From activism to action

A woman with a social conscience, Laura Wharton is taking up the gauntlet for the elderly and the impoverished.

laura wharton 248 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
laura wharton 248 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Laura Wharton has covered a lot of ground in her years in Israel, living on kibbutz, moving to Jerusalem, a master's in Russian studies at the Hebrew University, becoming involved in social activism, and finally landing a seat on the city council. Wharton made aliya from the US after having visited Israel several times as a teenager and high school student. The New Jersey native returned for another visit after graduating from Harvard in political science. In 1984 Wharton finally settled in Israel, and her first step was to enroll in the IDF in the Nahal corps. She was posted in Kibbutz Kfar Blum in Upper Galilee as part of a group of new immigrants. Later on, she became a member of the kibbutz, where she lived for 10 years. During that time, she worked in agriculture, including the cotton fields, and taught English in the neighboring Druse villages. She got married and gave birth to her first child, a girl. In 1995 Wharton and her family left the kibbutz and moved to Jerusalem. She immediately became involved in social activism, working especially with youth. Meanwhile, she continued her education and obtained a master's degree in Russian and Slavic studies. "For me, it was a way to get to the root of the socialist ideas and ideals, to learn about the history and the development of those ideas based on equality," says Wharton. While she was studying for her degree, her son was born, and she began to work at the Davis Institute for International Relations at the Hebrew University. "It was then that I first met Ran Cohen and the members of Meretz in the Jerusalem area, who were all totally devoted to social issues and activism, and I joined them immediately," she recounts. It was in those years that Cohen worked on his public housing bill. Naturally, Wharton became a very active member of the team that worked on that law. She was especially active in the most underprivileged areas of Jerusalem, such as Rehov Stern. "I was very involved in all aspects of Meretz issues - the struggle against religious coercion, improvement of the relationship between Jews and Arabs in Israel, peace issues and, of course, social issues such as combating poverty." Wharton was named a Jerusalem delegate to the Meretz national convention and succeeded in bringing her social activism to the forefront of the party's agenda. Now Wharton is working on her third degree, a PhD in political science. Advancing from social activism to the local political scene, Wharton says it was clear to her that it was the right thing to do. "Jerusalem is very important for me. I love this city. A few years ago I had to move to Mevaseret for a short time, and it was very hard for me. I came back to live here as soon as I could. I live in Beit Hakerem, but the fate of underprivileged neighborhoods here like Rehov Stern is very important to me, and I will never stop being involved." Wharton adds that the haredi hegemony - though she admits that since the last elections things are improving somewhat - is a cause for concern. "Not because they are religious but because they have a tendency to take over and to strangle our culture." She says that her decision to run for a seat on the city council was the result of a brief internal conflict. "I decided that it was time to stop complaining about things I didn't like and to move into action." She is very glad to have done it and says that "there are plenty of opportunities to make a change." Laura Wharton is in charge of the disabled residents - in all aspects of their special needs, such as employment and accessibility. She also holds the portfolio for public health in the city, senior citizens and the special needs of the elderly. While she admits that she is just beginning to understand the magnitude of the problems, she points out the "large number of professionals in these fields working at the municipality who are a real support to my ideas and plans for the future." Wharton says that for her, after all the time she spent as a social activist with the leaders of Meretz, it is "more than rewarding to work side by side with extraordinary people like Pepe Allalu and Meir Margalit [veteran Meretz members on the city council] who have been like beacons for me over the years."