In need of a major makeover

Can Lod, a dirty, poorly run, ethnically divided city with a 160-million-shekel deficity turn things around?

lod 88 248 (photo credit: Carl Hoffman)
lod 88 248
(photo credit: Carl Hoffman)
Drive into the broken-down, worn-out old town just a few minutes south of Tel Aviv, and you have entered another world. Step out of your car anywhere in the town's Old City and feel the somber despair of a place that has grown cynical from decades of politicians' unkept promises and a host of social programs and economic projects that have come and gone. Make a slow 360-degree turn and take in the dismal panorama of recently abandoned buildings, piles of rubble from structures abandoned 60 years ago, a few functioning shops with no customers, and an uncountable number of empty, weed-choked lots. What little color there is to be seen around here is provided not by flowers, but by plastic garbage bags that are either filled to bursting or have indeed burst, disgorging their grimy contents into the city's streets. Garbage seems to be everywhere; some of it even seems to sparkle as the washed-out afternoon sunlight glints off pieces of broken glass. Here and there, idle young men hang around the few open shops, smoking and sitting listlessly over empty beer bottles, their faces either sullen or vacant like the lots that surround them. This is Lod, a gaunt, grim city that has seen better days. However, if a smart and determined young man named Aviv Wasserman has anything to say about it, Lod will be a place with a much brighter future - bright enough, he says, to make it the envy of other communities in Israel. Five months ago, Wasserman, 34, founded and became "first among equals" of the Lod Community Foundation (LCF), a nonprofit NGO designed as a forum in which the leaders of all Lod's diverse communities can sit down and interact together, plan solutions to current problems and make decisions affecting their common future. Lod's great turning point in recent times came during the War of Independence in 1948, when the predominantly Arab city became almost completely Jewish. Perhaps not surprisingly, there are two distinct narratives, Jewish and Arab, about the events of that year. The Jewish narrative relates that Lod's Arabs, like Arab populations throughout Israel, were ordered by their leaders to temporarily evacuate the city, assured of their ability to return to their homes after the Jews were wiped out by the invading Arab armies. The Arab narrative insists that the Arabs were expelled from the city by Hagana and Irgun fighters, who then forcibly drove out all those who refused to leave. As disparate as these narratives are, they both agree on one point: In July 1948, upwards of 30,000 Arabs left the city of Lod, most of them for Jordan, and mostly on foot. They left behind a totally Jewish city, later to be augmented by impoverished new Jewish immigrants who came mostly from North Africa and the Middle East. The new Lod thus developed as a war-damaged city of poor Jews, later to be joined by even poorer Arabs allowed to return in subsequent decades. In addition, the establishment within the last decade of two new cities near Lod - Modi'in and Shoham - drew away much of Lod's stable middle class - veteran Israelis who came to Lod in the 1950s and managed to accumulate enough capital to move - leaving Lod among the poorest municipalities in Israel. Today, the city has 75,000 inhabitants. Of these, 65 percent are Jews, including veteran Sephardim and Ashkenazim, as well as Ethiopians, Russians, Georgians and Central Asians. The Arab minority, comprising 35% of the population, includes Muslims, Christians and more than 20,000 recently arrived Beduin. Lod has seen no fewer than eight mayors in the past 10 years, some sufficiently corrupt or incompetent to provoke the Interior Ministry's intervention twice to depose them and appoint non-elected officials in their stead. Characterized by a lack of both professional management and public participation in decision making - not to mention a financial deficit of NIS 160 million - Lod is currently unable to attract either a sister city abroad or financial aid from a Jewish federation in the US. This is Lod, a city with a rich past and a dreadfully challenging present. But while Wasserman may be tilting at windmills, considering the depth and magnitude of the city's problems, he has managed to accumulate enough experience to aid him in his quixotic task. Born and raised in Holon, Wasserman is a graduate of Tel Aviv University, where he specialized in law and political science, and holds a master's degree in public policy from the London School of Economics. He has served as director of the Human Rights Division at Ramat Gan Law School and as founder and first director of the Social and Economic Academy, an alternative institution of higher learning, focusing on contemporary issues through a