Corridors of Power: Tough love

When the second intifada started and shots were fired daily from Beit Jalla into Gilo, Meir Turgman became an overnight media star.

turgeman 88 (photo credit: )
turgeman 88
(photo credit: )
City council member Meir Turgman has had a varied past. He was once a member of the fire department, and then quit to try his luck in private business. But after a few years as a restaurant manager, he became more and more involved in public life. He says that as far back as he can remember, he has always been committed to social issues, but the real turning point came when he became chairman of the newly created community center of Gilo. Soon after he was elected chairman of the city wide Community Centers Forum, a group without official power but which quickly became, in large part due to Turgman's ties with the local press, very influential. When the second intifada started and shots were fired daily from Beit Jalla into Gilo, Turgman became an overnight media star. You couldn't avoid him on the CNN screen each time the snipers of Beit Jala opened fire; he was always there. Then he became very close to venture capitalist and fellow city council member Nir Barkat, who discovered the community centers and their political power. Turgman was a big supporter of Barkat's entrance into local politics. Almost five years have passed and today Turgman and Barkat don't even speak to each other. Turgman was the major driving force behind the split of Barkat's faction in the council, a step which left Barkat with only two members and a uncertain future. You were once a member of the National Religious Party. How come you're not on their list? I am a religious Zionist, I have always been. But this is local politics, it has nothing to do with it. You tried before you met Barkat to get elected and you failed? Yes, it is true. I headed a list of Gilo residents, and I obtained 3200 votes. I needed at least 4000 to get onto the city council, but that was a first try and I received votes only from people from Gilo, so I don't see it as a total failure. Are you going to run again? Yes, of course. I am working hard already to create a new list that will be involved only in municipal matters. We're not into politics, we care about the citizens of Jerusalem, not high politics. When you say high politics, do you hint at your ex-chairman, Barkat? It's no secret that most of us, the elected and the public who supported us, did not want to be involved in politics on a national stage. People did not vote for us to jump into Kadima's bed. That was not their intention and they were angry with us. We, the elected, were not even asked about it, we just found out one morning that our chairman was the head of the Kadima bureau for the Jerusalem district. So what now? Are you planning to conquer the city council? I believe I have a list that will answer to the needs of the average citizens here: Traditionalist, not left and not right, not too religious and not too secular. I am optimistic. But your aim is only the city council, right? Of course, I don't even dream of the job of mayor. I am not suitable for that job. Is it also because of your famous temper? What temper? Well you know, people say you have a temper, that you are easy to anger and sometimes you even use non-politically correct terminology, like when you said to the general manager of the municipality that he treats employees like the Gestapo. This is not exactly what I said and in any case, you probably remember that I apologized. True. But you agree that it was not the first nor the last time you got really angry? Let me tell you how things work here. If I don't knock on the tables and raise my voice, there's no way things will be done. What can I tell you? In order to obtain what I believe is the best for the people I represent, I do not hesitate to get angry and let everybody around know it. You want to call it losing your temper, call it what you want. I would rather call it a real engagement for the citizens. People know that I don't mean any harm. Let's go back to your vision of the city council. Can you tell us more on this? Ask anyone around, they will tell you how many hours I spend here on public issues. I am here more than I am at home, and it's all as a volunteer. The municipality doesn't even reimburse me for parking. That's the law, you knew it before you came in. Yes, it's true. But when I see how so many of the other city councillors don't bother to show up, even for important commissions or the monthly city council meeting, let alone to be here and answer to the citizens, I go crazy. These people do not deserve to represent the citizens of the city. I think it's time to change the law and let city councilors be paid, or at least reimbursed for their expenses. Can you tell us about an achievement you have made lately? Yes, there was a group of kids in Har Homa (where I live) whose parents could not afford a summer day care program. They wanted to organize one in the school building in the quarter, but the principal refused to let them use the dwelling. I decided to help, and obtained the authorization of the head of Manhi [Jerusalem Educational Authority]. This building belongs to the city; nobody has the right to decide if local kids can use it or not. And yes, I had to be tough, otherwise it wouldn't work out.