Noah Efron
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What Israel’s local elections mean right now

The choices voters make about how to live with their neighbors will augur a new contract for life at the national level
A woman wearing a large Israeli flag walks through the Carmel market in Tel Aviv. December 31, 2023. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
A woman wearing a large Israeli flag walks through the Carmel market in Tel Aviv. December 31, 2023. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

On February 27, Israelis go to the polls again. We won’t be voting for prime minister and a new Knesset, but for mayors and city councils around the country. These elections have been postponed twice for the war; first, they were scheduled for October 31, and then again for January 31. Some think they should be put off a third time, on the grounds that, right now, it is hard to see why local elections matter. They won’t decide how the war is fought or when and how the hostages return, which is all most of us care about right now. So what good are they? What are local elections even about?

What they’re about is who we are and how we have changed, with the war and after the nine months of protests and division that came before it. Israel at the start of 2024 is a different place than it was at the start of 2023. In the months before October 7, we were as divided as maybe we have ever been; some people worried that we were on the brink of a civil war, some people started looking for jobs in other countries. In the months after October 7, we have been as united as maybe we have ever been. The massacre unleashed the greatest wave of giving, of people doing whatever they could think of to help other people, in the history of the country and, I don’t know, maybe of the world.

The two things, the before and after, are linked in some complicated way. For one thing, the same people were at the forefront of both the division and the unity. The most controversial protest group may have been Achim La-Neshek, Brothers-in-Arms, a group of reservists who warned that if the government followed through on its plans to weaken the courts, they might not show up for army service. On October 7, the members of Achim La-Neshek did two things. Those who were fit for combat enlisted in unheard-of numbers, even before the army got itself together enough to call them up.

And those who were not combat-ready organized the greatest relief effort we’ve ever known: driving to the kibbutzim, moshavim and towns outside Gaza to ferry survivors to safety, collecting clothes, toys, furniture and whatever else evacuees might need, creating massive distribution centers for these things, organizing meals, digging graves, doing whatever was needed at a time when so very much was needed. Others who, a day before were leaders of the protest movement, organized a massive effort to identify who was kidnapped in Gaza. Leaders of a group that called itself the “High-Tech Protest” developed apps that linked people to services: one to find free babysitters, another a ride app, like Uber, only free.

It was as if the protest movement went, in a day, from critique to construction. Anger became activity. Despair gave way to doing. And it was as if all the rest of us went, in a day, from suspicion to solidarity.

In fact, there was a deep connection between the months before October 7 and those since. Each period was an expression of a feeling that the politics we had no longer fit who we were. Each was the product of a growing realization that we need to work out a new contract among the different sorts of citizens of this country, on the one hand, and between the citizens of the country and our government, on the other. The difference is that before October 7, people mostly attacked or defended the old contract we had. After October 7, people set out to create, on the fly, a new one.

The elections next week matter because it is in Israel’s cities and towns that this new contract can be hammered out. It is in cities and towns that intractable capital-letter problems – Religion and State! Jewish and Democratic! Free Market vs. Regulation! – get translated into issues that can be solved. This, because in cities and towns, neighbors with differing world views are, well, neighbors.

For decades, it was a matter of faith that the problem of whether or how to run buses on Shabbat in Tel Aviv-Jaffa had no solution: secular people wanted public transportation seven days a week, and religious people did not, and the gap could not be bridged. That is, until a deputy mayor named Meytal Lehavi spent years bringing together people from all sides, drawing maps, finding compromises, and the problem with no solution was solved. (Yes, and this is one reason why I am a candidate on a Tel Aviv list headed by Meytal.) Israel doesn’t recognize same-sex marriage, but now there are plans to set up a hall in the new LGBTQIA+ center in downtown Tel Aviv to have Zoom weddings officiated from abroad and 100% legally binding in Israel.

Solutions like these are inelegant, and in time they’ll be replaced by better ones. But they are part of a new contract for what life is like in Israel, and that new contract will be written, first, in the cities. The national government will follow, as it always does.

A lot has been said and written lately about what Israel is and isn’t. In truth, what Israel is, is a place casting towards a new identity. The elections next week are the first step towards this new identity, towards a new contract between this place and all of us who make our lives here.

About the Author
Noah Efron is a candidate for Tel Aviv-Jaffa's City Council, on the Hozeh-Hadash-Hayarok-Bamerkaz-Meretz list. He is head of the Tel Aviv-Jaffa community of the green party, Hayarok Bamerkaz. Efron hosts TLV1's 'The Promised Podcast' and is chair of the Graduate Program on Science, Technology & Society at Bar Ilan University. To share your vision for a better city, or to complain about his, use this blog's 'Contact Me' option.