Israel Elections: Yamina candidate Abir Kara is ready to step up

Abir Kara understands the unsung, hard-working Israeli everyman.

Yamina candidate Abir Kara exchanges fist bumps with party head Naftali Bennett (photo credit: ARIEL ZANDBERG)
Yamina candidate Abir Kara exchanges fist bumps with party head Naftali Bennett
(photo credit: ARIEL ZANDBERG)
When Abir Kara finished ninth grade, he saw a sign on his way out of school that he says changed his life: “‘Only those who attempt the absurd can achieve the impossible’ - Albert Einstein.”
Since then, Kara has been taking chances and succeeding against all odds.
Kara, 37, does not come across as an intellectual by any means. He shoots from the hip, smiles when inappropriate, and has a temper.
But the former horse rancher turned Waffle Bar operator turned protest leader understands the unsung, hard-working Israeli everyman in a way that made him one of the top celebrity draftees into politics ahead of the March 23 election.
Yamina candidate Abir Kara (Ariel Zandberg)
Kara established the Ani Shulman group on WhatsApp as a platform for self-employed and independent workers to kvetch about annoying bureaucracy and regulations that made their lives harder. Within three weeks, he had a Facebook group of 120,000 members.
The name of the movement came from a traditional Hebrew story about a baker in Jerusalem named Shulman who isn’t left with anything after everyone takes from him. There is also a story about a thief who leaves restaurants without paying, and when asked who will take care of the bill, says it would be paid by Shulman [a play on the Hebrew word “to pay,” leshalem].
“I have no money in my pockets, the authorities take it all/ A year and a half I am walking around with the same clothes/ I work like a dog and have no time to see the kids,” goes a rap-like song that became an unofficial anthem of the movement. “My friends call me Shulman. I pay for everything/ Shulman in Israel is always screwed/ You paid, you’re screwed/ There is nothing to eat/ We are all Shulmans when you think about it.”
In his first interview with an English-language media outlet, Kara says he intended to go back into business after he started that first WhatsApp group, but every time he tried, “the bardak [mess]” pulled him back in.
“The idea of the 2011 social protests was correct, but they didn’t work,” he laments. “The cost of living has escalated since then. The price of food and the price of housing have gone up, and doing business in Israel has gotten harder, with more regulation and more bureaucracy. It’s hard to run a business and make a living. For two years we have tried to change things. This is a volunteer effort, and we are changing Israel.”
Kara believes he can speak as a typical small-business owner due to his employment history.
“I was always a businessman,” he says. “When I was 13, I took my bar-mitzvah money and opened a flower stand, and opened several branches with my brother before I started the army. When I got out of the army, I opened a horse ranch, which I ran for 13 years. A few years ago, my wife and I franchised branches of Waffle Bar in Jerusalem and Herzliya, and also opened a pizza place. However, over the past year, I’ve left those businesses to focus all of my time on Shulman.”
As the pandemic began in March, the Ani Shulman group put together a massive grassroots volunteer project to help business owners navigate the confusion.
“I SAW THAT no one understood what was going on, and the people in government offices weren’t even available to pick up the phone,” he recalls. “So I gathered a team of volunteers and created a ‘war room’ to help people. We had 28 lawyers, accountants and consultants giving advice and help to anyone who sent us a message. We got 400 messages the first day, and since the situation began, we have helped more than 21,000 people with their banks, their taxes, bituah leumi [National Insurance Institute], whatever they need. “People can send a WhatsApp text to 050-797-7611 and get immediate help in Hebrew, English, French and Arabic. I don’t think Israel has ever seen anything like this, where people chose to get together and help each other out in this way.”
Now that he is entering politics, Kara vows never to become a politician in the bad sense of the word but to be a public servant. He feels this is needed more than ever since the coronavirus crisis began.
“Politics is getting things done by creating pressure,” he says. “Israel has not been helping people properly since last March. What is happening in the National Insurance Institute is tragic. The grants didn’t come because the workers in bituah leumi were on unpaid leave. The public needs to be able to call the government and get help.”
Prior to the official announcement that Kara would be joining Yamina, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wooed the Ani Shulman group in a meeting that stretched on for three-and-a-half hours. He could have received the Likud’s 10th slot but instead chose the seventh in Yamina.
Kara says he chose Yamina because he has voted for its leader, Naftali Bennett, for years.
“I believe in him,” he affirms. “When I think, ‘Who can run the country best and create thousands of jobs and put businesses up front?’ I think of him. He should be the next prime minister. I have the same views on diplomatic and socioeconomic issues. We can help people best in Yamina.”
Asked why Netanyahu should be replaced, Kara says the prime minister caved into pressure groups – such as the Histadrut labor federation – which he says have too much power in the ruling party.
“I was invited to enter Likud, but I said no,” he recounts. “The prime minister must be thanked for what he has done, but now is the time for Bennett. When someone fails, it is time to go home.”
Shortly after his decision to reject the Likud, reports came out that Kara had used strong language in the past against his opponents in the Ani Shulman group.
“I will put a grenade outside your door,” he texted one of them. He called another “a fifth column” and “a zero” and expressed hope he could meet him on the street so he could beat him up. He called another a “stupid traitor” and a “maniac homo.”
‘MASA PARNASSAH’: Rallying for workers and business owners in Beersheba this past week. (Ariel Zandberg)
Reports revealed that he received a four-month suspended sentence and 240 hours of community service in 2006 for swearing at a policewoman who was trying to stop him from putting up election signs in an illegal location. He also has been caught uprooting Palestinian olive trees.
Kara said the quotes came in response to threats he and his family had received from the activists, and that his errant behavior was a thing of the past.
He told Channel 12 that he is “not the queen of England.” He was later mocked for that statement on the satire show Eretz Nehederet on the same channel.
“This all started coming out when I entered politics, and it’s not coincidental,” he told the Magazine. “The Likud had threatened me that if I didn’t join them, they had a file on me. We took it into account and knew it would come out. When you go to the top, you absorb fire.”
Kara’s strong ambition for Ani Shulman put him at odds with some of the group’s other early members.
“WHEN I JOINED Shulman as one of the first members in October 2019, we were working together with an excitement that we were going to organize business owners together like a union, so we would have power working together instead of being weak like a bunch of friers [suckers],” recalls Jerusalem business owner Ilan Ben Harosh. “But Kara was acting very aggressively toward the other founders, and eventually got them all to leave.
“I also understood from the beginning that Kara had a connection to Bennett, and felt that it would be dangerous to bring politics into the group. We all thought this was a bad idea, but we felt a constant threat from Kara that if we confronted him, he might close up the entire group and ruin this great revolution of independent businesses. We didn’t want to risk it, so we left quietly instead.”
Shlomi Ben-Gur, another early Shulman member who owns a business in Jerusalem, agrees.
“Out of 30 original core people in Ani Shulman, only five stayed with him,” he says. “He acted like a dictator in a communist party, and led us along near the deadline, even though he closed a deal eight months ago with Bennett. Most of us wanted to create a new independent party, or alternatively, join the ruling Likud Party so we could have a powerful position. Instead, he sold us out for seventh slot in a medium-sized party.”
Kara downplays the criticism and says the overwhelming majority of the small-business activists are behind him. Besides Kara, the Ani Shulman group received the 18th, 21st and 23rd slots on the Yamina list. The party’s 12th candidate, Ashdod city councilwoman Stella Weinstein, is there on her own merit, but she was also active in the movement, as the head of a group of gym owners angry at their closure.
Though he has been promised an economic post, Kara vows to serve independent workers in the Knesset no matter what his role will be. He says he appreciates that other parties are releasing plans to help small businesses now, ahead of an election, but that they had their opportunities when they were in power.
“We will do what hasn’t been done for a century,” he declares. “No one talked about independent workers for 72 years. Yair Lapid had the chance to help independent workers as finance minister, and he didn’t. This is my passion.”
Kara says he has set out a number of goals for himself.
“First, I want to make Israel the No.1 place in the world for ease of doing business,” he says. “There’s no reason an Israeli should have to be a Superman or Batman to handle all the things that are required. Second, I want Israel to be No. 1 in the world for business profitability. Now, people don’t see any reward for their hard work because it gets taken away by taxes. It’s a natural thing that people should have the satisfaction of enjoying the fruits of their labor.
“Third, business owners should have all of the basic social rights. On my first day in office, I’ll make a law that independent workers are entitled to unemployment benefits like salaried workers. Finally, I want to reduce the cost of living and reduce regulation. Those things go together. If we make this a top priority, we can cut out bureaucracy very fast.
“Right now, we are 140th in the world in speed of assigning building rights, behind Iraq. We need to get out of this terrible place.”