The last of Jerusalem’s Mohicans

Is it a paradox? Or a simple act of politeness?

Pepe Alalu with son Michael, who made a moving film on his father’s failed 2013 mayoral run as part of the Jerusalem International Film Festival (photo credit: Courtesy)
Pepe Alalu with son Michael, who made a moving film on his father’s failed 2013 mayoral run as part of the Jerusalem International Film Festival
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Whoever has been living in this city for the last 40 years or so can’t miss him – the long hair caught in a ponytail that turned from black to grayish over the years; the long beard; and the matchless Latino accent. He was, and still is, present at any protest, march or demonstration.
Pepe Alalu is a former head of the local Meretz branch, a former (for a very short period) deputy mayor and a former head of the opposition on the City Council.
Alalu retired a few months ago upon reaching his 70th birthday, but the last thing one can say about him is that he acts like a retired person. Almost always accompanied by his wife, Rosa, and despite some medical conditions he has faced in the past few years, Alalu is still here: activist, protester, engaged.
At the Jerusalem International Film Festival, which ended last week, one of the films presented in the category of local documentaries was a very moving film that his son Michael did on him, focusing on the story of Alalu’s failed mayoral run in the 2013 election against Nir Barkat and Moshe Lion. Forced to withdraw at the very last moment by the leadership of his own party (besides the rather low support of part of his own family, as presented in the film), Alalu finally scrapped his candidacy – and the rest is history.
On July 15, Alalu agreed to tell In Jerusalem his side of the story as related in the film, but more importantly, based on his long experience, to give his commentary on what is at stake in the city and what should be done to make things better.
“There are basically three major issues here: the haredi-pluralist issue, the Arab sector and the poverty among most of the residents,” he begins after sipping some of his cappuccino. “I think all three are parts of one and same problem – this city needs more, much, much more support, and some bold actions need to be taken to save it.”
A major component of Alalu’s political platform has always been what he calls the “fight against attempts of the haredim to win over the city and install their hegemony,” yet at the end of the screening at the Cinematheque last week, an impressive number of haredim – primarily but not only city council members – showed up and gave him a standing ovation.
Even in the film, the younger Alalu brought some of them in front of the camera, where they begged him not to resign from city council, calling him “the most honest political rival” they could ask for.
Is it a paradox? Or a simple act of politeness? Alalu smiles, sips more coffee and explains that beyond the struggles, the ultra-Orthodox know he has always honored them and never tried to deprive them of their rights.
“I just wanted to make sure they wouldn’t deprive me, a secular, Zionist Israeli Jew, of my rights,” he says.
Alalu adds that, contrary to what some people think or fear, “There is no way the haredim want us, the seculars or pluralists, out of Jerusalem. In fact, this is the last thing they want; they just want to ensure their needs, in housing, education, institutions. If we fail to ensure these rightful requests, they will do anything to obtain them through their political power.”
He admits that part of the rules of the game for haredim is to try to impose as much as possible of their standards as to how this city should look and behave, mainly in public spaces.
“I have always said that we, the secular and pluralistic sector, should never give up our rights for an open city, like on Shabbat,” he states, “but I have also always supported their rights to have decent housing and classrooms in their neighborhoods.”
It appears that the good personal relationships between Alalu and the haredim go even deeper: Before the 2013 election, when Moshe Lion was their mayoral candidate of choice, there was an attempt by haredi representatives to “help” Alalu’s candidacy in order to win over votes that otherwise would go to Barkat. Alalu refused to play the game, but this little story says a lot about the complexity of the fabric of the relationships between Jerusalem’s different sectors.
Despite all the efforts invested by his Meretz party, Alalu concedes that Arab residents have always refused to participate in the election process. He says he still believes in a partition of the city into two capitals for two states, but is adamant that until then, something has to change radically in the establishment’s attitude toward this sector in terms of investment, infrastructure and, most importantly, construction permits.
He disregards the figures showing a growing number of Arab residents asking for Israeli citizenship or Arab students taking the Israeli matriculation exam (bagrut) as signs of normalization.
“Of course that’s what they do – what other choice do they have? Without an Israeli bagrut, they can’t go to university. It doesn’t mean anything.”
As for the poverty of the city and its residents from all sectors, Alalu is not optimistic.
“It’s a shame how the governments treat this city, and as long as this does not change, the situation on the ground is not going to improve,” he says.
He predicts that Lion will probably replace Barkat and be the next mayor, and he doesn’t sound very happy about it (although Lion attended the screening and greeted him warmly). Yet he adds that the best candidate has to be “someone who really knows this city, who grew up here and knows the people and their real needs.”
“It can’t be just a stop on a political journey toward the next task,” he notes.