Deputy Mayor Fleur Hassan-Nahoum excels at promoting Jerusalem, Israel

She is effervescent and energetic and forever dreaming up new initiatives that will contribute to the flourishing of Israel’s capital and its residents.

 Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Fleur Hassan-Nahoum (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Fleur Hassan-Nahoum
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)

She was born in London, raised in Gibraltar and has been living in Israel since 2001. Her name is Fleur Hassan-Nahoum. She’s a barrister by profession with an additional Masters degree in conflict resolution and she currently serves as deputy mayor of Jerusalem in charge of tourism and foreign relations.  

She is effervescent and energetic and forever dreaming up new initiatives that will contribute to the flourishing of Israel’s capital and its residents. She is the daughter of a Moroccan-born mother, who was a qualified nurse by profession, and a Gibraltar-born father, Sir Joshua Abraham Hassan, a lawyer heading the largest law firm in Gibraltar who could trace his lineage back to the expulsion of the Jews from Spain.  

His ancestors had gone from Spain to Minorca, and from there to northern Morocco and on to Gibraltar where their descendants have been living for some 350 years. Her mother, Marcelle Bensimon, was fearful that there might be complications in the birth because of her age, so she went to London for the delivery of her baby, and returned to Gibraltar with Fleur two weeks later. 

Although autonomous, Gibraltar is part of British territory. Prior to the mounting of a siege against Gibraltar in 1969 by Spanish dictator General Francisco Franco, who ruled Spain from 1939 to 1975, there was a constant flow of travelers between the frontiers of Gibraltar and Spain.

But Franco ordered the sealing of the Spanish border in 1969, a factor that Hassan-Nahoum theorizes may have led to radical reforms in Gibraltar, which had never had a mayor, much less a chief minister known elsewhere in the world as a prime minister. Her father was the first person to fill both roles after leading the struggle for self-determination and civil rights.

 Hassan-Nahoum welcomes Miss Universe contestants dressed by the Jerusalem clothing store, Haboydem, in December 2021. (credit: MORAN SAMUELOF) Hassan-Nahoum welcomes Miss Universe contestants dressed by the Jerusalem clothing store, Haboydem, in December 2021. (credit: MORAN SAMUELOF)

Hassan-Nahoum and her younger sister, Marlene Hassan Nahon – a member of Gibraltar’s parliament and the leader of the Together Gibraltar party – did not set out for careers in public service, but grew up in a public service environment, which rubbed off.

“All I saw around me is public service,” recalls Hassan-Nahoum.

In addition to treating the sick, her mother collected money for the poor, both Jews and non-Jews, who needed surgery but could not afford it. She contributed money herself, and approached the wealthier members of the community. While she never spoke of her success, the number of low-income people who were able to have the medical operations they needed testified to her fundraising abilities.

Hassan-Nahoum remembers the frequency with which people came to her father with their problems. He never turned anyone away, including those who came at three in the morning. He would open the door to them, standing in his pajamas, and invite them into the house.

The Jewish community of Gibraltar is almost entirely Sephardi. “If there were any Ashkenazim,” quips Hassan-Nahoum, “they were people who married into local Sephardi families.”

The Hassan sisters went to a Jewish school until they were 12 years old and then transferred to regular school because there was no Jewish high school in Gibraltar. But they received a good Jewish education, and a Jewish lifestyle at home, where their mother was more religiously observant than their father.

During her adolescent years, Hassan-Nahoum never felt any sense of gender discrimination, partly because there were no boys in the house. Her father had two daughters from his first marriage and two from his second, so there was no gender competition.

Although they grew up knowing that “we have an obligation to help others whose circumstances are less fortunate than ours,” their parents placed no pressure on the Hassan sisters to follow in their footsteps.

The only expectation was that they would eventually pursue university degrees in order to acquire a profession and a career. “We always knew that we were leaving Gibraltar to study in the UK, because there is no university in Gibraltar,” and Hassan-Nahoum chose to study law – not to please her father but because she was genuinely interested in the subject. There was never any pressure on her to return to Gibraltar to join his law firm.

