Interview with Tel Aviv Mayor: “Israel needs ideas from different cultures”
Almost everything that Tel Aviv has today has been achieved during the two decades that the Labor politician Ron Huldai has been in power. He is more than just a politician, also being an intellectual and an unrivalled manager in Israel. There’s something of an agitator in this mayor, who was born 72 years ago in a socialist kibbutz and who was toughened up in the ranks of the military. If he wasn’t, he wouldn’t have dared to swim against the tide in an area that is increasingly punished by religious fundamentalisms of all kind. In 1998, he received the keys of a city that was on the brink of bankruptcy, and he cleaned up the accounts, tidied up the streets and attracted technological companies. Today, Tel Aviv, with 450,000 inhabitants, represents the modern and European face of Israel. It is, however, a city that has for decades suffered the terrorism methods that have only recently started to threaten large urban centers such as Paris or Berlin.
Question. Why was it so important for convenience stores to remain open during Sabbath? Why is it so important to Tel Aviv?
Answer. Spain is a Catholic country. I believe on Sunday you have some stores open. Our day of rest is Sabbath, not Sunday. We have to rest one day a week, but still we need to enjoy ourselves. We have cinemas and we have restaurants that don’t close. And I didn’t invent that. It was part of life in Israel that some small supermarkets were open. When you become an Orthodox and take everything to extremes, you want me to live the way you live. And that is not right.
Q. Is there increasing pressure from religious groups in Tel Aviv?
A. For the Orthodox, if I’m doing something and it’s not encoded in the law of Israel, they don’t care. Once it becomes part of the law, then it bothers them. And that’s the case. In Israel, changes always start in Tel Aviv. This city is a model of the Zionist vision: it is a model of democracy, tourism, art, culture, science and research.
When you become an Orthodox and take everything to extremes, you want me to live the way you live
Q. In Israel, Tel Aviv is a model of freedom. You can see Gay Pride celebrations, you can see all types of minorities. But is this really the beginning of a change in all of Israel, or are we seeing a division between the coast and the interior, Jerusalem?
A. In Israel, today, it’s a real fight between the Orthodox approach and democratic values. When something happens in Tel Aviv, everybody knows about it in Israel. I believe that Tel Aviv educates Israeli society.
Q. In the whole of the Middle East there is not a city like it. And there is a lot of attention that is focused on Tel Aviv. That has attracted a lot of threats from the Islamic world. Has this made the city more vulnerable?
A. The main issue is Israel in the Middle East. It’s not an issue of Tel Aviv. But in Israel, Palestinian terrorist attacks are more much effective when they succeed in hitting the heart of Tel Aviv.
Q. I once heard a US analyst say that a rocket falling in Tel Aviv was like a rocket falling over Paris…
A. Exactly. Or in Madrid. If something happens somewhere in the periphery it’s not the same as when you have a terrorist attack in the Madrid Metro.
Q. These are not the tough years of the Second Intifada, but once in a while we still see attacks. Last week there was a stabbing in the city. How will it all end?
A. Nobody in the world can give you an answer. I can ask you the same question: what do you have to do to prevent terrorist activity in Paris, London, Madrid or somewhere else in the world? Do you have a solution?
A. Neither do I. You Europeans tell us: “Look, if you solve the problem with the Palestinians, you are going to solve the problem of the terrorist attacks.” You don’t have the same problem with the Palestinians, but you still have terrorist activity. You absorb Muslims into your society yet you see that in spite of being nice to them, you still have terrorist activity.
Q. Are you saying that even if in the future there was a peaceful agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians, it wouldn’t help?
A. My job is to find solutions for my people. And by analyzing the situation, I arrive at the conclusion that the most important thing is for Israel to be the state of the Jews and not a two-nation state. One state for the Jews, and one state for the Palestinians. If you ask the people of Israel if they are ready to reach a peaceful agreement with the Palestinians, I believe that 75% of them will answer yes. But if you ask the people of Israel if they believe that this is actually possible, maybe less than 10% will say yes.
Fanaticism is everywhere. If somebody is advocating pluralism and tolerance, they can’t do boycotts
Q. How did you manage to turn Tel Aviv into one of the main destinations for gay people in the world?
A. My mother used to tell me that every human being is a human being. One of the first things I did when I became the mayor of Tel Aviv was to open an official office to help illegal immigrants, because the government of Israel was ignoring the fact that they are there. The same with the gay community. I said, “They are human beings. I have to take care of them.”
Q. Yes but gays are persecuted and even killed in Iran and Saudi Arabia. This was a bold decision.
A. We had the first public center for the gay community. It was not simple. When they came to me and said that they needed it, I said: “Why do you need it? Why do you need a special community center? We have community centers. Why can’t you go to the one in your neighborhood like everybody else?” They said they needed protection. And we did research to find out if it really deserved the investment. And when I realized they were right, we built it.
Q. How did you feel in 2010 when the organizers of the Gay Pride March in Madrid withdrew the invitation for the city of Tel Aviv due to the incident with the Palestinian flotilla?
A. Fanaticism is everywhere. If somebody is advocating pluralism and tolerance, they can’t do boycotts like this.
Q. How many start-ups are there in Tel Aviv right now?
A. Right now we have at least 1,500 start-ups in the city of Tel Aviv, and 80 accelerators. This a lot more than in London, Paris or Madrid. And most of the big international tech companies like Coca-Cola or Facebook or Google or Apple, all of them have R&D centers in Israel.
Q. What about qualified workers? Is it easy for people from the outside who want to go to Israel?
A. I’m fighting with my government to create a special start-up visa, mainly to enable foreigners to come and work with our people in Israel, because I believe that the next step depends on a combination of cultures and ideas. Unfortunately, so far our government hasn’t found a real solution to this problem.
Q. There’s a certain tension between your position, and what you stand for, and what you’ve turned Tel Aviv into, and a wider movement toward another type of Israel.
A. That is the image that you have of us, because you’re not very interested in seeing what the average day for average Israelis is like. It is just like life here. And over 99% of the people of Israel are hoping to one day achieve a situation that would let them live as you live here in Madrid. Unfortunately, we are still in a position that is different from the situation here in Spain. And solving the problem is a lot more difficult than just talking about it.
Q. Will you ever run for Prime Minister?
A. I just made up my mind. Last week was the deadline to present [the candidacy] to head the Labor Party and I decided not to, so I’m going to finish my fourth term as mayor and then possibly I’m going to run for a fifth.