Times they are a- changing

Pepe Alalu, a city council member for the past 18 years is resigning.

Pepe Alalu.
Last week marked the end of an era at Safra Square: Pepe Alalu, a city council member for the past 18 years, resigned – as he committed about a year ago to doing once he reached his 70th birthday.
After a short speech by Alalu, his replacement, Itay Gutler – a Labor Party representative on the joint list that Meretz leads – took his place at the city hall’s round table. As of now, city councilwoman Laura Wharton will lead the opposition as head of the joint list.
These are the simple facts, which in themselves do not reveal the drama behind the event.
Alalu is a kind of local legend, with his long, grayish ponytail and curly beard, his heavy Latino accent, and the no-less-heavy mistakes in his somewhat exotic Hebrew. He has been a leading figure at every left-wing political and social struggle in the city. On Friday afternoons, he could be seen at protests in Sheikh Jarrah and at Zion Square, demonstrating against the city’s actions and the country’s wars, speaking out on social and economic issues such as homelessness and families still waiting for the subsidized housing to which they were entitled. And of course, he has been present at all the protests against the purported haredi hegemony in the city or the Knesset.
Describing himself as a person comfortable in the opposition, Alalu has admitted that even during the short time he served as deputy mayor (during Mayor Nir Barkat’s first term), he couldn’t refrain from expressing opposition positions.
“I am an oppositionist by definition,” he used to say, half-joking.
At first blush, his decision to resign could be attributed to his age, with Alalu feeling that after 18 years of service on the city council and many years previously as a political activist, he has the right to say enough is enough and spend more time with his family.
Yet in reality, his decision will have an impact far beyond his personal sphere.
This is because, in some ways, Alalu has borne witness to many phenomena typical of the Holy City, and its varied attempts to make Jerusalem a place for all its people – religious, secular, Arab, Christian and Jewish.
Alalu was there in the early ’70s on the Hebrew University’s Givat Ram campus, working with groups of left-wing activists who characterized themselves as both Zionist and post-Zionist (even before this term was widely known); he always represented the position of a strong Zionist with a leftist, socialist bent.
He was also there at the large and violent demonstrations of the Black Panther movement as it burst out of the Musrara neighborhood, and was even among those arrested.
During the ’80s and ’90s, he was head of the Jerusalem District Union at the Histadrut labor federation, and as such, was present at every city strike and every struggle to obtain better working conditions for employees. But he gained most of his notoriety in the late ’80s and early ’90s, when he led the capital’s huge protests for the right to open cinemas downtown on Friday nights.
Together with the late Ornan Yekutieli, who led Jerusalem’s Meretz bureau, Alalu spent most of his Friday evenings demonstrating by the gates of the capital’s central movie theaters. Those efforts eventually led to the current situation, in which some 20 movie theaters operate here on Shabbat as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
Alalu was also the first city councilman who decided to put an end to the lack of classrooms in the Arab sector – and finally went to the Supreme Court over this matter during mayor Ehud Olmert’s second term (2000). Olmert despised him, calling him a “buffoon,” but Alalu was adamant about bringing the issue to the city council, and succeed in getting a favorable court ruling that to this day obliges the city to fill the void.
In principle, Barkat should have been Alalu’s top choice for an ally – a young, secular mayor dedicated to the city’s development. But Alalu, committed to being a true leftist and socialist, could not accept Barkat’s right-wing plans to enable Jews to reside inside Arab neighborhoods. He has nonetheless conceded that the mayor’s policies have resulted in quite a few improvements to the Arab residents’ quality of life.
Although Alalu’s departure will change the tenor of the city council, he has promised he will not rest – and that he can be counted on to attend the next relevant demonstration, wherever it may be.