An MK, now a J'lem mayoral candidate who never expected to be in politics

"We are in very hard times in Israeli society; it is very tribal right now. We pretend that the other tribe doesn’t exist, that their needs don’t exist."

MK Rachel Azaria (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
MK Rachel Azaria
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
I see MK and as of today Jerusalem mayoral candidate, Rachel Azaria long before I get to sit with her. First, from the visitors’ gallery at the Knesset where I watch as she votes on proposed bills before taking to the podium to passionately defend her own bill. Then she hurries through the halls in a purple dress and low heels, apologizing that she can’t sit with me yet. When she meets me in the Knesset members’ cafeteria, it’s 7:30 p.m. She has a headache and has not had time to eat.
“Hard to be an MK?” She half laughs, half sighs. “I never thought I would be in politics. It wasn’t anything I planned. I come from a very Zionist family, but not a political one.” Half-Tunisian, half-American, Azaria had always been active in social change organizations; Greencore for the environment, Mavoi Satum for agunot (Azaria was its director), but never politics. What changed? “I got married, had two children and suddenly, after everyone raised their heads after the Second Intifada, a lot of our friends began leaving Jerusalem. My husband and I sat down and spoke, we had to decide if we were going to leave, too.”
At the time, there was a haredi mayor and many young families wondered if Jerusalem was the best place to raise their children. “The feeling was that Jerusalem was pushing us out; every week another family left. We decided to stay, but knew we had to work to make it better. I considered starting an organization, but people insisted that change comes from politics. Things such as after school activities, parks, culture, the types of apartments built, schools etc., these decisions are made by the municipality. Before I was a mother, I didn’t pay attention to the sidewalks, whether or not there was shade, if the streets were clean, or where the kindergartens were.” Suddenly, these things mattered.
“I was 29 years old. I took my savings and ran for city council. God knows what I was thinking!” she exclaims. “Asking people to vote for you is really putting yourself out there. It was the hardest thing I’d done in my life. I turned gray and lost seven kilograms.” Azaria’s campaign was based on cooperation between religious and secular people interested in a pluralistic city that catered to the needs of young families. She founded the Yerushalmim party and ran for city council. Then she encountered an unexpected problem. “Egged wouldn’t put my posters on the buses. When I called to find out why, the spokesperson at Cnaan Advertising [which handles the ads on Egged buses] said, ‘There are no girls on the buses.’ Just like that. Then he asked me who was heading the list. I said, ‘I am.’ Again he said, ‘But there are no women on buses.’ “I didn’t understand what he was saying. So, I went out to the streets and looked at the buses – and guess what? There were no women!” She laughs as she recalls an ad for a wedding hall, complete with tables, flowers, a huppa ... and a groom. AZARIA’S ASSISTANT comes to our table in the Knesset cafeteria with coffee and chocolate, which Azaria accepts with great appreciation and relief. I decline her offer to share.
With a little food and drink, Azaria is refreshed and continues her story. “We decided not to give in [to this reality of no women]. We went to the media to expose the issue, and they asked me to go to Cnaan with a camera to ask why they won’t put our ads on the buses. I was very reluctant. I didn’t want to get anyone in trouble, but it was important so I did it. The agency said that they don’t show women because ‘they [extremists] burn down our buses.’ This went on the news. After the video came out, I called and apologized for recording the representative, but he thanked me! He thanked me because he hated doing it. I’ve found this a lot. Many people are against the actions of extremists, many more than actually speak out about it.” The case went to the Supreme Court, with the hearing the day before elections. “One of the judges asked the representative why they wouldn’t show the poster. He replied, ‘I’m willing to have it anywhere she wants! Tel Aviv, Ashdod, anywhere!’ The judge said, ‘But she’s running in Jerusalem!’ When Cnaan claimed that the ultra-Orthodox would tear down the posters, the judge said, ‘Bullies can’t determine the public sphere. You must put up the posters.’ So they did. Since then, I’ve become very active in this. I went to the Supreme Court three times. Once for this, a second time for women being put in the back of the bus, and another when they tried to segregate the streets in Mea She’arim. Back then, in 2013, there was no law against gender discrimination.”
As a direct result of these fights, excluding women became illegal. Now the battles being fought in Beit Shemesh and elsewhere over similar issues have an established law to stand on. Azaria says that haredim call her to thank her for her work. They, too, do not like segregated buses. Some hate that their children are separated from one another, some women just want to sit with their husbands, and some men, for that matter, want to sit at the back of the bus and have a few moments alone without being told what to do. In fact, it was a haredi man who called to tell her about the proposed segregated streets. He knew he couldn’t fight it and that she could.
Azaria’s party was elected to the Jerusalem city council with three mandates. She became deputy mayor and was responsible for education. In addition, she worked to reduce the cost of living and improve work and city conditions for young families. Azaria was responsible for subsidized extended hours as well as healthier food in the nurseries and kindergartens. When Moshe Kahlon approached her and asked her to join his party for the 2015 run for Knesset, she was reluctant to leave Jerusalem, but she came to realize that the changes she made in Jerusalem were sorely needed nationwide and she accepted his offer. AZARIA’S MOBILE rings. She is needed in the plenum to vote. The end of the Knesset session is soon and everyone is trying to either pass bills or squash them. Every vote is important, at least to Azaria.
