Ripe for change

Asaf Zamir, the youngest deputy mayor in this country’s history, says change is possible – but only through greater involvement by ordinary citizens in the political process.

Asaf Zamir 311 (photo credit: Daniel Easterman)
Asaf Zamir 311
(photo credit: Daniel Easterman)
Asaf Zamir is an unlikely success story in Israeli politics. In 2008, at the age of just 28, Zamir – a virtual unknown in the political arena – achieved what many thought was impossible: His newly founded Rov Ha’ir (Majority of the City) party swept the Tel Aviv municipal elections and became a major coalition partner with the ruling party, and he became the youngest deputy mayor of Tel Aviv.
So how did a junior trainee lawyer without any formal political experience catapult himself to a senior position in local politics?
“I am a fourth-generation Tel Aviv resident,” he says proudly. “I love this city. Before we setup Rov Ha’ir, we were well-known in the city, particularly in the young arts and nightlife scene.... I think that we were successful because we ran a true and honest grassroots campaign focusing on the issues that matter most for young people in this city.”
But there was also a relatively novel element in his 2008 campaign that, by his own admission, was instrumental in gaining so many votes. The party’s use of social media, particularly Facebook, was revolutionary at the time.
“To me, 2008 was one of the most influential years for Facebook in terms of politics,” he says. “It was also the start of the presidential elections in America, Obama-fever, and everyone was optimistic about politics and the potential of social networks.”
By getting famous personalities and celebrities to support their campaign through YouTube videos that subsequently went viral, the party was able to raise political consciousness and activism, particularly for young people, to much higher levels than previously seen.
However, not everyone was entirely supportive of Zamir’s decision to give up a promising legal career and enter politics.
“When I said I wanted to set up my own party and run in the municipal elections, my father said I was crazy,” he confides. “During the campaign itself, almost no one official from the municipality wanted to deal with us – not because we were controversial, but because people thought we were basically irrelevant.”
As he has gotten used to life as an incumbent over the past three years and pushed through an ambitious policy program covering everything from housing and education to arts, culture and technology, it is clear that he and his party are anything but irrelevant. After witnessing firsthand the possibility of swift and dramatic change at the city level, the young deputy mayor has also partially turned his attention to the national drama taking place on Tel Aviv’s streets and throughout the country.
At the height of last summer’s social protest movement, Zamir, along with two other young political leaders, Ofir Yehezkeli and Ofer Berkovich, decided to found a new grassroots movement called Mitpakdim. The aim of the movement is to encourage Israelis of all political stripes to become more involved in politics by signing up for party membership – allowing them to vote in party primaries and have a say over whom the party puts forward as a candidate in the general elections.
“When the whole tent protest movement started, in a way I felt like I had jumped the gun,” says the deputy mayor. “I was a progressive voice already part of the establishment, if you will, and already in the business of governing as part of a coalition. Having said that, personally I felt that the social protest movement was not really going in the right direction. In my mind, the only way things can really change is if you actually become involved in the political system. This provides you with the legitimacy – and of course, the capacity – to decide how things will look. For all its faults, the system itself is in fact ripe for change for those who actually want to be actively involved in it. However, middle-class Israel has simply decided not to be involved at all.”
He continues, “The protest movement was so afraid of being labeled ‘political’ that they were not even prepared to say: Wake up! If we aren’t prepared to be part of the system, then the system will continue to do whatever it wants, as it is built in such a way that it will ‘feed’ the people who are part of it. The problem today is that the vast majority of citizens are not part of it.”
INDEED, THE current data of participation in party primaries make for depressing reading. While a respectable 65 percent of the population votes in the general elections, just 116,000 people (2% of those eligible to vote) are members of parties.
“If all of the 400,000 people who came out to demonstrate a few months ago in Hamedina Square would register for party membership, this would change the political map forever, thus changing the whole policy agenda of the country as a result,” Zamir asserts.
Despite his meteoric rise in local politics, for the time being, at least, he is happy in his current position and does not entertain any future aspirations to run for national office.
“There is still a great deal to do in the city of Tel Aviv, and I am already starting to think about reelection so we can continue to implement all the good work we have done so far,” he says.
In true Israeli fashion, he describes himself as a “doer” rather than a “talker.” Only time will tell if more citizens will heed his call and “do” by finally joining a party rather than talking – and invariably complaining – from the sidelines of the political arena.