Young, but experienced

No one took upstart faction Rov Ha’ir seriously – then it won 10% of the vote in 2008. What will happen in 2013?

The Rov Ha’ir line-up (photo credit: Courtesy)
The Rov Ha’ir line-up
(photo credit: Courtesy)
At first glance it looks like the offices of a young, hip start-up – entirely plausible considering this is Tel Aviv, the Silicon Valley of the Middle East. Twenty- and 30-somethings are spread around, lounging on old couches, bicycles strewn here and there. A couple of them sit at what looks like the remnants of an old DJ stand in the middle of the room. Some stare at laptop screens, others engage in conversation. There are yells and there are shouts. Clearly, in this room, tucked away on the quiet rooftop of Tel Aviv’s Gan Ha’ir shopping center, energies are running high.
“Hi, you’re waiting for Asaf?” a young woman who looks like she could be a college student asks.
But this is no start-up, unless you consider‘ “start-up” the fact that a bunch of young Tel Aviv residents took an idea – that they could mount a campaign aimed at city hall with the goal of giving themselves a voice in the municipality – and with no political experience or major affiliations, won three out of 31 seats on the city council in the 2008 local council elections.
This room – with its basketball hoop on the wall, rainbow crosswalk painted on the floor, a big blue mascot doll outfit on a seat, and pictures and posters from past activities – is the headquarters of Rov Ha’ir (The Majority of the City). The young woman is one of their volunteers, and Asaf is Asaf Zamir, deputy mayor of Tel Aviv since 2008 and one of the founders of the faction. The group is hard at work, in its final push to get the word out before the October 22 municipal elections, when Rov Ha’ir will be up against 21 other parties for a piece of the city council pie.
“Most of the readers aren’t going to know [what Rov Ha’ir is],” says Zamir, 33. “People have no awareness of the municipality or how it works, or the parties; they only know the mayor, and they either like him or they don’t.”
Five years into his stint as deputy to Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, Zamir, a lawyer by training, says he can still travel the city without being recognized. “It’s because I’m kind of young, so when I walk on thestreet most people don’t know who I am.”
In a new campaign ad out on the party’s YouTube page, Zamir is seen in an old, open-roofed car, screaming, “I’m the deputy mayor, woo-hoo!” as two volunteers push the car from behind and confetti magically falls.
It’s a young “the world is our oyster” attitude, or perhaps a “we’re going to change the world” attitude – limited only by the stretch of desire, imagination, knowing no boundaries and, of course, by the reach of the media – and social media.
“When we asked young people what most bothered them in the city, the cost of living and public transportation and parking were in second and third place. In first place was the inability to have an influence,” Zamir explains.
With accounts on Facebook, YouTube and Instagram, and stories running in the papers, on Israeli entertainment news show Guy Pines and even the occasional blurb in an Israeli gossip column (of the “Who is Asaf Zamir dating?” sort), it would seem that Rov Ha’ir has not only mastered being young and trendy, but also having that influence.
Alon Solar, 29, is No. 2 on the Rov Ha’ir list. An accountant by day and city council member by night, Solar is the mind behind the rebirth of the Tel Aviv Marathon, free parking at blue-and-white for all Tel Aviv residents, and the citywide free Wifi project, which anticipates some 3 million users per year, according to estimates. He says voters should not be misled by the faction’s slogan, “The Young of Tel Aviv” – Rov Ha’ir is about building a long-term future for the city they call home.
“It is not by chance that our slogan is, ‘We need young people in the municipality.’ It’s not only about taking care of the young,” Solar emphasizes. “It is about young people who will come and lead – for the young, and also for the parents and the grandparents, and so on.
Our approach is a young one, less bureaucratic and less closed-off and heavy, which unfortunately is an approach that is very prevalent today.”Rov Ha’ir seems to take a no-holds-barred approach to getting things done. “We are always available to people, whether they make an appointment by phone, or walk in off the street,” Solar says. “Show me another city where within a day you can get an appointment with the deputy mayor.”
Zamir is quick to point out that he does not consider what he does to be politics. “I see it much more as public service, because even though people think there is, there really is not a lot of politics per se in running a city. Most people agree on 95% of what would make a city better. It has to be cleaner, the education system has to be better, you need as many parks as possible, and the best public transportation.”
Even as he talks about the election, Zamir is constantly interrupted. People come up to say hello, to get his input. One of those is Rafi, who swoops in, shakes Zamir’s hand and leaves, saying he will talk to him later. “He’s a nightspot owner,” Zamir says. “One of the things we’ve done lots for is nightlife. We helped lots of businesses, so after five years we have tons of support from small businesses, nightlife spots, things like that. So you see people running around these headquarters that on a daily basis are nightlife lords, they have the biggest clubs and bars.”
One of the things Rov Ha’ir was instrumental in getting passed was an ordinance allowing businesses in Shuk Hapeshpeshim to stay open later. “Before, they could only stay open till midnight. We passed a decision that the activities could go on until 1 a.m. and then boom, it became hysterical, a hot place – so much so that we needed to pass a decision that no more businesses could be opened there,” he says.
