Feeling at home in Mahaneh Yehuda

Israel is one big market, and it belongs to all of us.

A vegetable vendor restocks his supply in Jerusalem’s Mahaneh Yehuda market. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
A vegetable vendor restocks his supply in Jerusalem’s Mahaneh Yehuda market.
As a guest on a morning radio show, I was needled for touring the capital’s Mahaneh Yehuda market with Koolanu Party head Moshe Kahlon. “You seemed out of place,” the interviewer jested.
“Kahlon came from the working class and can talk to the merchants, but what could you know about their problems?” I didn’t let the host get under my skin. Rather, I took a deep breath and explained why I had joined Kahlon and the Koolanu party. I told him why Mahaneh Yehuda was precisely my place. I told him my story.
Although I came from America, I grew up in a working class neighborhood in which all the families struggled financially. Unable to send me to the pricey Jewish camps, I spent my summers in the YMCA.
But nevertheless, from an early age, I felt committed to the Jewish people and to its nation state, Israel, and determined to make aliya. Starting at age 15, I worked all year long mowing lawns and shoveling snow to earn enough money to go to Israel each summer and labor for free on a kibbutz. When I finally became an oleh in 1979, I arrived in Israel with no more than a backpack and without any financial support.
After enlisting as a lone soldier in the IDF, I could not keep up with the rising rents and frequently had to change apartments. Returning to Jerusalem for my Shabbat leaves, I often found the stores already closed. So I wandered Mahaneh Yehuda looking for an open stall to sell me food. I learned every meter of that market.
Yet my hardest day as a lone soldier was the last, when I had to return to civilian life and try to build a career and a home from nothing. Even back then, when Israel had far fewer social gaps and less consumerism, the task was daunting. My wife, Sally, and I lived in the Negev where housing was cheap and we raised our three children in one room. Still, my lecturer’s salary could not cover our expenses or even the previous month’s overdraft. It was a constant struggle.
And yet I knew that if we kept working and scrimping we could eventually buy a small apartment and – in the classic Israeli fashion – expand from there. We moved back to Jerusalem where, every Friday morning, I took my kids for hummus and shakshuka in Mahaneh Yehuda.
Today, 35 years later, the hope of finally making it no longer exists for a large segment of Israel’s population.
As ambassador, I met many of them who had left to live in the United States. “We want to come home,” they would tell me. “We want to raise our families in Israel.
But we can’t make a respectful living there. We can’t see ourselves ever owning a home.” As someone who had moved from America to fulfill the Zionist vision, listening to these proud IDF veterans give up on that dream and take the opposite course was heart-wrenching.
More painful still was encountering the parents of those young Israelis.
After returning from Washington last year, I was often approached by people my age who cried, “Can’t you help us bring our children back to Israel?” Answering that question is the reason I joined the Koolanu Party.
As the Jewish state, I have always believed, Israel cannot turn its back on the poor, the immigrant and the aged. As a Zionist, I am unwilling to concede the dream of creating a homeland that promises a sustainable future for all of its citizens. Moshe Kahlon is the only public figure in Israel who, by virtue of breaking up the cellphone monopolies and putting thousands of shekels annually in every Israeli pocket, has proven capable of making material change in our quality of life. Koolanu is the only party that has researched and posted a detailed platform for removing the monopolies that similarly dominate the banking, food and housing markets, and make our prices among the highest in the world. Koolanu, alone, has a realistic plan for closing Israel’s income gaps that rival those of Mexico and Chile. Only Koolanu will join any coalition that gives us the tools to carry out the reforms which the majority of Israelis believe are vital to our country’s survival.
Each of us on the Koolanu list brings an area of expertise. Israel prize winner Eli Alaluf is the nation’s leading authority on the fight against poverty and Dr. Yifat Sasha-Biton, the former deputy mayor of Kiryat Shmona, is a pioneer in education for Israel’s periphery. I contribute 40 years’ experience in the study and practice of Israeli foreign policy. We all know that a strong economy and society requires determined action to secure Israel’s borders and our place in the world.
“Beware of stereotypes,” I told that radio interviewer. “I couldn’t feel more at home in Mahaneh Yehuda.”
Israel is one big market, and it belongs to all of us.
The writer is running on the Koolanu list in the March 17 election and is a former ambassador to the US.