Rachel Azaria is thirty five years old and married with four children ranging in ages from 10 years to eight months. She is the leader of the Yerushalmim (literally Jerusalemites) party and its only member on the Jerusalem City Council. She is at the end of her first term and was first elected in 2008.
Rachel Azaria was educated in the National Religious school system and was born in Jerusalem. She served in the Israeli army and has a B.A. in psychology and an M.A. in conflict resolution, both from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. While in school she was active in political causes which led to her entering politics.
A look at her Facebook page is telling. She has a statement about how the Egged bus company is censoring advertising with images of women from its buses. Apparently they censored a Yerushalmim ad with her photo on it. The home page of the Yerushalmim web site also highlights this. In addition, one sees a link to information on a campaign to improve the standard of food served in schools, a posting about an upcoming City Council meeting as well as a rolling post on the party’s activities.
Rachel Azaria is religious and married, but she wears pants and does not cover her head. You can draw your own conclusions from that.
Her office is located on the second floor of building four at the Jerusalem City Hall compound. Building four is one of the original buildings that date back to before Israeli Independence and has been fully renovated. The second floor of this building has a number of offices for city council members.
While not large, her office is spacious compared to the Yerushalmim party offices on Hillel Street. The party sublets a room from a private company’s offices. Seeing the staff crammed inside of this small room is reminiscent of a crammed clown car. I was told that they will be moving to larger offices.
We conducted the interview in English. Rachel Azaria is a native Hebrew speaker. While she speaks English fluently, she had trouble finding the right word at times. It would be hard for anyone to place her accent as Israeli. It seeped through when she became excited at times.
Q: What did you do before you went into politics?
A: I ran organizations. I ran “Voice Atum” for Agunot. (literally sealed voice for women who have not been given a religious divorce by their husbands.) Before that I ran Green Course, students for the environment.
Q: Why did you go into politics? Did you start Yerushalmim yourself?
A: Yes. I was born in Jerusalem and I left when I was five years old. I always knew that I’d come back. I came back right after my army service and I went to Hebrew University and then I met my husband and got married. It was during the second Intifada so housing was cheap here. But the problem was that my friends were leaving. For me living in the city that I dreamt of living in the feeling was that the city was just drifting away.
Q: Why were they leaving?
A: Two reasons. First of all it’s not easy to live here. You are paying a lot and you feel that you are not getting in return what you should be getting. Not just arnona (property tax), but its expensive to live here. Housing is expensive. Everything is expensive and we don’t get in return. Tel Aviv is expensive … but you get a lot in return. Modiin, it’s easy to live there.
The second reason is I think that people don’t feel that they will be able to live in Jerusalem in another twenty years.
Q: Do you think that there is a property tax inequality regarding the Ultra-Orthodox?
A: Do I think?
She said with a tone of shock at the question.
I don’t have to think it. It’s written in the books. It’s clear. The Haredim pay less. It’s built that way. It’s not a secret.
Q: Would you say then that there is an unfair burden on the non Haredim in paying property tax?
A: I don’t have to say it. The discounts in arnona were designed by Aryeh Deri (the leader of the Ultra-Orthodox Shas party) when he was the Interior Minister so that the ultra orthodox would get the discounts when we don’t
Q: What was your biggest failure in this past term of office?
A: Oh Wow. I’m not very good at pointing at failure because I always learn and proceed. What I did discover is that there is so much work and you can get it done if you work hard. Its hard work but its doable. Someone once asked me what do you regret most in life and I said that I don’t.
She seemed surprised by the question and does not want to dwell on what did not happen.
Q: What has been your biggest success?
A: Everything that has to do with early childhood: The kindergartens that we have extended to July in Jerusalem. The national campaign we had to make then free nationally for three and four year olds. We turned everything into the responsibility of the government. Thinking of the city in the eyes of young families is something that we changed in the eyes of the municipality of Jerusalem. The whole campaign against segregation of women from the public sphere (literally in public places), such as when women had to sit in the back of the bus or when they had streets that were separate for men and women, all of that disappeared.
Q: If you are reelected, what is the one issue that you most want to promote in the next term?