This freed her to make the move to Israel, albeit not immediately. When her father died at 82 in July 1997, Hassan-Nahoum was 23, and after having graduated from King’s College, London, was doing her internship.

Six months later she met Adam Nahoum, a dentist of Indian-Iraqi descent. Two centuries earlier, his ancestors had gone from Iraq to India and had settled in Calcutta.

Following their marriage in 1998, the young couple decided that they wanted to make their permanent home in Israel, but wanted to make some money first, so that their initial years in the country would not be marred by financial woes.

They moved to Jerusalem in 2001. All four of their children, Josh, who is almost 20, Moriah, 18, Carmel, 15, and Zachi, 12, were born in Israel, and Hassan-Nahoum is proud of her “sabra” family.

Though practicing as a barrister in London, Hassan-Nahoum was always drawn to working for non-profit causes, and spent two years as campaign director for World Jewish Relief, a British-Jewish charitable organization that supports both Jews and non-Jews.

Arriving in Israel in the middle of the Second Intifada, and not yet fluent in Hebrew, Hassan-Nahoum realized that she could not continue with her law career without a complete familiarity with the Hebrew language and Israeli law, and that she would do better to focus on the not-for-profit sector.

She began working as a senior associate with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee humanitarian organization, which since 1914 has been helping Jews and others in distress.

She describes what she learned at JDC as “the best university I could have asked for, in terms of becoming aware of social gaps in Israel and the Jewish world.”

After six years with JDC, she began working in 2007 as CEO of the Tikva Children’s home, which supports abandoned, homeless, and abused Jewish children in the former Soviet Union, including Ukraine, and now also Romania.

As a member of the Jerusalem City Council, she deals these days with Ukrainian immigrants and refugees to ensure that they are treated in the most welcoming and dignified manner. She is full of praise for the Municipality’s volunteer unit, staffed largely by high school students, which during corona provided numerous essential services for the needy and for people who were housebound due to illness, age, lockdowns, or a combination of all three, and are continuing those services for arrivals from Ukraine.

As for what Israel’s policy should be in determining the number of Ukrainians to be admitted to the country, and whether those without any religious or family connections should be admitted, Hassan-Nahoum believes that fears that the country will be overrun by Ukrainian refugees are groundless. They can get much better conditions in Europe, she points out, aside from which most of the presently displaced Ukrainian citizens want to go home, and Europe is much closer to home than Israel.

From a legal standpoint, she notes that Israel and Ukraine have a visa waiver agreement, which means that there is no reason to deny entry to Ukrainian citizens. Israeli politicians are paranoid and parochial, she says, and given to exaggerating their own importance.

“We should not limit the number of refugees, because they have much better opportunities in Europe.”

Hassan-Nahoum surmises that those politicians who so strenuously object to the intake of refugees have not lived somewhere else. “To take in refugees is the right thing to do, and does not pose an existential threat,” she insists.

Harking back to her own arrival in Jerusalem, Hassan-Nahoum remembers the first six months as “a very scary period,” in which when dining in a restaurant, one figured out where the safest place to sit might be in case of a bomb explosion.

As a person who socializes easily, and is a very competent orator in English, Spanish and Hebrew, which she has mastered over the past 21 years, Hassan-Nahoum came to the conclusion that many Israeli not-for-profit organizations were not reaching their potential in fundraising because they were not putting across their message.

So Hassan-Nahoum founded an international strategic communications firm to teach people in non-profits to convey their messages effectively. She later expanded this service to include academics, with the aim of getting them to speak to non-academic audiences in a manner that they could understand. In teaching people from these sectors the art of public speaking, Hassan-Nahoum also got to know the world of innovation, which proved useful to her further along the line.

After 12 years of devoting herself to Israeli non-profits, Hassan-Nahoum thought that the time had come to enter the political arena, where she could be more influential in serving the public.

She became involved in Jerusalem activism, and in 2013 joined the Yerushalmim Party, which had been founded in 2008 by Rachel Azaria as a party of religious and secular membership, with the aim of making Jerusalem a more pluralistic and open society.

