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Jumping Head First Into Israel’s Politics

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My final transformation from a visitor to Israel, to a student in Israel to a citizen of Israel, culminated in going to an election talk by an Israeli politician.

In the basement of the ZOA* House on Ibn Gvirol Street, Asaf Zamir, the Tel-Aviv deputy mayor had his chance to make a case for himself in front of the two hundred or so English speaking Olim (immigrants). He had a short beard that didn’t quite connect to his mustache and an untucked button-up shirt. Although he lived in Florida for part of his childhood giving him accentless English, he lived in Israel most of his life making it hard for him to remember some words, getting help from the crowd for words like opportunity or workers. He was presented as a very different kind of politician, and to me, he embodied the Israeli politician.

So what did he propose? The things which were important to him: bike lanes and pre-k education. He wants to get cars off the streets and make it more affordable to raise children in the city. He explained that Tel-Aviv population is becoming older and younger at the same time because as young people don’t move to the periphery and decide to start and raise families in the city. The public option he hoped would offset the expense of private education pre-k.

After giving an introduction that included stats on voting (30% of the electorate) and logistics (election day is a day off and there is no need to register), he made his case for why it is time for new leadership and what he will do. Afterward, he opened up for a Q&A which in spite of being full of Olim, was extremely Israeli. First Zamir called on a man by calling him “Waldo” because the man wore glasses and a hat similar to the character in a kids’ puzzle book. The man named Nick asked if he would enforce a ban smoking, ban smoking near bike lanes and introduce math textbooks in the English language “because they are written better”. Zamir’s answer was “I’ve spoken over 500 times and I thought I heard everything.” He followed that up with “I’m a smoker, they are people too.” He also said that no he will not go after smokers and no we will not change textbooks.

Zamir laughed at the man asking the questions and said no, breaking two of the cardinal rules of American politics. A woman asked him about dog poop and class sizes. He didn’t answer the question on dog poop, which is what interested me, and told her how some schools have more, some less, it depends on the popularity of school and that 34 students per class are so much better than the 40 there used to be.

Next, a man asked about developing a park and changing the ratio of commercial to residential from a ratio of 70/30 commercial to residential to 30/70. To which Zamir responded that the city needs 70/30 to pay for the services for the 30% and “you say you want cheaper housing but you don’t want me to build in a parking lot, which one do you want?”

When someone asked about the drugs, crime, and poverty in South Tel Aviv, Zamir went into a long tirade about how African refugees arrived in Israel, why they don’t leave, why they are abandoned and how because they are not leaving, we might as well make their lives as normal as possible to help them be a productive part of society. Although, he didn’t say anything about how he would do that.

When Zamir spoke of making the city better than ok, he did not mention how to get rid of plastic in the sea, cigarettes butts off the beach or how to help end the mountains of trash in the streets due to infrequent trash pick up and undersized trash bins. He did tell us however how much of the responsibilities of a city in Israel is handled by the central government including transportation and safety, which is why all he can do about lack of transportation on Shabbat is offer a free shuttle.

The moderator of the event decided to bring the discussion back to issues specifically concerning Olim and asked Zamir what had he done for Olim in the past five years and what will he do. The first question Zamir didn’t answer and to the second his response was his most American politician answer yet: jobs and improved social life. Which seemed like a terrible answer because he as a politician in a city can’t really provide either one. What he can provide is a hotline or a telephone system that answers people in English and gets a person to an English speaking operator instead of hanging up on the caller. With so many foreign Olim and people from abroad who all share English as a first or second language, Israel’s insistence on Hebrew with people who don’t yet speak Hebrew can often feel downright cruel!

In the end, I actually liked Zamir. He stayed late to answer all the questions as promised. I thought it was to seem him crack a joke about building a wall and having Egypt pay for it. He was very Israeli: saying no to people, expressing the things he will not do like recycling or better public safety, things he will do like a light rail (which is already being built) and bike paths (which are also being installed). So what will Asaf Zamir bring as the young new face? I’m not sure, but he did say that he is likable.

*Zionist Organization of America

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