Mayor Biton: Social warrior

Yerucham is in the midst of a makeover, transforming from a dusty development town into a small boom town.

Yerucham Mayor Michael Biton (photo credit: REUVEN CASTRO,MAARIV)
Yerucham Mayor Michael Biton
(photo credit: REUVEN CASTRO,MAARIV)
HAD A visitor come to Yerucham a decade or more ago he probably would have felt as if he had landed in a scene from “Turn Left at the End of the World,” a 2004 film about the cultural clash between immigrant families in a remote Israeli desert town.
The title is from the Hebrew expression meaning the middle of nowhere – a synonym for the desolate backwater “development” towns where new immigrants were dumped, and then ignored. They became part of the poverty belt in the south, afflicted by rampant unemployment and crime.
Founded as a transit camp for new immigrants in 1951, Yerucham was first settled by Romanians. Half of its current 10,000 residents are of Moroccan descent, with Indian and Russian olim comprising 30 percent.
For years the town was plagued with corruption and official neglect, and a generally terrible image. But Yerucham is now on the map for all the right reasons.
With its new boutique hotel, cafés, hitech and educational centers, and real estate boom, Yerucham is experiencing a revolutionary change in the way it is perceived by town residents, as well as outsiders.
Although small, it is rapidly becoming a boom town, a sort of oasis in the desert, increasingly much in demand by young adults moving south from all over the country.
“We’ve shown that even in a place that isn’t rich, we can have excellent education and great quality of life,” boasts Michael Biton, the town’s energetic and wildly popular young mayor.
Construction in the town is moving at a near frantic pace.
“We’ve sold everything that’s been built because we needed to expand further, even when the Housing Ministry didn’t help,” Biton tells The Jerusalem Report. “What it takes the state 10 years to do, we’ve done in three.”
After the town’s population remained in a deep freeze for generations, it now may double by 2022, which would make the town eligible for “city” status. Today, the road to Yerucham is a modern highway that takes the visitor less than half an hour by car from Beersheba, winding through a stunningly beautiful stark desert landscape.
In 2005, Yerucham hit rock bottom and ran into severe difficulties. Amram Mitzna, the onetime head of IDF Central Command, former mayor of Haifa and Labor Party head, was asked by the Interior Minister to “rescue” the town from a huge budget deficit bequeathed to it by the municipal council and its mayor, Baruch Elmakayes, who had been thrown out of office twice for graft.
Mitzna’s decision to take charge was remarkable.
He could have remained in the Knesset or made money in the private sector, but instead chose to help reconstruct an impoverished town that had been considered all but lost.
Mitzna was hailed in the media as a successor to David Ben-Gurion in taking up the challenge in the desert. But as part of the secular, Ashkenazi pioneering old guard, he faced considerable resentment from many Yerucham residents, traditional Middle Eastern and North African Jews.
“It was a bit of a problematic approach, appointing an outsider to lead the town,” Mitzna concedes today to The Report.
“What I learned going to Yerucham, after having been the mayor of Haifa for many years, was that the real threat to Israeli society is the gap between the levels in society, between the people living in the center of the country and those in the periphery. This is a real threat.”
Nevertheless, as caretaker mayor for five years, Mitzna not only narrowed the town’s deficit, largely by promoting donations from abroad, he increased the tax base and created tourism projects. He established the New Yerucham Fund and cemented what would become a very close relationship with the Greater Miami Jewish Federation.
“In most cases where there is an appointed mayor it’s a failure, but Yerucham was a success,” Mitzna contends.
However, he says, by 2010, “I felt it was time to bring in someone local.”
The “local boy” who won the election that year was Biton. Born in Yerucham 45 years ago, Biton is the youngest child of a religious family of 11 that emigrated from Morocco.
According to Leah Shakdiel, one of the town’s better-known residents, “the idea that Yerucham was saved by Mitzna is a misperception.”
A feminist scholar and peace activist, Shakdiel moved to Yerucham in 1978 with a small group of Orthodox youth committed to Halakha and social responsibility, who wanted to settle inside the pre-1967 borders. She later became the first female member of a local Religious Council, following a successful struggle that ended with a landmark Supreme Court decision.
“The most important thing that has happened here is the change of generations,” she insists to The Report. “The young generation of Moroccan men effected a revolution.
They decided to stay here and take on the responsibility of leading the town,” she states, citing, in addition to Biton, former mayors Moti Avisror and Elmakayes.
“They said, ‘We’ve heard so long that we’re no good, that we’re primitive, that our parents don’t know what’s going on. We think we know what we’re doing and we’re going to do it.’” Biton is something of a revolutionary.
At 17, he dropped out of high school, took off his skullcap and joined the IDF. Biton was featured in a 1991 documentary, “To Be an Officer,” which followed several officers course cadets. Interviewed in the film while serving in the Gaza Strip, he said he had no doubt Israel’s presence there had to end.
After his army service, Biton got a job as an au pair in the US so he could learn English and pass his matriculation exams. He went on to earn a BA and MA in organizational management and was accepted as a fellow in the prestigious Mandel Leadership Institute.
In his hometown, he became a wellknown community organizer, educator and head of the community center. He was also director of the United Israel Appeal (Canada) and Jewish Agency Beersheba Region.
Biton’s wife Ilana is a teacher and leads a Hartman Institute program in Jewish pluralistic learning. The couple has five children between the ages of 10 and 19.
When Biton was elected to head the local council, he’d already been active in establishing a number of nonprofit groups that brought real social change in Yerucham, such as the Atid BaMidbar Association for community change through Jewish pluralism, which runs projects that empower the local community. Biton won a second term in 2014 by a landslide.
Addressing the 2014 rally marking 19 years since the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, Biton spoke about social gaps as a security threat.
He described his mother, a cleaner, who once enjoyed excellent health benefits. “Today, no cleaner can even dream of those kinds of conditions,” Biton said, emphasizing that “the struggle for a just society must be more clearly connected to the struggle for peace – that one cannot exist without the other.”
Biton joined the Labor Party and spoke at the conference in Washington launching J Street. An outspoken dove, he’s called for bolstering the Israeli periphery instead of the settlements in the West Bank. Despite his views, residents from the religious- Zionist, ultra-Orthodox and Likud camps enthusiastically support him. The reason is simple – during his terms as mayor, Biton seems to have turned Yerucham around.
When Biton became mayor he discovered there were no nighttime emergency or ambulance services or doctor in the town. He managed to find a donor to fund a doctor and a clinic, then asked the government to fund the services. “There’s no point in complaining,” he comments, explaining that government money is barely enough to keep the town running, but private philanthropies and international partnerships provide all the “upgrades.”
Yerucham’s industrial zone is populated by factories of Negev Ceramics, Perrigo, Phoenicia Glass Works, Ackerstein Industries Tempo, and Agis. There’s now a restaurant, coffee shop, bar, a park, library, music center, sports center, covered pool, centers for young adults and the elderly, and a hi-tech center in the town.
The nearby 50-acre Yerucham Lake Park with its stunning man-made lake and a natural phenomenon, the Large Crater (Hamakhtesh Hagadol) attract tourists all year round. One indication that Yerucham is serious about capitalizing on its tourism potential is the Desert Iris Hotel, a just opened, beautiful, four star “social hotel” established based on a socioeconomic vision.
“This is the only one of its kind in the country, perhaps anywhere,” explains Eli Gonen, CEO of Terra Holdings, which manages the facility. Originally the concept of Mitzna, all the hotel’s profits, after covering expenses, go to the Yerucham education system. “Everyone is very surprised to hear about this. When we opened the hotel, something extraordinary happened to Yerucham,” says Gonen, who is president of the Israel Hotel Association and former director general of the Tourism Ministry.
Biton takes me on a walking tour around town, and since there’s still only one main drag, the distances aren’t great. He knows everyone, greeting them with jolly hugs and backslaps. Spotting two teenage girls lying on the grass in the park studying together, he insists they speak English to the visiting reporter. He shows me the new library and music center, where he enters a rehearsal room where a piano lesson is taking place.
The young teenage girl at the piano blushes, but continues playing.
“These kids’ parents don’t have money,” he says. “All these beautiful buildings – the State of Israel hasn’t paid for any of them – funders from abroad paid. I bring donors day and night,” he exclaims, standing under a portrait of Mozart.
At the large, central gymnasium, a national robotics competition is going full throttle.
It seems the entire town has gone crazy for robotics, and its local teams of various ages have been winning competitions around the world with their robots.
Biton pulls on a T-shirt with a robotics logo and joins the crowd of screaming youngsters, including groups of Beduin and ultra-Orthodox youngsters cheering on their teams. Everyone wants to have their pictures taken with him.
“We bring teams from all over the Negev of various ages,” Biton yells through the din. “These kids are being educated for the future of the world, but we need to create opportunities for them here.”
In fact, Yerucham has long defied conventional wisdom that educational failure follows wherever development towns are built. For decades, the town has been famous as the home of outstanding educational institutions, including one of the country’s most prestigious hesder yeshivas – institutions that allow young men to combine religious studies and military training in a five-year program. The boys’ yeshiva high school and the cutting-edge Kama religious high school for girls attract pupils from the entire region.
Almost all of the renovations and special projects in Yerucham are funded by foreign donors, who, Biton says, “have fallen in love with the town.” They include the JNF-US and JNF-UK, the Miami Jewish Federation and individual donors who wish to remain anonymous. Perhaps the most significant is Mort Mandel, the billionaire American philanthropist, whose name appears on signs throughout the town. The still active 95-year-old Mandel is co-founder of the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Foundation.
Mandel’s relationship with Yerucham began in 2004 when his company bought the venerable Phoenicia Glass Works bottle manufacturer, which was about to go under.
Sending 200 workers home could have been a death knell. Under Mandel, the glass factory was rehabilitated and is now profitable.
Biton relates that Mandel subsequently developed a close relationship with the town and the residents, investing in many educational projects, including a tech incubator, MindCET, for educational technology, and another hi-tech building soon to be constructed.
Suddenly, people from all over the country are yearning for a piece of land in the middle of the desert. In previous decades, only a few dozen housing units were built in Yerucham, but in the past few years 1,500 were built. In the lotteries for plots of land for building private homes, the number of bids is four or five times the number of available lots.
The town also offers subsidized housing and grants to university students willing to live in the town and volunteer in the community.
“If you want the town to become stronger, you have to have a core of young people,” explains Biton.
Part of the draw to Yerucham is the newly constructed, massive, military training base located just 10 minutes from the town.
Called “Training Base City,” or officially the Ariel Sharon IDF Combined Instructional Center, it has provided an incentive for career officers at the base to buy homes in the town. A neighborhood of private homes called Tzahala ‒ the same name as the northern Tel Aviv neighborhood originally set up to house the military brass of a previous generation – is nearly complete.
In a groundbreaking legal settlement, the local authorities of Yerucham, Mitzpe Ramon and the Ramat Hanegev Regional Council reached an agreement two years ago regarding the distribution of revenues from property taxes paid by the army for the training base. Biton had waged a fierce and ultimately successful struggle all the way to the Supreme Court to get the substantial tax revenues for Yerucham, rather than for its far wealthier neighbor Ramat Hanegev, which has far fewer people.
The training base also provides employment.
But not all Yerucham residents have a share in this new golden age. Unemployment is still painfully high, with at least one-third of the residents living in poverty.
“We’re adding many strong families, but we can’t forget the welfare families; we must reduce their dependence,” states Biton.
We sit in the Quality Time coffee shop and restaurant (in itself a recent innovation in the town) where he orders a salad – telling the manager that he’s on a diet.
“There’s injustice in this state and you need to fix it ‒ first to do the right job at the level of local and community leadership, and then to demand the right action of the government,” he says, delivering his philosophy while peering through thin-framed glasses. “Our message is that local people can do the work and do it in the best way.
Not only me, but my deputies and all the people on the council are young professional people. Without local leadership nothing will happen.”
Asked if the lingering socioeconomic problems in Yerucham are any different than in other “development” towns in the Negev, such as Ofakim or Dimona, Biton points to the situation throughout the country.
Israel’s economic policy perpetuates injustice in resource allocation, he says.
“We have two million people out of a population of eight million in the country who are below the poverty line. The state has a challenge, but we would like to lead on that. We’d like to give the kids of those families a better education, to stop their dependency.”
Not surprisingly, Biton has attracted the attention of people outside the immediate circle of the poor towns in the south ‒ politicians and the moneyed class, becoming known on the national and international levels.
“He has some very impressive qualities, personal magnetism and fascinating eloquence,” landscape architect Gilad Etkes, who has lived in the town since the early 1980s, tells The Report. A former Yerucham municipal architect and now a planner with the Beduin Development Authority, Etkes says Biton “is smart and knows how to touch people. He’s very ethical, and really thinks in terms of what he can give to society. Which is not to say he doesn’t have a healthy ego; but he knows how to harness it for public action.”
Last year, however, Biton’s popular image took a sudden plunge locally, when he decided to run for the chairmanship of Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael (the Jewish National Fund). He declared that he was running in order to get rid of incumbent KKL head Efi Stenzler, much criticized for his lack of transparency and waste of resources, but pledged that he’d still remain mayor.
Biton’s hometown residents were outraged.
“It wasn’t fair to think he could be a half-time head and half-time mayor – which is a full-time job. It was misusing the public’s trust and really made me mad,” says Etkes, expressing a sentiment echoed by many.
In fact, Biton came in second in the KKL race to MK Dani Atar. “Even if we didn’t win, we sent a message of transparency and effectiveness,” Biton now says defensively.
Mitzna had also advised him not to run for the KKL post. “I said it was premature. But I’m quite sure that in the next elections you will see him on the national level,” he states.
Hotel executive Gonen agrees. “I’ve seen him bringing investors and opportunities here. He’s doing a wonderful job. It’s true that he tried to appear nationally a bit too early, Yerucham needs him full time. But the fact that he was a candidate meant he suddenly became visible – and this was important.
Every party in the country needs someone like Michael in top positions,” contends Gonen.