Azaria was elected to the city council in that year but left in 2015 when elected to the Knesset as a representative of the now-defunct Kulanu party.

Hassan-Nahoum subsequently became head of the Yerushalmim Party, but in 2018, Azaria, who already knew of Kulanu’s impending demise, announced that she would run for mayor in the next election. She returned to head the party, ousting Hassan-Nahoum from the leadership, thereby causing split loyalties.

Hassan-Nahoum opted to join Azaria’s rival Ze’ev Elkin, who was then a Likud member of Knesset and the Environmental Protection minister. Azaria eventually withdrew from running for mayor and joined Elkin in his campaign, which proved to be unsuccessful.

Although Elkin lost to present incumbent Moshe Lion, Hassan-Nahoum, who was No. 2 on Elkin’s list, gained a seat on the council. Lion named her deputy mayor and gave her responsibility for tourism, foreign relations, philanthropy, international economic development, business relations and diaspora affairs, all of which she takes very seriously, even to the point of inviting foreign diplomats to her Shabbat table in the capital’s Baka neighborhood. She loves having guests, and her guests enjoy meeting other Israelis whom they might not come across in the course of their duties. Moreover, the US Embassy under the direction of former ambassador David Friedman made her the go-to person for anything related to Jerusalem.

On the economic front, Jerusalem’s reputation as a historic but impoverished city that could never reach economic success was one of the challenges Hassan-Nahoum took upon herself. No one believed that Jerusalem could be part of the Start-Up Nation. Even the internationally known venture capitalists of Jerusalem were mostly involved with companies in other parts of the country. But Hassan-Nahoum and Lion each believed that Jerusalem could become the Silicon Valley of Israel, and recent developments have shown that their conviction was correct.

Her faith in the city’s ability to rise out of its economic abyss resulted in policy changes and a new ecosystem. The Abraham Accords were a boon in this respect. She was one of the co-founders of the UAE-Israel Business Council, and was the first Israeli political figure to openly visit Dubai and Bahrain, in December 2020.

Aside from making economic connections and facilitating contact between Israeli companies and those in the Gulf states, Hassan-Nahoum – an ardent advocate for gender equality – remains in touch with the high-ranking women she met in both Dubai and Bahrain, and helps put them in contact with their Israeli counterparts through the Gulf-Israel Women’s Forum that she helped to establish.

“Women from both sides want a better future for the region,” she said.

Hassan-Nahoum is optimistic that more countries in the region will join Israel as partners in confronting regional challenges such as water, food and cybersecurity. Through her close relations with Friedman and the US Embassy, Hassan-Nahoum understood that something was happening with regard to the Gulf States, but wasn’t quite sure about the what and the when.

Nonetheless, she adopted the Boy Scouts motto of “Be Prepared” and created an online business platform that coincided with the Accords, and within a few weeks there were thousands of responses from both the Gulf States and Israel.

Like the rest of Israel, Jerusalem suffered a debilitating blow in the loss of tourism during the two-year pandemic period, Hassan-Nahoum notes that the time was spent wisely in Jerusalem to build additional hotels and hotel infrastructure.

That was not all that Jerusalem built during and in the year before corona. The city began to look like a work in progress, as increasing numbers of high-rise apartments began to spring up in almost every neighborhood as the construction of a new entrance to Jerusalem continued. Many of the city’s inhabitants are opposed to this glut of construction, contending that it spoils the character of an ancient city.

Hassan-Nahoum, who favors antique integrity – namely, preserving the physical heritage of a city – and who fought a losing battle against the introduction of a light rail track down Emek Refaim in the city’s German Colony, defends the urban renewal policy of the mayor.

“You have to strike a balance between preserving the past and building for the future,” she says.

While she understands and even empathizes with the objections, she underscores that no other mayor has received as much government financial support as Lion, who as a professional accountant, can present the case well, and knows exactly on whom he can rely in the Finance Ministry and in the Jerusalem Development Authority.

“Lion has a unique talent for bringing in money from the government,” she states in a tone of admiration. While acknowledging that the current situation in which everything is being done at the same time is disturbing to the public, she is convinced that in two years’ time, when most of the construction projects will have been completed, the public will appreciate what has been done.