Another issue the party pushed was returning the nightlife – which had migrated to complexes in locations like the Tel Aviv Port and Yad Harutzim – back to the center of Tel Aviv. “Today, Allenby Street is blossoming and so are Rothschild Boulevard and Dizengoff, Ben-Yehuda and Ibn Gvirol streets, and Jaffa and Shuk Hapeshpeshim. The amount of businesses in the center of the city is greater than it ever was,” Zamir says.
A few days later, Zamir is speaking at a parlor meeting in the city’s upscale Basel neighborhood. It’s being held at the home of Hila Ron, Solar’s girlfriend.
The small living room is packed with Ron’s work colleagues, young architects who have accepted her invitation to come and hear about this particular option in the upcoming elections. As they snack on pretzel sticks and biscotti, Zamir begins his spiel.
“We are here to tell you what Rov Ha’ir is about, with the hope of getting your vote, and the hope that you vote with all your heart. I am Asaf Zamir and I have been deputy mayor of Tel Aviv for the last five years…” He gives them a rundown on some of the accomplishments of Rov Ha’ir: the renewed nightlife and parking, but also rental subsidies to Tel Aviv students living in southern neighborhoods, in return for which they volunteer two hours a week in those communities; an affordable housing project of 45 flats going up in the Shapira neighborhood – the first project of its kind in the country; funding for scouts programs (which fall under the jurisdiction of the municipality); the Scream Theater group for at-risk youth in Jaffa; 18 youth centers opening up in south Tel Aviv, east Tel Aviv and Jaffa; street parties on the city’s boulevards; a new basketball arena for Tel Aviv slated for 2014; a housing center where residents can get legal advice on rental contracts; campaigns for tourism in general and – lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender tourism specifically, spearheaded by the party’s No. 3 man, Yaniv Waizman; the opening of preschools and daycare centers… the list is truly long, and it is clear that Rov Ha’ir has been exceptionally busy.
Most of the night’s attendees appear impressed by the list of Rov Ha’ir’s accomplishments. Several even say their vote was won, but there are also those who need to hear more.
“I’m not interested in the bars you will open,” one woman tells Zamir. “What interests me is [buying] an apartment. The alternative that I have is to move out of Tel Aviv. I do not want to live in the south [of the city], for example in Naveh Sha’anan, or in places where the residents have only option left is Jaffa.”
For the residents of south Tel Aviv – especially those who have lived there for many years and call neighborhoods like Hatikva, Naveh Sha’anan, Kiryat Shalom, Kfar Shalem, and Shapira home – the migrant population is by far the first topic of concern – and a daily one at that.
Yaron Adar, 35, has been running a small snack shop near Yafo Street in Tel Aviv’s Levinsky neighborhood for the past eight years. His days begin early in the morning, and end late at night – making sandwiches, and selling refreshments and cigarettes to the blue collar workers of the area. He says he is planning to leave the country and move to Australia, because as hard as he works, things are still tight.
Even when taking a seat to talk, he keeps his eyes glued to the counter. “Change places with me,” he says suddenly. “I need to watch the register because sometimes a Sudanese will walk by and try to grab something and run.”
“The situation is very bad,” Adar emphasizes. “If the State of Israel doesn’t do something, it will get even worse. Crime is getting worse because of them [the migrants] and businesses are scared to open in the evening and at night, because they walk around in gangs – and the government and the municipality are not doing anything. We need to find a solution immediately.”
Zamir, for his part, says he understands the frustrations of the southern residents completely. “This [influx] is on the back of the residents of the south of the city who woke up one morning and saw that the character of their neighborhoods had changed by 100%.”
Still, he says, the issue at heart is one of state policy, and not of the municipality.
He tells the attendees at the parlor meeting that the state and society need to realize that most of the migrants are in Israel to stay. “This is connected to the sense of security, and why there needs to be order and why we need community policing. Remember this conversation: In my opinion, 90% of them are with us forever and the state must realize this, because it is not municipal responsibility. We need to let them work and make a living, and then they will be like the other migrant communities in the world – where you barely feel them and where the level of crime is lower than in general society, because they don’t want to have issues with law enforcement. They need recognition, and there is no politician on a national level who is ready to come and say what I am saying – they are here. Let’s see what we are going to do.”
Over the last week, an unsigned poster was stuck on the wall of a building on Yehuda Halevy Street in south Tel Aviv, not far from Allenby. It showed the city, with the north colored white and the south colored black. It listed neighborhoods by name, and in the northernmost corner were printed the words, “The very rich.”
“Huldai is dividing Tel Aviv,” the poster read. “On October 22, come to vote – just not for Ron!” “Tel Aviv-Jaffa is a city of extremes,” Zamir says, “The richest people in Israel live here, and the poorest people in Israel live here. There are very strong areas and very weak areas. There’s a lot to be done...on closing social gaps.”
Rov Ha’ir is not endorsing any candidate for mayor in the elections.
As Zamir tells it, from north to south, the city’s issues are all part of the picture: If Rov Ha’ir becomes the dominant political actor, which he believes it can be, the city as a whole will benefit. “We will advance to be a better city, with a better educational system, better for young parents. The city will have to become more international, and we will have to invest more in the young generation of people, in artists. South Tel Aviv has to become part of central Tel Aviv, in its standards and in the quality of living for its residents.
“And the bigger we [Rov Ha’ir] become, the easier it will be for me to promise that will happen.”