Tel Aviv’s mayoral race: Time for a Mizrahi candidate

The Mizrahi Jewish community is Israel’s largest ethnic group, and its historic links to the Middle East, along with its class position make it a critical component in any revolutionary coalition. Thus, running a Mizrahi candidate will be a clear sign to the residents of south Tel Aviv that they are a central priority.

By Matan Kaminer

Tel Aviv's mayoral race: Time for a Mizrahi candidate
MK Nitzan Horowitz. Horowitz recently announced his candidacy for mayor of Tel Aviv. (Jstreet CC BY NC SA 2.0)

Although municipal political party Ir LeKulanu is not considered “left” in Israeli terms, it embodies one of the greatest successes of the non-Zionist left in Israeli history. In national elections, the non-Zionist or “radical” left keeps slamming into the brick wall of privileges enjoyed by Israel’s Jewish citizens, including not only Mizrahi, Ethiopian and Russian citizens (whose Jewishness is the only thing separating them from the socio-economic abyss), but also the “liberal” Ashkenazi middle class.

However, the municipal arena is a bit different. Since most decisions pertaining to the state’s Jewish and colonial character are not made at the municipal level, it is possible to envision an alliance between victims of urban capitalism in the face of disagreement over so-called “national-political” issues. Under the aegis of Ir LeKulanu (“City for All”), radical activists whose opposition to Zionism is well known have been able to join forces not only with young middle-class people from the city center but also with an active, vocal group of south Tel Aviv residents. (At the same time, the movement has been only partially successful in connecting to the Palestinian residents of Jaffa, whose “Yafa” party ran separately but supported Ir LeKulanu mayoral candidate Dov Khenin.)

Five years have since passed over Tel Aviv-Jaffa, bringing with them two wars on Gaza, one Arab Spring and one wave of social protest which momentarily shook Israeli society. The party’s many members who expected it to develop into a full-fledged popular movement were disappointed. But Ir LeKulanu’s very survival under the bitter attacks it faced from the municipal opposition is not to be taken for granted – and most of the credit for this perseverance goes to the movement’s indefatigable council members.

About two weeks ago, Khenin announced that he would not be running for mayor again, opening a debate on the desirability of running a candidate from the party, especially in the wake of Meretz MK Nitzan Horowitz announcing his candidacy. Some say that all oppositional forces must be united for the overarching goal of defeating incumbent mayor Ron Huldai. But insufferable as he may be, Huldai is only the representative of an urban alliance which is bigger than him. The two wings of this alliance are the affluent, mostly Ashkenazi residents of the northern neighborhoods who enjoy the fruits of Huldai’s reign, and the capitalists reaping profits from the transformation of the city center from a living residential area into a glitzy playground of real estate speculation.

Horowitz is far from challenging this alliance. In a mass e-mail he sent out to declare his candidacy, Jaffa is never mentioned, and the city’s south is barely paid lip service. Praise for former mayors, on the other hand, is abundant, with especially warm words for the incumbent, under whom Horowitz’s party has served loyally for four of the current administration’s five years. Whether or not it is efficacious for him, this tactic sends a clear signal to the oppressed groups in the city – Palestinians, refugees and migrants and Mizrahi residents of the south – that Horowitz is signalling his utter indifference to them.

This is the time for Ir LeKulanu to hoist another flag, differentiating itself from both Huldai and his little brother Horowitz. It is going to be a turbulent summer, with great turmoil over the austerity measures about to be unleashed by the government. Now is the time to catalyze urban energies around an alternative pole. In a sense, Khenin’s decision is advantageous, as it enables Ir LeKulanu to make a clear statement by choosing a Mizrahi from the city’s south to be its candidate for mayor. Such a choice would not be forced or artificial, since the movement has included a lively contingent of south Tel Aviv activists from its inception. Among these are two of the movement’s most outstanding city council members, Yael Ben-Yefet and Aharon Maduel, as well as many others. Yet candidacy is not just a matter of personal excellence, but of what the candidate symbolizes. Running a candidate will be a clear sign to the residents of the south that they are a central priority for the movement, and that their presence within it is desired.

The Mizrahi Jewish community is Israel’s largest ethnic group. Its historic links to the culture of the Middle East and its class position make it a critical component in any revolutionary coalition imaginable in Israel. When even far more privileged groups are unwilling to reject Zionist identifications at the national level, it is neither fair nor realistic to expect Mizrahis to be the first to do so. But for this very reason, at this critical junction, the radical leftists who form an important component of Ir LeKulanu should not pass up the opportunity to throw their weight behind a Mizrahi urban leadership in coalition with Palestinians, Ashkenazis, refugees and migrants. The way to do so is clear: to fight with determination in support of a south Tel Aviv candidate for mayor.

Matan Kaminer is active in Ir LeKulanu. This article was first published in Hebrew on Haokets.

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