I was standing outside of a stranger’s house in Jaffa, introducing myself to the other guests who had arrived for the political meeting. One of the men leaned forward and asked, “What’s your name, again?”
“Tehila,” I said, enunciating slowly and just a little wearily.
“Voila,” he said, puzzled. He gave me a long, scrutinizing look. It’s a response I’ve grown to expect from all Israelis, be they coffee baristas taking my order at Aroma or retired Jewish intellectuals attending political open houses in Jaffa. My name doesn’t fit my profile. Young Jewish women named Tehila don’t wear pants. They aren’t introduced by Muslim women in hijabs as “my friend.” And they certainly don’t attend Jaffa List meetings.
Many of those who have been closely following municipal elections in Tel Aviv-Jaffa — and it’s a select group, especially among Anglo olim — know little to nothing about the Jaffa List. They might recognize it as “the Arab party,” although the third candidate on the List is Jewish and the platform includes repeated commitments to diversity and multiculturalism. It is certainly the only party running for the city council that seriously concerns itself with issues specific to the Arab community. This is unsurprising: none of the other parties focus on representing Jaffa, and Tel Aviv’s Arab population is negligible.
A few weeks ago, Zahie Kundis, the fifth candidate on the List and a good friend, asked me to attend a Hebrew open house to hear firsthand from Abed Abu Shehada and Lisa Hanania, the leading candidates. I was the only Tel Aviv resident at the meeting, the only olah chadasha, and most likely the only religious Jew. I walked in feeling utterly out of place. I walked out giddy with rare political optimism and respect for the candidates. The discourse in the meeting, a passionate and frank conversation between Jews and Arabs about the problems in their city and how to solve them, reminded me why I had become an Israeli citizen in the first place.
I grew up surrounded by educators and community leaders who waxed poetic over Israel’s democratic nature. The fact that Arab parliamentary members are elected in a Jewish state was constantly cited as a sign of Israel’s multiculturalism and tolerance. Of course, these Arab MKs are hardly holding up Israel as a model of liberal democracy, while those who tend to applaud Israel’s political pluralism the most are also the least likely to vote for the Joint List. Such are the stark and sometimes painful ironies of this country. Whatever your national-level politics are, however, these municipal elections are an opportunity for the vocal defenders of democracy and Israel to support the principles they admire — peaceful coexistence and democratic representation — on a local level. The day-to-day problems of Jaffa will not be solved by parliament.
For Arabs and Jews alike in Israel, “politics” is often treated as a dirty word. This attitude is generally complemented by cynicism, pessimism, and a belief that all political engagement is futile. At the open house, I spoke to young Jaffaites bursting with energy and experience who want to work within the system in order to help their community. They are interested in fixing sidewalks for young mothers with strollers, installing lights to make the streets safer for women, and improving the school system. Their passion is inspiring and their hope is infectious.
Through no choice of the residents, Jaffa is Tel Aviv’s Siamese twin. With 10 percent the population size of Tel Aviv, Jaffa is represented and run by the same municipality. Politically speaking, this means that the votes and voices of this pluralist, poor, violence-wracked and culturally rich city are consistently drowned out by the more numerous, relatively homogenous citizenry of Tel Aviv. The problems faced by Tel Aviv and Jaffa are not the same. The weak infrastructure, lack of educational opportunities, and social challenges of Jaffa require intimate local knowledge to solve.
Municipal elections are happening on Tuesday, October 30th. The leaders of Jaffa List hope to win three seats on the city council. This would give Jaffa representation roughly equivalent to its population size relative to that of Tel Aviv. As a religious immigrant living in Tel Aviv, my specific interests are not directly represented by the Jaffa List platform. As a feminist Israeli who believes in equal opportunity and political engagement, I am proud to support the party that will work for previously invisible populations in my area. It is past time for Jaffa to have a voice at the table.