Spirit of change

Opposition city council member Dalia Zomer has recently been championing a variety of unlikely causes.

jerusalem city hall 88 (photo credit: )
jerusalem city hall 88
(photo credit: )
From pushing for the acceptance of women as kashrut inspectors and drafting legislation that would equip every synagogue in Jerusalem with a Shabbat elevator, to bringing together a committee of animal advocacy organizations in order to better deal with Jerusalem's street cat population, outspoken city council member Dalia Zomer, 71, a representative of the staunchly secular Shinui party, is attempting to break the stigma attached to her party membership, while putting forward an agenda that some - even in her own party - might say is entirely her own. In Jerusalem caught up with her one afternoon in her municipal office. An only child, Zomer was born in Belgium to liberal Zionist parents who decided to move to Israel after Kristallnacht "because they didn't want me to ever experience the discrimination they did," she explains. Her grandfather set up the Zionist Congress in Belgium while his wife, Zomer's namesake, set up the women's forum of the Zionist Congress. Zomer's family arrived in Israel on the eve of the Passover Seder in 1939. Though she didn't celebrate the holiday that year, she now says with pride, "To this day I celebrate Passover as my own personal Freedom Festival." Zomer's father founded the league against religious coercion in Israel, and she sees herself as secular through and through. Yet Zomer nonetheless insists that she is a woman of deep faith. "My belief in the liberal Zionist ideal is what drives me," she declares. She maintains that she "ended up as a Shinui city council member by mistake." Her education and employment history would seem to support such a statement, since Zomer did a bachelors degree in the Sociology of Religion at New York's Columbia University and a PhD in Sociology at the Hebrew University before working in the field of public health and for the Labor Ministry. Yet she also admits that, "After the Yom Kippur war, like many others, I felt that I had to get involved in politics." First she worked with the Liberal Centrist Party (Mifleget Merkaz Haliberali) and then entered Shinui in 1985. Her interest in women's issues began when she was nominated to be in charge of the status of women in the Labor Ministry, and was furthered in 1997 when she attended the Liberal International conference - and ended up filling a six-year term on the board of the International Network of Liberal Women. As head of Shinui's Jerusalem office, she was number one on the list for the Jerusalem City Council. But she says she only agreed to the position "because it was Jerusalem. After having worked in the Ministry of Labor, I thought that working for a local council was a step down." Zomer articulated her platform in the May-June 2003 edition of Shinui's newsletter. She stated that, on the basis of the concept "live and let live," she wanted to see a complete separation between religious and secular neighborhoods in Jerusalem as a way to deal with many of the problems that arise between the communities. "The secular population pay the majority of the city taxes and the haredi population receives most of the social services," she wrote, insisting that "something must be done." She also expressed her dismay at the fact that no Arabs served on the city council and observed that if they were to be elected to the council, their situation would improve greatly. She also promised to increased tourism in the city by providing aid packages to vendors and increasing the cultural activities and nightlife in the city. In the same article, Zomer shied away from direct questions and explained that the four major topics she cared about were the rule of law; social equality; pluralism and multiculturalism; and Zionism. But nothing prepared her for the Jerusalem City Council. She explains that only after she was elected did she realize how much work there is to be done in Jerusalem. "We complain about government corruption, but local authorities are 1000 times worse, and Jerusalem leads the pack." Two and a half years after election, Zomer reviews her achievements in promoting the goals she articulated during the campaign. She says that she still believes that neighborhood separation is a good idea. "A lot of studies show that the 'melting pot' doesn't work. In fact, it can do damage. In a multicultural city, there is no reason why people can't live in the neighborhoods in which they want to live, and right now the only people that have that privilege are haredim." In terms of Arab participation in the municipality she replies, "I am embarrassed as a Jew at how bad their situation has become. Their situation would certainly improve if they had representation in the municipality, but it's too dangerous for them to come and vote." In terms of tourism to the city, she claims that much has improved since her election, both culturally and economically, and notes that the tourists are beginning to come back." But in fact, IJ pushes, Shinui has yet to further most of its goals. Zomer defends her party and deftly avoids the question. "People say that Shinui represents only the powerful and influential - that's not true. I try to fight for the weak." She claims that her interest in women's issues, animal rights, and religious affairs all stem from the same source. "I believe in freedom of religion and freedom from religion. Live and let live. Before I took this job I made a schematic list of who has no voice. Animals, trees, women, pedestrians, public transportation users, the elderly population, these are the groups that I want to help." She continues and says that she is primarily concerned about human dignity and representing those who have no representation, including Arabs and secular residents of Jerusalem. As a loyal member of the municipal opposition, Zomer, not surprisingly, puts much of the blame for Jerusalem's difficulties on the shoulders of Mayor Uri Lupolianski. "The job is too big for him," she says. "He is a very nice person. He smiles, he started Yad Sarah, but Jerusalem is the big leagues, and with all his good intentions, he doesn't live up to it." The next largest problem, she asserts, is that "the city council doesn't represent an important part of the city's population." She calls these people, "the rest," noting that fully two-thirds of the city's population is not Orthodox and is highly under-represented. Since the opposition only comprises one-third of the municipal council, it is difficult, she acknowledges, to form an effective counter-weight to Lupolianski's coalition power. One of the most important roles she has, she says, "is to make it difficult for the council to pass what they want to pass. But making it difficult is not easy for the weak opposition. "When something comes up that I find really problematic, my only recourse is to refer it to Attorney General Manny Mazuz or to the legal advisor or to the municipal or national comptroller. There are some issues that I simply do not have the tools to deal with. You should come to a city council meeting to see what it looks like in there. I am up against a lot." That is why, she says, she focuses on those whom she "feels she has the power to help." Hence her forays into the world of religious services, especially for women. "It is very important to me that religious services be given fairly. If certain laws exist, then they must be enforced. But they must be enforced equally for both men and women. Everyone should get what the law states." Unfortunately, she asserts, this is not the case anywhere in Israel, and certainly not in Jerusalem. "My role model is Moshe Rabbeinu," says Zomer with a sly smile. "He lived in a different world than we do, but he spoke about equality and justice. He admitted that it wasn't easy. But as we all know, in Judaism we have mitzvot that are easy and mitzvot that are hard, but we are obligated to do both. "As a nation, we don't like to do the hard work, but we must." Zomer's other pet projects include housing projects for secular residents of Jerusalem, making it mandatory for women to sign their ketubot (religious marriage certificates), and using the water from Jerusalem's many mikvahs (ritual baths) to water public gardens. "People from Shinui are always called all sorts of names," she says. "I don't pay them any attention. I stand up for what I believe in and get things done." Or at least, what she can get done.