Here’s an interesting question: Does it matter if the mayor of the “first Hebrew city” of Tel Aviv is a Zionist?
Tomorrow, Israel is going to the polls to elect its municipal legislatures. I wrote here about the race in Jerusalem– still a very tight one–between the secular Nir Barkat and the ultra-orthodox Meir Porush. But Tel Aviv is also electing a mayor. The incumbent, Ron Huldai, a former General and air force pilot, is a good mayor, but not a very popular one. He has “no soul,” former mayor Roni Millo complained, and many agree:
Huldai belongs to the old style of obnoxious politicians who know how to work, not how to talk. He’s an energetic, dedicated mayor with values, but even when he was principal of Tel Aviv’s Gymnasia Herzliya high school he was accused of arrogance when he stood at the gate in the morning and shook the hand of every student who entered. His list of candidates is not exactly thrilling.
Huldai is portrayed, for good reason, as friendly to the rich. He seems to make Tel Aviv less friendly to the young, the bohemian, the artistic, the trendy. All the people, in other words, who make the city what it is. And, yes, many are to the left, even far left, of Israel’s center. Naively–almost comically–to the left.
Huldai’s emerging opposition is Dov Khenin: smart, personable, interested in management, and with a challenging agenda for the city. Oh–and he’s also a communist, a Knesset Member from the Chadash Party. And post-Zionist, or so they say. Khenin has gone a bit shy since he started running for mayor, and is having trouble exactly saying what he believes. “Do you sing Hatikvah, the national anthem?” he was asked by a TV anchor. “I respect the national anthem,” he responded.
Khenin argues that municipal politics should be about municipal issues, and many among the more trendy Tel Avivians support this claim:
Yes, Dov Khenin is a communist. It is not easy for a Zionist to support a communist. But these elections are municipal, not national. The question that hangs in the balance is not whether Israel will become a state of all its citizens, but whether Tel Aviv will be a city of all its residents. Khenin, for his part, has proven his incorruptibility by adding Likudniks and skullcap-wearing politicians to his list. As such, there is no justification for the ugly campaign being waged against him. He, as well as the political movement he heads, are a reason for national pride, not a pretext for McCarthyist persecution.
Thus, both in Jerusalem and in Tel Aviv, we have competitive races that share an important characteristic:
On the face of it, the campaigns in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem are as different as these cities are from each other – in appearance, lifestyle and temperament. Yet in both races, the contests are between those who represent mainstream Zionism and those with a more narrow constituency aiming to rebrand.
In Jerusalem, this means the ultra-orthodox Porush; in Tel Aviv, it means Khenin. No wonder the other ultra-orthodox party, Shas, has considered endorsing Khenin. Like him, they care about the poor, and propagandize against the rich. Like him, they don’t much care for the Zionist cause.
Huldai is leading in the polls, but municipal politics, even more than national elections, are all about turnout, and it seems now that Khenin has the more enthusiastic constituency. It should also be said that he made this race much more interesting, partially by way of making young people more interested in their local politics, but also by forcing upon many the need to choose camps. He’s split the city electorate into those who do not really care if their mayor is a Zionist, and those who have suddenly discovered that they do care. I know people who generally don’t care about the mayoral race, but will go the polls tomorrow just to make sure that they do not wake up the next morning with a mayor who “respects” the national anthem, but does not sing it.