distinctly left-of-center perspective. Wasserman was back in London, studying toward a PhD, when fate intervened. He recalls, "I got a phone call from the current mayor of Lod, who is an ex-general and an appointed mayor, who told me that he needs my help in Lod. I said, 'Okay, let's talk about it when I come to Israel on vacation. So I came on vacation, did my homework, learned about Lod, and discovered that it is an amazing place, with a very, very rich history and with huge potential. But I also learned about Lod's municipality. So I told him that I don't think you can develop the city through its municipality, and I recommended starting a new platform, a foundation, that would raise money and raise human capital to develop the city. "I told him that I had only one condition, that it would be a foundation for all the people of Lod - not for the Jews, not for the Arabs, not for the Ethiopians or Russians, but for all the different people of Lod," he says. Thus, the LCF was born. One of the first things Wasserman did was move to Lod and into a large and airy apartment that, he says, would be virtually unaffordable in more "desirable" places like Tel Aviv. The apartment currently doubles as both home and office for the LCF. Wasserman then spent three months first identifying and reaching out to the leaders of each community in Lod. "I told them my story. I told them that the municipality had no seed money for the foundation, and that the new foundation would thus be completely theirs. I told them that they would be the founders of the Lod Community Foundation. And since it would be a foundation for all the people of Lod, it would be up to them, the leaders, to sit and decide what are the common denominators for all of Lod's different groups." Now, there are roughly 100 people working for the LCF on a voluntary basis, each involved with one of five working committees. These committees are dedicated to the foundation's five immediate goals: improving education, especially educational infrastructure; advocating for welfare reform; fostering local arts and culture; renovating the Old City to attract tourists and generate income; and legalizing a sprawling illegal Beduin neighborhood and then lobbying for funds for infrastructure development. Wasserman acknowledges that some of these goals will be more easily attained than others. Culture, for example, is easy, and the foundation has already chalked up one modest success. Lod's Russian enclave, Ganei Aviv, lies adjacent to one end of the Beduin neighborhood. Until five months ago, Wasserman says, the two groups remained virtually invisible to each other, with little or no contact between them. "The first time they met was through the Lod Community Foundation," he recounts. "They have already started some initiatives together. For example, we have in Ganei Aviv a Russian dancing group that studies ballet and classical dance, and in the Beduin neighborhood a Beduin group that teaches their traditional dances. The two dance teachers, Russian and Beduin, met through the Lod Community Foundation, and they are now working on a performance together, the Russian kids with the Beduin kids, mixing the two dance styles." Dealing with the Beduin neighborhood issue, however, will be a lot more challenging. Muslim and Christian Arabs who had worked on the pre-state railroad were allowed to come back to Lod in the 1950s. Others trickled back in over the succeeding decades. The Beduin began moving up from the Negev into Lod at the beginning of the 1980s, attracted by the broad expanses of agricultural and pasture land both east and west of the city. First they pitched tents and lean-tos, then they moved into temporary houses. "In the last decade, they started to build real houses," Wasserman says. "But they don't have any sewage system here, or running water. It's only houses." A pungent odor of garbage and human waste drifts languidly through the area as Wasserman continues: "Some of the houses are big. But without running water, and having to dump garbage everywhere and dig ditches on both sides of every street for human waste, you have diseases in this neighborhood that you thought vanished in the 19th century. Four people from this neighborhood got Nile fever only this year. We're not talking about a situation involving just a few houses. There are 20,000 people here, and still the municipality doesn't recognize them or their leadership. This is Lod." Lod currently has one, and only one, bona fide tourist attraction: the Church of St. George. Inasmuch as St. George is the patron saint of not only England but Ethiopia, Georgia, Greece, Portugal, Russia and numerous other cities around the world, the church is a year-round destination for international pilgrims and tourists. However, these people visit the church with barely a glance through their tinted tour bus windows at the surrounding Old City. Giving visitors something