As it is, tourists are already coming back to the city. “Ninety percent of tourists who come to Israel, come to Jerusalem,” she boasts. “Before COVID, the figure was 4.5 million per year. That’s nowhere near to our potential.”

In addition to creating infrastructure for tourism, the municipality has been paving roads and sidewalks during the past two years, and this year will also focus on building public toilets of which there are a terrible dearth in Jerusalem.

Just after mid-2021, Hassan-Nahoum entered the race to chair the Jewish Agency. The position had been vacated by Isaac Herzog in July, following his election as president. Because his successor had to be elected by at least nine of the 10 members of the selection committee, and no consensus was reached, the Jewish Agency is still without a chairman, and candidates are frustrated because their time and efforts were wasted for what appears to be a hopeless cause, and a possible bid to keep acting chairman Yaakov Hagoel at the helm.

For most of the dragged-out period that led to naught, Hassan-Nahoum was quoted in various media as wanting to be the first woman and the first Sephardi to hold the post. As she is both, and has the experience required, she saw herself as an ideal candidate. But it was more than that. She is firmly convinced that the Jewish Agency, a significant organization in the modern history of the Jewish people, is in dire need of an overhaul.

“It needs to be more efficient and it needs to focus more on absorption,” she says, declaring that a third of Israel’s immigrants don’t stay. “Nobody talks about why they leave,” she says. “Our absorption services are not what they should be. As a Diaspora Jew by birth, I have a Diaspora mentality and can communicate Diaspora needs. I thought I could inject energy and new ideas into the Jewish Agency, and take it to another level to make it more relevant.”

Having missed out on leading the Jewish Agency, will she aim for becoming the first female mayor of Jerusalem? The way things stand, that would be an almost futile ambition, she says. Demographically, the haredi communities – which are unlikely to accept a woman as mayor  – comprise 25% of the city’s population and 50% of the voter turnout.

Yet in Beit Shemesh, which is very much a haredi enclave, there is a woman mayor. “Aliza Bloch gives us hope,” says Hassan-Nahoum, but adds in the next breath in relation to Jerusalem: “If they don’t let their own women take leadership roles, it won’t happen.”

The various activities mentioned here are only a fraction of the many initiatives and projects in which Hassan-Nahoum is engaged. How does she manage?

“With a very supportive husband,” who took on running the home and rearing the children while she was busy outside, though she always cooks for Shabbat, and there is household help. Her husband’s home management and rearing of children is not something she takes for granted, and she is highly appreciative.

“I really hit the jackpot,” she says.

She also thinks that it’s very healthy for a marriage to have a life outside the house, and she’s happy that her children can see what a woman can do.

Despite her extraordinarily busy schedule, she’s an involved mother and a fierce advocate for her children when she needs to be. “I tell my kids: you can do everything you want to do, but not all at the same time.”

One of the things she likes doing is cooking, which is why she cooks for Shabbat, and the food is mainly Iraqi-Indian with lots of spices, and a cholent that bears no resemblance to the Ashkenazi varieties. “I adore cooking,” she says, “but I don’t bake.” One of her daughters likes to bake challah, but when she’s not in the mood, Hassan-Nahoum buys her challah, cakes and cookies. Her mother hated cooking, so Hassan-Nahoum learned from her mother-in-law, who taught her the secrets of Iraqi and Indian cuisine.

Politically, on a national level, Hassan-Nahoum has been mulling whether to run for Knesset. She is a member of Likud, but she has a political Achilles’ heel – inclusiveness – that has earned her the wrath of some of the more radical members of the party.

If they are doing good things that are worth emulating, Hassan-Nahoum has no problem hobnobbing with Arabs, leftists and anyone else that other Likudniks might either avoid or attack. But as someone for whom national unity is important, Hassan-Nahoum, has no desire to enter another losing race after her experience with the Jewish Agency, though to run for Knesset would not be quite the same thing.

When weighing her options and deciding whether to do something significant for the city, the country and its people, her prime consideration will be what option presents her with the biggest opportunity to serve the people in a meaningful and influential manner. ■