Naomi Tsur spent five years as a third-string deputy to Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, responsible for the ancient city’s urban planning and environmental sustainability files.
But when she grew tired earlier this year of the backseat her policy initiatives were taking at male-dominated city hall, the Bristol-born 65-year-old jumped ship to start Israel’s first political party with predominately female leadership. Ometz Lev, which means “Braveness of Heart,” is running 10 candidates in Jerusalem’s October 22 municipal election on a platform of gender equality and urban sustainability. Eight of those candidates are women, and each represents a segment of the city’s religious and ethnic mosaic.
Tsur spoke to Moment recently about why Jerusalem needs women at the helm and the difficulties in reaching female voters in a highly religious electorate.
Why was it important or critical, even, to establish a political party in Jerusalem run primarily by women?
We’ve had various gender inequality issues in this city. In the case of the ultra-Orthodox, the freedom denied to women is the freedom to take up public positions. We’re changing that now. For 15 years you had an ultra-Orthodox majority in city hall. Gender equality was being violated. On ultra-Orthodox buses there was a passive agreement that women would sit at the back and the men would sit at the front. Now we have a high court decision saying you can’t do that on a bus. There was also the issue of not putting women’s pictures in public places. One of the things I came to realize is that battling those issues is a very defensive mode. It doesn’t really advance the status of women. It doesn’t mean that more women are directing companies and more women are entering into senior posts at the university or more women are sitting around the table at city council.
So why now?
Currently in our municipal council we have eight women, which I think is an all-time high. That’s eight women out of 31 [councilors]. If we look ahead to the next administration and take Ometz Lev out of the equation, there cannot possibly be more than three women on the city council. That’s a big drop. Ometz Lev is a chance to set things right and to get people thinking about what real democracy means, about having all voices represented.
What inspired you to assume leadership of Ometz Lev?
The final straw for leaving the mayor was a feminist straw. When I told the mayor I was leaving him he looked very said, and he said: “You know what this means? It means I’ll have to find another woman.” What he meant was that I was fulfilling a function, even though I was the number three deputy on his list with a lot of responsibilities. I was a woman filling a position.
You’re saying you were a token?
I was, unfortunately. In spite of having achieved a lot in this last term of office I was ornamental. It was the “right” thing to do to have me as a deputy. It became apparent that me and my agenda weren’t going to be appreciated going forward, so I left.
Jerusalem’s female voters cross a wide swath of political, ethnic and religious territory. Who are you reaching out to?
Underrepresented women in all sectors. Until now, women in the ultra-Orthodox centers haven’t been represented at all because they haven’t run for public office. I’m hoping to create solidarity among different groups. In our party, we have an Ethiopian lady [Yaffa Sahalo], an ultra-Orthodox lady [Masada Porat]—the first ultra-Orthodox woman to be running for office on the city council—and we have a reform rabbi who’s a member of Women of the Wall [Rabbi Susan Silverman].
Jerusalem is about 35 percent Arab. How are you connecting with that constituency?
We have a very stupid situation. We have a city that’s 35 percent Arab, largely Muslim, and they’re not sitting around the table bargaining and arguing for their share of the budgets. To my knowledge, there has never been Arab representation on the city council, and not because they’re not entitled to vote. Coming up to these elections there’s been a statement released by the Palestinian Authority that anyone who goes out and votes in our elections will be called a traitor to the Palestinian cause. We had two lovely young Muslim women who wanted to join our solidarity list very badly. But they found themselves under pressure from their peers and their family, and were frightened off by parents and friends. That was tragic.
What is your position on the status of Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state?
At some time in the future, someone is going to say: “This is the line; this is where Israel ends and Palestine begins—somewhere on the outskirts of Jerusalem.” We don’t know when that line is going to be drawn. But wherever that line is, the only precondition I would set is that it’s irrelevant to all parties living in the city. You have to have a real peace so that people living on either side of that line can cross over it go to work, cross over it to go to the hospital or go to the zoo.
What defines Jerusalem as a city in 2013?
There are three kinds of Jerusalem. There’s the heavenly Jerusalem and the earthly, urban Jerusalem. And there’s the geopolitical Jerusalem, which is the one that keeps being carved up in a jigsaw puzzle. Those doing the carving don’t consult with the good people of Jerusalem on how they see their city in the future. What makes the city harmonious, and what makes it work well, is the population-specific neighborhoods. You have ultra-Orthodox, Arab Muslim, Christian and pluralistic neighborhoods and your public domain where everyone is together. People are constantly meeting each other in the workplace or in recreation, but they go home to their kind of people. The tremendous challenge for Jerusalem is to preserve both the historic and natural heritage in the city and still look forward to a greener, cleaner future.