to look at is essential for bringing tourism to Lod, but this will not be easy. Wasserman explains, "After 1948, the first Israeli mayor of Lod made the decision to destroy the Old City. Unlike Jerusalem or Jaffa, where they put new immigrants into the Arab houses, here they decided to destroy the Arab city. So what we have here now is only around 20% of what was here before 1948." A stark example of the Old City's current desolation is Khan al-Hilu, an Ottoman-period urban inn where visiting merchants found lodging for themselves and accommodation for their horses and camels while trading in Lod. Abandoned in 1948, the once-handsome stone arches now stand in ruins, silently reflecting the afternoon sunlight in one of Lod's iconic empty lots. "Khan al-hilu, which means 'the beautiful khan,' was the center of the Old City of Lod. It was surrounded by a crowd of very small Ottoman houses. This was all demolished in the 1950s. There was then a transit camp for new immigrants," Wasserman says. In recent years, the site became a haven for the homeless and a popular venue for drug addicts. As much as Khan al-Hilu symbolizes a sense of loss, however, it has also begun to embody a legitimate hope for renewal. In May 2007, the site was partially excavated by a team from the Nelson Glueck School of Archeology of the Hebrew Union College. The excavation, according to the Israel Antiquities Authority, was "undertaken within the framework of a public archeological project, intended to explore and uncover the city's past while serving as an incentive for bringing together Lod's multicultural community." Even more encouraging was that it involved the participation of five high schools, both Jewish and Arab, along with community leaders and activists. Wasserman wants to tap into that spirit, keep it going and enlist the aid of professional experts to recreate the Old City along the lines of Jerusalem and Jaffa. As with all such high-minded endeavors, one must ask where the money to support the foundation and its activities will come from. Wasserman knows that none will be forthcoming from the Lod municipality. "I got some seed money from friends of mine in London that I made through my studies," he says. "They said, 'If you are crazy enough to leave the London School of Economics and a full scholarship, the least we can do is give you $30,000 to operate for the first few months.'" More money from another friend in Israel and a small grant from a private foundation in New York make up the bulk of the Lod Community Foundation's income to date. Wasserman's longer-term plans include seeking grants from international organizations and governments. "I just hosted a delegation of foreign ambassadors and senior diplomats here three weeks ago. The European Union ambassador will be here two weeks from now, and the US ambassador is planning a visit here soon as well," he says. Wasserman is particularly determined to seek money from not only Jewish sources of philanthropy, but Arab as well. "This is something that is not done in any other city in Israel," he says. "If you really believe in a Jewish-Arab partnership, you cannot get all your funding from governments and Jews. You should get it from governments, Jews and Arabs." Wasserman has no delusions about the enormity of the task he has cut out for himself. "Realistically I think it will take at least five years to see a change on the ground," he estimates. "In each of the areas we will be working in, I'm not looking for an end result. I'm looking for a point that I call the 'point of no return' - that in this process we will reach a certain point when you can say, 'No one can ruin what we just did together.' And... I think it will take at least five years to reach those points of no return." Wasserman is optimistic, however, and believes that the stakes are high, and bigger than just the city of Lod. "What brought me here from London is my belief that you can really create a success story out of this city that people elsewhere will want to duplicate for other communities," he says. He even dreams of making Lod the European Union's main project in Israel. But considering the politics, along with all the other baggage that comes with the EU's relations with Israel, is that really possible? "Yes," he replies, "and I'll tell you why. Multiculturalism, economic development and coexistence are the main themes of the European Union in Israel. I think you will be able to find all those things here in Lod. I think that Lod can turn - and in my view, very quickly - into a model that can be replicated in other mixed cities in Israel and then maybe in the entire Middle East. Jews and Arabs, sitting down together and planning their common future together." If the LCF's efforts are successful, we may one day be able to stand in the heart of a revitalized city, proud of its rich past and confident about its future, and say, "This is Lod."