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Tel Aviv-Jaffa’s “City for All” – Is There Emancipatory Potential in Israeli Municipal Politics?: An Interview with Matan Kaminer

[Aharon Maduel (right, in black v-neck) and Ir LeKulanu activists in HaCarmel Market, Tel Aviv, October 15th, 2013. Image by Eyal Eithcowich] [Aharon Maduel (right, in black v-neck) and Ir LeKulanu activists in HaCarmel Market, Tel Aviv, October 15th, 2013. Image by Eyal Eithcowich]

Max Ajl (MA): Start by telling us a little about the Ir LeKulanu campaign.

Matan Kaminer (MK): Ir LeKulanu, “city for all of us” in Hebrew, is a municipal political party in Tel Aviv-Jaffa. It was founded six years ago by a number of activists who had been involved in different local struggles. Among the groups represented at the founding conference were the Palestinian community in Jaffa and the working-class Mizrahi Jewish community in Kfar Shalem–formerly Salameh–both of which were facing eviction from homes they had been settled in after 1948, residents in the center of town who were fighting for a public lot to be turned into a park rather than residential towers, a group struggling against privatization of the seashore, and more.

During the previous election, in 2008, our candidate for mayor was Dov Khenin, a member of parliament from the non-Zionist left Democratic Front for Peace and Equality (Hadash/al-Jabhah). Khenin won thirty-five percent of the vote and we got five seats in the city council, which was a huge and surprising success. This time, in the elections held on 22 October, our candidate was Aharon Maduel, who has led the struggle in Kfar Shalem for two decades. There was also another candidate for mayor, Nitzan Horovitz of the left-Zionist party Meretz. Results were less encouraging than last time: Maduel got nine percent of the vote for mayor (with thirty-eight percent for Horovitz and fifty-three percent for Huldai), and we garnered six percent of the vote and three seats (out of thirty-one) in the city council.

MA: Aharon Maduel is a Mizrahi candidate linked to Likud. This is an interesting political position–can you say more about it?

MK: Ir LeKulanu is not formally linked to any national political party and it includes the range of political views at the national level. There is a strong contingent of non-Zionist leftists like me, and there is a group from the South of Tel Aviv, many of whom are Likud members or sympathizers at the national level–but have a deep animosity towards the local Likud leadership in Tel Aviv. In addition, this time we were joined by the Jaffa section of Hadash, which is almost exclusively Palestinian, and its representative Amir Badran was number four on our list.

What makes this coalition possible is that Ir LeKulanu doesn’t deal with issues at what is called the “state-political” (medini) level–that is, it doesn’t have a position on the occupation and other issues that are decided at the national level. Our platform and program don’t deal with anything beyond the city limits.

I want to emphasize that Ir LeKulanu ran against the Likud in Tel Aviv-Jaffa, and helped to contribute to its pathetic showing–only two city council seats, for the party governing the country! The Likud ran a racist campaign promising to “silence the Muezzin” in Jaffa, which we strongly condemned; and then they smeared Aharon, printing copies of our leaflets in Arabic and handing them out in the South, with a gloss warning voters that Ir LeKulanu was running with “the Islamic movement.”

MA: What was the role of Hadash in this campaign?

MK: The role played by Hadash as such was more minor than last time. Hadash is a front, in which the Communist Party of Israel and Tarabut are two components. One can speak of two major camps within Ir LeKulanu–the CPI camp and the camp formed by Tarabut and the Southerners around Maduel. After Maduel was elected chairman and the city council list was chosen, it was clear that the Southern camp had gained the upper hand. At this point the CPI chose to focus all their efforts and energies on ensuring that the representative of Hadash-Jaffa would be included in the list–a worthy target, of course, but in so doing they unfortunately marginalized themselves. Tarabut remains very influential–number two on the list is Yael Ben-Yefet, a leading member of Tarabut as well as chairwoman of the “Mizrahi Democratic Rainbow.”

It is worth mentioning that this election has been disastrous for Hadash across the country. The municipality of Nazareth, which Hadash has held since the 1970s, fell to an apolitical local boss, ‘Ali Salam. I have been a member of Hadash for about fifteen years, and it seems to me that the front is at a watershed. The current leadership is sclerotic and conservative and has fought off change for many years. There has to be a major internal shakeup in Hadash. If this doesn’t happen, I don’t think it has much of a future left.

MA: You have written that “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.” Can you expand on what that means? By “Left” do you mean its socio-economic stance or its position on the colonial question?

MK: Yes, that was before the election and perhaps I would not be so triumphal about it today. In Israel “left” and “right” are used exclusively to refer to positions on the conflict, and that’s what I was referring to when I mentioned “Israeli terms.” Of course I reject such a limited definition, and for me a consistent left position is necessarily both anti-capitalist and anti-colonialist. Ir LeKulanu was, and is, such an important project because it unites Palestinians with Jews of both middle-class, Ashkenazi backgrounds and working-class, Mizrahi backgrounds, and in this it is totally unique. I don’t claim that Ir LeKulanu is itself anti-colonial; that would be absurd, given that its current head is a Zionist. I do claim that the strong position held by radicals, and now also by Palestinians, within the movement is a major achievement that should be consolidated.