A: There are three issues we are discussing. One is education. What we did in early childhood education we want to do in all ages. The second issue is the neighborhoods. Over this term the mayor pushed investment in the central part of Jerusalem. That’s what he believed in; [that] the major investment should be in the center of Jerusalem. Not where people actually live. I was responsible for the new elections for the community centers.
After much debate on the City Council as to whether or not to keep the local community committees, they decided to let the public elect new members to the community councils.
We want to invest in the neighborhoods. We want people to be able to walk to school parks and cafes. The third thing is the whole issue of pluralism in the public sphere.
Q: What grade do you give yourself at the end of your first term?
A: Ask someone else.
She did not want to judge her own record.
Q: What grade would you give the mayor?
A: Want to ask someone else again (she said laughing). I think some things he was good and some things could be better. I think that what we need to do is compliment what he did.
Q: You are not in the city coalition. How does that affect your ability to get things done?
A: For three years I was part of the coalition. I left because I had an argument with Barkat on the issue of pluralism in the public square.
Q: Did the argument have to do with the Haredim?
A: Yes. He [Barkat] is holding everyone in the coalition and there is a price for it.
Q: Since you left the coalition have you been able to do more or less?
A: Not more and not less because we have people in Jerusalem who believe in what we bare doing. So we just use different platforms. So we just push the municipality to do what we believe in. At the end of the day you are suppose to push the municipality to do what you believe in. As a member of the coalition I did it through convincing the mayor. As a member of the opposition I did it through pushing people to city council meetings.
Q: Who did you support in the Knesset elections this past year?
A: I don’t, we are very Jerusalem oriented. We don’t discuss national politics.
Q: Down the hall from you a member of the city council from Meretz has a sticker on the door which says “Jerusalem: 2 capitals for one city.” What do you think of that?
A: Anything that has to do with anything right wing left wing has nothing to do with what we are doing on the city council. It would only be discussed … by the Prime Minister. We don’t deal with it. I feel that it is a way not to talk about the serious things [regarding Jerusalem]. So I prefer to focus on our life here.
While it is understandable that as a local politician she chose not to discuss national issues, one would think that a member of the Jerusalem City Council would at least take a position on the future status of the city in regards to any attempts to re-divide it.
Q: Is the downtown area through Nachlaot and the Shuk being turned into sort of a Disneyland for tourists?
A: That’s what I was talking about. We believe there is the Jerusalem of Mala (above) and the Jerusalem of Mata (below). The Jerusalem of Mala is the branding, the exciting, and that is very important, but too much goes into it. We believe that in this term there was way too much of that, of bringing tourists. We believe there is much more effort needed to be put into the neighborhoods.
Q: Is the shuk becoming another Midrachov (pedestrian mall) like Ben Yehudah Street?
A: I remember the shuk during the Intifada. No one was there. Now something good is happening in the shuk. The center of town became a fabulous place and now it’s just for tourists, for Americans. Then Emek Refaim became a fabulous place and now it’s just for tourists and Americans. And the Shuk was a horrible place and then it became a nice place and now its becoming more for Americans and tourists. Other places in the world have regulations to keep things, but we don’t have regulations or the American way of offering tax benefits for opening certain types of stores in certain areas. But we don’t do any of that and we just let the market handle itself. You can plan a city but a lot of what happens in the city happens naturally.
Now it’s hard to go grocery shopping in the Shuk because you don’t have buses from the neighborhoods any more. And there are no parking places any more so obviously the people who go to the Shuk will be youngsters who live in the center of town and will walk to the cafes and at night it’s easier to find parking so more couples will go there for the evening. If you can’t get to the Shuk from every place in Jerusalem any more then no one will shop there anymore. You have to figure out how the people who want to buy tomatoes in the Shuk can get very easily to the Shuk.
Q: What coordination does the city have with Egged as far as transportation is concerned?
A: That’s part of what we’re talking about with the neighborhoods. There isn’t serious coordination. There is a big problem with public transportation.
Q: Can someone like the Mayor just call Egged and tell them that there is a problem?
A: It’s not the same thing as in America. All the decision makers, I think the last time they took a bus was when they were soldiers. They don’t realize how terrible it is. I have arguments in the building committee on this. I take public transportation and it’s terrible but they don’t realize it. There’s nobody who really cares.
Q: Why did they close all of Yafo Street from Davidka Square passed the Shuk to buses?