When she returns to the cafeteria, her assistant hands her sushi and shows her a picture she had taken earlier in the day of Azaria running through the halls, shoes in hand, to be on time for a vote. This is indicative of the Azaria I’ve come to know over the course of the evening. We schmooze for a bit so she can eat. I note that the haredi men near our table talking to a woman in tight pants and tank top is an unusual sight for this Beit Shemesh resident. Azaria is unmoved. She says that here you talk to whomever you need to talk to get the job done. It’s normal, she says, for the Knesset, which she joined in 2015, especially when trying to get legislation passed. “I work on religion and state. I’m in the coalition with the ultra-Orthodox and it’s not easy. I team up where I can with activists and other MKs like Shuli Moalem-Refaeli (Bayit Yehudi), Elazar Stern (Yesh Atid).You can always find people to work with. We stopped the mikve legislation (an attempt at control by haredi parties), we stopped the legislation trying to cancel the alternative Kashrut, we stopped the Shabbat law, which called for a punishment of a year in prison for opening a store on Shabbat. You need to form coalitions and find a common ground. Sometimes these partnerships are surprising, but it works. You can also find things about the issue that speak to people, like rising costs as a result of legislation that can get you a partner you didn’t have before.”
Azaria’s first two years as an MK were devoted to the issues she had tackled in Jerusalem: early childhood needs. “We did it first in Jerusalem, and then in the rest of the country, ‘Ki mitzion tetzeh Torah ,’” she says, quoting the line from the Tanach – Torah will come from Zion (Jerusalem). In fact, Azaria sees herself as the representative of Jerusalem in the Knesset. “I realized that no one is taking responsibility for Jerusalem. So, I decided that I would do it. The people and needs of Jerusalem are my first priority.”
And that is what she does, most recently in the area of church-owned property. In Jerusalem, a large chunk of the city is owned by churches – mainly the Greek Orthodox Church – including the land on which the Knesset sits. These properties were leased from the church in the 1950s, via 99-year contracts, with the expectation that the lease would be extended another 99 years. However, over the past few years, in order to erase massive debts, the Greek Orthodox Church has sold vast areas of real estate to private investors and nobody knows whether they will renew the leases. Some 1,500 families live on properties whose future is uncertain. Yerushalmim approached Azaria for help. In response, she drafted a bill that states that the government has the right to confiscate any properties sold by the church after 2010 and compensate the new owner. “It’s unthinkable that people who thought they owned their homes might lose them. Many of them are elderly and don’t have money. This is a humanitarian issue.” The bill passed its first reading.
“Everyone realizes this needs to be solved. We are not going to let these people lose their homes or pay tons of money – we won’t let a few people own all this prime real estate in Jerusalem by exploiting this confusing history. They paid cheap prices because the deals are so high risk.” Azaria says that while this has been an issue for years, no one was dealing with it.
Other issues she is working on include neighborhoods and residents of Jerusalem in need of assistance, such as Ein Kerem. There, dozens of long-time Yemenite residents have been unable to purchase their homes for decades due to the land having been zoned incorrectly as “green space.” Now, with prices exponentially higher than they were when the government moved them there, they need a champion to assist them in purchasing their homes at a fair price. Azaria has taken this on. In the neighborhood of Kiryat Hayovel, major renovations are taking place that will see an explosion in population. Azaria is working to ensure that proper infrastructure and transportation is created before residents move in to avoid unnecessary difficulties.
RELIGION | IN JERUSALEM 13 Azaria chairs the Reform Committee and is a member of both the Security Committee and the Ethics Committee. The Reform Committee was created to make change in finance and planning and passes legislation that deals with banking and housing.
“By 2048, we are going to be the most crowded country in the OECD. All for good reasons – immigration and we love babies – but we need to plan for this by designing cities more like Manhattan, big parks, better urban planning.” Any chance Azaria would return to municipal Jerusalem government? Ever since Mayor Nir Barkat announced he will not be running for another term, many city residents have been beseeching her to run, she discloses, leaving the issue open.
WHEN SHE speaks of her work on the Ethics Committee, Azaria is frustrated. “We see that things are falling apart. The more radical you are, the more you’re in the press. So, people who say crazy things, or yell, they are popular and in the news, even if they aren’t doing any work. We’ve become more strict on the committee. The laws were always there, but they’d never really needed to be enforced.” Recently, Oren Hazan was kicked out of the Knesset for six months for his behavior and two other MKs were also suspended. “I think it makes a difference. More would get done if people focused on their jobs and stopped fighting.”
She turns to the TV that shows a live feed from the Knesset floor. “Look, you see how they scream at each other? How they argue? This is how it is today. It used to be that people put the good of the country first and worked together. Now, we are in a cultural war for the soul of the state. In my family, we are modern Orthodox, haredi, secular, etc. It took us a while, but we finally realized that there is room for everyone at the table, so long as everyone accepts one another as they are. Once we realized that we weren’t going to change anyone else, we started to get along. That is what we need here [in the country]. We are in very hard times in Israeli society; it is very tribal right now. We pretend that the other tribe doesn’t exist, that their needs don’t exist. We need to stop hoping someone will disappear and make room for everyone at the table. Once you realize that no one is disappearing – even if you hate them – things can get done. We did it in Jerusalem and we will do it here, too.”