MA: You have also written, “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.” Does this risk subordinating the colonial question to internal class issues?

MK: The risk exists; it always does. There are a lot of internal tensions within Ir LeKulanu that can be traced to this problem. An example is the issue of the African asylum-seekers whom the state has channeled into two or three neighborhoods in South Tel Aviv over the last two years. These neighborhoods, which were already underprivileged, have had to absorb about 30,000 new residents. Our position as a party is that the state has to take responsibility for the asylum-seekers; we don’t take a position on whether this means accepting or rejecting their claims.

But at a more fundamental level, I don’t see how the “colonial question” and “internal issues” are separable, such that we can speak of one being “subordinated” to the other. This separation reinforces a naïve theory that puts Israelis on a continuum from those “nearer” to a good position on the conflict (the Zionist left) to those “farther” (the right). This theory supposes that those on the left, which the Communist Party used to call “the democratic forces,” can be won over to the anti-colonial cause. The strategy based on it has proven completely inefficacious, over and over. Election results in Tel Aviv are a good example: 44,000 Tel Avivis voted for Khenin for mayor–most of them belonging to the stratum traditionally represented by the Zionist left. In the next national elections, where voting for Khenin would have meant voting for Hadash, an explicitly non-Zionist movement led by Arabs, only about ten percent of those voters (4,000) did so. In fact, even among those Jews who have the least to lose–those who have class and ethnic privileges in addition to their national Jewish privilege–it seems that only a tiny minority are willing to step over the line and reject Zionism.

When that is the case, it would be hypocritical to expect those whose only privilege is their Jewishness–those mostly Mizrahi Jews with no property, little cultural capital, no European passport–to be the first to give up Zionism. But even the meager privilege that being Jewish affords this group is being rapidly eroded. The fact that Shas, which represents this constituency, has been locked out of government by a middle-upper-class alliance uniting the right (Naftali Bennett) and “center-left” (Yair Lapid), is decisive. What will happen when the Jewish privilege of disenfranchised Israeli Jews disappears entirely? Will they turn to the anti-colonial cause, or to fascist reaction? The answer to this question is not foreordained. Anti-colonial forces must have a foothold in this community. Many Palestinian-Israeli activists are in agreement with me on this point. 

MA: What kind of reception did the campaign receive amongst anti-Zionists? And can you say more about Maduel’s position on Palestinian issues?

MK: Anti- or non-Zionists in Tel Aviv-Jaffa were split during this election. The Islamic Movement did not participate in it at all; the National Democratic Union (Balad/Tajama’u) ran under the name “Yaffa”; both the Jaffa and Tel Aviv sections of Hadash supported Ir LeKulanu. Most of the anti-Zionist criticism came from the Balad quarter. They accused us of splitting the Palestinian community in Jaffa and preventing its representation in the city council. But we didn’t split Yaffa; it split a few months before we were involved, and Hadash-Jaffa approached us and asked to enter Ir Lekulanu.

Maduel has been to Jaffa very often in the past five years and has always upheld the right of the Palestinian community there to individual and collective sumoud, though not in those terms of course. People in Jaffa are aware of this; even some activists for Balad, which did not officially endorse any candidate for mayor and supposedly reject Zionist candidates, told me they were voting for him.

MA: Maduel did not do very well. Can you give some reasons for this?

MK: Ir LeKulanu began as an alliance between middle-class, young Ashkenazi Jews from central Tel Aviv and working-class Mizrahi families from the south of the city. In the previous campaign, the first group was the senior partner. This time, after Maduel took over as leader, the center of gravity shifted. It was quite fascinating to see the subtle operations of hegemony between the two campaigns: Khenin, an Ashkenazi academic and parliamentarian, found it easy to take up the mantle of the universal, representing the common interest of all groups in the alliance; and I say this to his credit. Maduel, a Mizrahi autodidact who makes a living as a home repair contractor, found the cards stacked against him. Racism and classism definitely hurt his chances.

Another huge challenge was the fact that this was a three-way race. Nitzan Horovitz is an Ashkenazi journalist and Knesset member. Whereas in 2008 Khenin was heading a unique alliance, Horovitz targeted his home constituency in a very well-funded campaign. Because we represent all sorts of constituencies, we were spread very thin all over the city, and everywhere we were vulnerable to attack: in the South, Aharon was attacked for running with leftists and Arabs and being soft on African “infiltrators,” in the center, he was attacked as a Likudnik racist, often as a thin veil for racist attacks on him as a Mizrahi.

MA: So what is the next move given this defeat?

MK: I think “defeat” is too harsh a word. It’s a setback, certainly, but Ir LeKulanu has proven that it’s here to stay and that as an organization it is resilient enough to survive the change of leadership. We are the only consistently anti-neo-liberal, anti-racist movement in the city, and hopefully we will continue to attract new activists as we did during this campaign.

There will definitely have to be organizational changes, however. Compared to other municipal parties, which are funded by national parties or by rich donors, we are dirt poor. So if we want to win the next election, we have to develop deeper roots in the community so that we can bring out the vote.


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