A: That’s because there is a terrible agreement between Egged and the government and the light rail that today all the public transportation in Jerusalem is just shuttles to the light rail. Buses are only supposed to take people to the light rail. No bus is allowed to go more than two stops along [the same road] as the light rail.
Q: Who made that deal?
A: The government together with everyone. They don’t understand and they don’t care.
Q: Was the Light Rail project worth it?
A: I don’t think that the problem is in the project but in the way its being run. We had a serious problem of transportation in Jerusalem but we still have [it]. Millions and millions and millions of Shekels were spent but the problem is it isn’t run properly. Why shouldn’t you have buses in the same route as the light rail? Then the light rail would have to be good because … competition should [be brought to] everything you can.
Q: How much of the problem goes back to more than a decade ago when they first began the Light Rail project?
A: Some this some that, some along the way. Everyone is to be blamed on this issue. None of these people has taken buses in the last 15-20 years and I think that that’s the serious problem.
Q: How much of the current public transportation problem results from the contract or concession given to the Light Rail Company?
A: Well it’s that, but also some other things changed along the way. The municipality can – every time they want to change the buses [routes] the Municipality can stop it. So every time they canceled a bus route the municipality could have stopped it. It’s not just that you can say. It’s more complicated than that but the municipality can do it.
Q: Well then why didn’t they do it?
A: I think people don’t realize what a catastrophe it is. The concept today in the Municipality is that “once we build all of the Light Rail then everything will be perfect.” You can’t prove anything else because they say wait.
The Light Rail currently goes up Herzl Blvd, turns right at the Central Bus Station and from there goes the length of Yafo St. After Yafo it turns left and heads north passed the Old City and continues to the Neve Yaakov neighborhood. There are currently plans to add spurs that will connect it to different neighborhoods. No one knows how long it will be before any construction even begins.
Q: Cities in America have districts where each member of the city council represents a specific geographic area. This allows residents to know who represents them and who to go to with problems and complaints. Here we have proportional representation so the neighborhoods do not have personal representation. Do you think that a district system would be better?
A: Maybe. I feel that I manage in any way. I don’t think we need to change it to districts. We need to empower excellent people to go into the municipality. I feel that’s what we’re doing in Yerushalmiyim, taking local activists and empowering them to go into the Municipality.
Q: What does motherhood bring to the table as far as being a member of the City Council?
She was taken aback by the question.
Q: Is that why you seem to be more concerned with education and issues dealing with families?
A: I feel one of the reasons I went to the City Council is that no one saw me as a mother of children and a family. I think that something that is very strong in the way that I see the city is. I think when you have little children you see the city very differently. I feel a huge responsibility for the next generation. I also feel that I know what’s hard for young mothers in Jerusalem. Parks in Jerusalem don’t have shade. Now that is crazy (emphasis on crazy). This is the Middle East. We have thirty something (high eighties to mid nineties Fahrenheit) heat in the summer. It’s a lot. It’s hot. You can use the parks an hour in the morning and an hour in the afternoon. What a waste of money to build these parks and not to have shade. When I got to the City Council I said that this is something we have to do and they said no… and then I looked around the table and realized that all the decision makers were men in their sixties. I think that in their times they didn’t push their children on a swing even when they had young children.
You have to be there to understand it. To know how expensive the endless summer vacation is. To know how expensive it is to raise children today. Today up to three years old it costs as much to raise a child in Israel as it does to send them to a private university in America. Pre School is more expensive than private school in America.
Women at the Wall is the organization which has fought for a woman’s right to wear a Talit – a prayer shawl – at the Kotel and to hold a women’s minyan (prayer service) where women can lead the prayers and read from the Tora scroll at the Kotel. The Orthodox establishment has opposes allowing women to do so.
Recently the Women at the Wall won a court case which gave them the right to pray as they wish at the Kotel.
Q: What do you think about the Women at the Wall?
A: It took her a moment to compose an answer.
I think, (pause) I think the Kotel has to be a place where everyone has to feel comfortable [including the Women at the Wall]. I know that if the Women at the Wall had gone to the Supreme Court years ago they would have gotten the same verdict that they got today [that allowed them to pray there].
For more information on Rachel Azaria and the Yerushalmim Party: