meretz’s coming back to the coalition – and Allalu’s nomination as deputy – she felt all the while that “we all missed the real point.”
But there was more. At some point, according to Deputy Mayor Itzhak Pindrus (United Torah Judaism), Barkat thought he would simply warn the haredi members that he would fire them if they continued to oppose Azaria.
“‘No problem,’ I said. He could fire me, fire all the members of the haredi parties, including Shas.
We made it clear that in such a case, we would create an alternative coalition and we’d see what would happen then. Don’t forget that we have 12 seats altogether – 17 with the NRP. Facing us are 13 members of various parties, most of the time not in good relations with each other. The fact is that Azaria is not deputy mayor, and that speaks for itself, right?” he says.
“I feel fine today. No frustrations, no bad feelings.
I’ve learned not to take things personally because I understand what I am doing here, what my task is. I have come to change some of the rules of the game, and I understand this is not going to be easy. The major issue is who is running this city? Could it be that after we succeeded in bringing out to the streets and to the voting booths tens of thousands of residents and brought a secular mayor to the city, it is still in the hands of the haredim? That is the major question. In fact, it is the only question that should be asked,” says Azaria.
Among her supporters, the feeling is that the old rules of the game are still in play. “It was a test case, and we all failed because they [the haredim] dictated their will, and they managed to bend the mayor. And that’s our problem,
not Rachel Azaria’s problem,” she says.
Azaria adds that although she personally supported and was glad to see Meretz return to the coalition, it is unbearable in her eyes that “even this was obtained through the will of the haredim.”
Asked what she thinks turned her, a religious woman, into a red flag for the haredim, she says she believes that they understood what she meant. “Until now, the rules were that haredim entered the coalition to obtain funding and facilities for their own issues. I, on the other hand, require their participation as equal partners. I’m not interested anymore in this useless thing, to throw them money and get their support and some quiet in exchange. I say that when you comprise about 20 percent of the population, you can’t just remain a closed society, minding its own business and not be involved. You have to become a real partner, and that means also admitting some facts on the ground. Like the fact that there are secular people in this city, and they have rights that must be respected as well,” she says.
“I say she is not a real religious person,” says Pindrus, the leader of the opposition to Azaria’s appointment. “I don’t have any problem with secular persons and their needs, nor do I have problems with non-Jewish needs that do not fit my way of life. I live in the Jewish Quarter [of the Old City]. The muezzin intones early in the morning, and neighbors have asked me to stop it, but I say, ‘No way. That’s their need. I am not alone here.’ But she hates us. She hates the haredi way of life. She is after us, she wants to change us, to wipe out our ways, our customs, our habits. But that is not going to happen as long as I’m here. It’s not that she wants to obtain things that suit her way of life; she wants to change my way, and I will never give in to that,” he asserts.
Asked to provide some specific examples, Pindrus mentions Azaria’s high-profile participation in the campaign against gender segregation on the buses and at the Western Wall.
“Of course I did that. I was and still am very much involved.
The Western Wall plaza is not a haredi location,” says Azaria with a triumphant smile. “What is this nonsense about segregation on buses? I was a prominent member of the public campaign against it, and that is the right thing to do, just as I tried hard to change the situation at the Western Wall. The national flags are back, the separation fence that was erected in the upper part of the plaza is not there anymore. You know how they operate.
They put it up one evening, like for the Tisha Be’av prayers, and then it just stays there for weeks and months. I am against it, and that apparently caused them to dislike me so much.”
Pindurs is not alone in his dislike for Azaria. Shas leader on the city council Eli Simhayoff says there was no way the haredim could accept her as deputy mayor. “She is a provocateur. She hates Judaism. I don’t believe she is really a religious woman.
She is worse in our eyes than a secular person. I don’t have problems with the secular. I was in favor of Allalu, who is not exactly religious. Why not? He respects us, and we respect him. But Rachel Azaria wants to change us, to change the status quo, and that won’t work.”
The mention of the term “status quo” almost shakes Azaria out of her calm state. “What status quo? There is no such thing anymore.
It’s time we realized it. It’s irrelevant to the situation today, and we have to act honestly and courageously and put things in their current real context. As for me, the Gavison-Medan covenant is what should rule, and I am acting according to it: culture yes, commerce no. [The covenant is a consensual framework for relations between observant and non-observant Jews.
The covenant covers several areas, from marriage and burial to the Law of Return and citizenship.] “So secular residents in Jerusalem want to go to the movies on Shabbat – we have to facilitate it, and at best we can see that some of these cultural events [don’t] violate Shabbat, and we all know that it is possible.”
And if it’s not possible? “We cannot prevent people from living the life they want to live. That’s out of the question. When we are in charge of things, we are responsible for all the residents. If we close some cultural institution on Shabbat, the only result will be that young, secular, productive residents will leave Jerusalem. How does that serve us?” I ask about her personal feelings, her personal experience regarding her non-nomination. Azaria walks on eggshells, admitting that perhaps her loyalty was misunderstood.
Asked if she feels she was taken for granted, she hesitates a second and then nods. “I do not regret that loyalty. It brought me a lot of results, but perhaps it was taken too much for granted, perhaps there is something that I should learn from and draw some conclusions. But generally speaking, I would say that I have remained the same woman I was when I arrived here. I do not flaunt too much, I am not a tough person, but I still get things done and create facts on the ground. I have passed the ruling to have an 11th month of kindergarten. It cost NIS 1 million. I have brought to the attention of the mayor the importance of all the Jewish renewal institutions that operate here. We have decided to look for a common place for all of them because we believe that this a message that should be heard here and sent outside as well. I am doing important things, I’m sure of it. The fact that people are not always aware of it is because I believe in doing, not announcing. But maybe even that is changing a bit.
Asked to give an example in which her presence made a difference, Azaria cites the field of education. As well as initiating the 11th month in kindergartens, she was instrumental in the opening of 20 kindergartens and three schools.
“Education is the key to keeping young families in the city,” she says.
Sometimes one vote in a municipal committee also makes an impact. “At one of the local planning committee meetings we discussed a project to build an elevator from the Western Wall plaza to the Jewish Quarter. Yosef Lock, the representative of the Gur Hassidim in the United Torah Judaism party was against it and I asked him why. Wasn’t it good to bring tourists to the Jewish Quarter? His answer was “No. In my eyes, it’s not good. As far as I am concerned, I’d like to see only haredim at the Western Wall and around it. So why would I need this elevator? It will bring secular residents dressed immodestly. I don’t need them.’ I asked Pepe Allalu to support the idea and Allalu said, ”For anything connected with the Western Wall area, I need to talk first with the Wakf.’ We passed the decision by one vote because Avraham Feiner, also a haredi, is handicapped and needs this elevator, besides my vote. So is it important that I, as a religious woman, sit here? Of course, it’s important.”
Asked to summarize the event, Azaria says that she sees it as a victory for modern Orthodox and secular residents. “Think about it,” she explains. “They were so terrified that they used their [strongest influence]. Do you realize that when MK and Deputy Prime Minister Eli Yishai landed at Ben-Gurion Airport, the first thing he did was meet with Barkat just to tell him that “Rachel Azaria will be your deputy over my dead body!” she says.
At the end of the day, haredim still hold the most sway with the mayor of Jerusalem.