'I won't remain silent anymore'
The mayor who has ruffled no few feathers in his city over the years is still at it: This week Ron Huldai again railed against what he sees as the anti-democratic, state-funded Haredi school system
After speaking at a conference on education in Tel Aviv on Sunday, the city's mayor, Ron Huldai, left for a trip to the United States. It was only after he called his office from New York that he became aware of the furor he had created with his remarks at the event, which was sponsored by the Kibbutzim College of Education.
He stated, for example, that private, state-funded Haredi (ultra-Orthodox ) education cultivates ignorance, and "is endangering our societal and economic strength." He added: "There must be an awakening, perhaps even a rebellion, that will restore to Israeli democracy its right and ability to intervene on crucial issues such as education."
Afterward, speaking from Los Angeles, he admitted that he had been more blunt than usual in his remarks, but did not imagine that people would react so strongly.
"I didn't expect a reaction like that," he said. "It looks like things have been accumulating, incubating. Maybe I touched a raw nerve."
Why is everyone suddenly so fed up with Haredi education? Is it because of the "Nahari law" (referring to a 2007 amendment to the State Education Law, sponsored by Shas' Meshulam Nahari, which allows local governments to fund "recognized but unofficial" institutions, such as Haredi-run schools )?
Huldai: "I don't know about other people, but for me the Nahari law made it possible for me to say outright what I could not say before: that the State of Israel is fully financing private education. Previously, local governments could reinforce, say, a state, secular or 'free' school - or whatever you choose to call it - but now the lawmakers suddenly come and say: 'If you're giving something to Yaakov, you have to give the same to Moshe.' Why? Just like that."
That's a harsh description.
"It's a harsh law! It's anti-democratic! It's a law that works against the community and compels it to finance education of a kind that in many cases it does not want, and that in the end comes out against that very community!"
People who have followed Huldai in the past year will surmise that he wrote such a scathing speech in advance and that he barely restrained himself from being even more outspoken. He did not say, for example, that child allowances and the funding for education stipulated under the Nahari law are intertwined instruments, which prevent the Haredi public from escaping the enticing trap of economic dependence. Maybe he just ran out of time, because Huldai certainly didn't remain silent on this point out of politeness. From his point of view, he's in an ideal situation today: He can finally say what he thinks.
Huldai thinks before he speaks but his pull-no-punches style of delivery has made him no few enemies. His supporters are convinced that he always speaks from the heart and is driven by a defined worldview. His first priority is always education.
Huldai's father is mentioned in Amos Oz's "A Tale of Love and Darkness" as the legendary teacher of the children on Kibbutz Hulda (and, in a book by the literature professor Avraham Balaban, as a teacher who terrified those same children ); the mayor's older brother is involved in education to this day. So it wasn't by chance that Huldai enthusiastically took over as principal of the Gymnasia Herzliya high school in Tel Aviv after he left the air force, in 1990.
The somewhat coarse combination of a kibbutznik from the left-wing Hashomer Hatzair movement and an arrogant, rough-hewn pilot who speaks at a staccato clip and sets a high bar of achievement for anyone working with him, did not exactly generate affection among the public when Huldai first announced his candidacy for mayor a dozen years ago. Nevertheless, he won once, then again, and was apparently held in very high regard. He then won a third term, even though his opponents backed an impressive rival candidate: MK Dov Khenin (Hadash ). Huldai found it very difficult to cope with the insults hurled at him by Khenin's backers - to the effect that he likes to hobnob with the owners of capital and prefers the high rollers from the high-rises to the young people of Tel Aviv. "Me, a capitalist?" he once shouted, his face turning a deep red.
Huldai admits today that in the past he was unable to debate certain issues substantively and did not pay enough attention to younger generations, whose members he is now trying to compensate in his usual laconic, practical fashion. Tel Aviv is still important to him, and at the age of 66 he still works hard, because that's how he was brought up. But the situation of the country worries him no less and perhaps more than it once did.
At one time Huldai considered stepping up his activity in the Labor Party. But since party leader Ehud Barak turned his back on him, Huldai ran on his own list locally and has shunned national politics. His friends waited for him to run against Barak for the party leadership. 'Go for it,' they told him: 'You are a true-blue left-winger and a believer in peace; you have the vast political and administrative experience and also a security background that is so important in this country.'
Asked now about this, he burst into laughter. "Me? Why me? Besides, what is left to say about the Labor Party?" According to a close friend of his, Huldai has been saying for a few years that there is no Labor Party. In his view, Barak appointed the central committee himself and amended the party constitution, and Labor has become a tool that exists to support him. But if not for that obstacle, would Huldai run? It's possible, the friend says.
"So you don't want me to talk about education?" the mayor asked, and then answered his own question: "The future of education in Israel concerns me deeply. I watch heartsick as everything that moves is privatized and state education is destroyed, with excuses drawn from concepts that belong to some sort of post-liberal, broadminded conceptual universe."
Huldai denies it, but he almost torpedoed the education conference, which the Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality co-sponsored. At the start, he welcomed the audience, fired his verbal volley, was applauded and left the stage. He then took his place in the auditorium and listened to the speakers. At one point an elegant woman took the podium and started to talk about Bank Hapoalim's education agenda. Huldai seethed. 'Who is that?' he demanded from his aides. 'She is not listed in the program!' The aides explained that she was a representative of the bank. What was a Bank Hapoalim representative doing at a conference on education? Huldai's aides checked and informed him that the conference organizers had needed another NIS 100,000, which the bank provided - in return for letting the representative speak.
Huldai stalked out of the hall, making no effort to hide his anger. The organizers ran after him, apologized and promised it would never happen again. Huldai's fury did not abate, and probably only the fact that he had to catch a plane spared the organizers a scandal.
You don't want to consider running for the leadership of the Labor Party, but you are extremely concerned about the situation in Israel. What will you do after leaving the mayor's office in 2013? Go back to teaching?
"I have no idea. I can't solve all the world's problems. I've done a few things in Tel Aviv and maybe I'll do a few more. But I have no intention of remaining silent any longer about the important issues. No one can touch me now, so I can at least speak out."