Can Nitzan Horowitz Become the Mideast's First Gay Mayor?

The Meretz MK and former foreign correspondent faces an uphill battle in challenging long-serving incumbent Ron Huldai in the Tel Aviv mayoral race.

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
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Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

Portland, Oregon could well be considered the most progressive and politically correct of American cities. So much so that the creators of “Portlandia” couldn’t resist taking a stab at it in their new hit American TV series.

But if Nitzan Horowitz had his way, that would be the role model. “Portland is my idea of a great city,” says the Meretz Knesset member who recently announced his bid to run for mayor of Tel Aviv.

“You can live there without a car, since it has a fabulous public transportation system – and that’s something you don’t take for granted in America. It’s a city that has very little pollution, lots of culture, and lots of emphasis on sustainability. In fact, it was one of the first cities to set up a municipal department of sustainability.” Which is precisely what Horowitz intends to do should the tables turn on October 22.

To be sure, he faces an uphill battle. Horowitz is challenging an incumbent, Ron Huldai, who has already served for 15 years with three electoral victories. Huldai is largely credited with turning Tel Aviv into the hip international destination it has become in recent years.

And to make matters worse for Horowitz, Huldai is particularly beloved among those who would seem to be the challenger's most natural constituents: the large and ever growing Tel Aviv LGBT community. Horowitz, after all, is the only openly gay member of the Knesset these days.

Indeed, it’s no easy task challenging the mayor of a city whose biggest problem, it would appear, is that housing prices are skyrocketing because everyone wants to live there. But Horowitz believes the city could lose its allure very quickly.

“If we continue in the direction of the current mayor – providing housing just for the very rich, doing nothing to improve the public transportation system, undermining small businesses – the city will become increasingly inaccessible," says Horowitz.

"People won’t be able to move here, they won’t be able to move around within the city, and they won’t be able to get their kids a decent education here. Maintaining Tel Aviv’s charm requires planning. That doesn’t exist today, but that’s what I bring to the table.”

Rent control

The main item on his platform is providing affordable housing through a public housing authority, which would set aside smaller apartments that could be sold or rented to needier residents.

“It exists elsewhere in the world,” says Horowitz. “In France, in Amsterdam, even in Manhattan there are rent-controlled apartments. If we want young people to live here – and they’re the ones who give this city its special charm – we need to be able to provide them with affordable housing.”

Another thing he would do is move thousands of African refugees and migrant workers out of the southern neighborhoods – where they have been made to feel far from welcome by many longtime residents – and give them proper, legal jobs in other parts the country.

“What we need to do is to stop bringing foreign workers here from Thailand, Nepal, Sri Lanka and all these other countries to work in construction, farming and cleaning," he says.

"And we need to take these people in south Tel Aviv, who live in truly abominable conditions, and put them in those jobs. As long as they’re here and there’s nowhere to send them now, we’ve got to give them work because otherwise they steal. The police chief called it crimes of survival. That’s what people do when they need to eat."

Horowitz would also put more money into education and transportation. “My program calls for building hundreds of new classrooms and preschools, and there’s money for that," he says. "We also need a more sophisticated public transportation system that addresses the huge problem of traffic jams.”

Personally, Horowitz prefers biking; the 47-year-old can often be sighted cycling around town or to the beach, which he says is his favorite hangout in the city. On Thursdays, when he’s not in Jerusalem at the Knesset, he can frequently be found at another of his haunts, Clementine Café on Ben-Gurion Boulevard.

Although he was born and raised in Rishon Letzion, Horowitz has been living in Tel Aviv for 30 years, ever since he began his military service working as a reporter for the army radio station, Galei Tzahal. He worked for 13 years at Haaretz, serving as foreign news editor and correspondent in Paris and then Washington.

“To me, Haaretz is more than a paper,” he says. “It’s a cultural institution. It’s hard for me to view the public sphere in Israel without this paper."

From print, Horowitz moved to broadcast journalism, working for six years as foreign affairs correspondent at Channel 10. During that time, he also produced documentaries that took him around the world. In 2009, he was voted into the Knesset on the Meretz ticket, and in last January's election he was third on the party's list. As a legislator, he has been particular active promoting environmental causes.

France and DC

Horowitz lives on Tel Aviv's Hapardes Street, right near City Hall, with his partner of 10 years, the theater director Ido Ricklin. “We also have a dog,” he says chuckling. “Now that’s a gay cliché for you.”

He’s part of a raft of Israeli journalists who have moved into politics in recent years, and it’s a positive trend, he maintains. “It’s not a new phenomenon,” says Horowitz. “Herzl and Jabotinsky remained active journalists when they headed big movements. And it’s not only journalists who come to politics naturally. It’s all kinds of people who are part of the public sphere. We bring to the table our experience in public engagement.”

And living abroad, has that influenced who you are and how you think?

“Very much so. When you live in other countries and are exposed to different cultures, different mentalities and different political systems, it expands your horizons. I recommend that everyone travel for a few years. It definitely had a huge impact on me. In France, I was exposed to a very strong political tradition, to lots of culture and to communities from around the world. In Washington, I learned a lot about the administration, about Jewish organizations and about lobbying.”

What makes you want to run for mayor?

“There are things that need to be done in Tel Aviv, and I feel I have both the knowledge and the tools to do it.”

Even though you don’t have any real managerial experience?

“A city isn’t a warehouse. It’s first and foremost a place where lots of people live. To run a city, you need experience in public life – and I have that. You also need vision and goals – and I bring that, too.”

The fact that Tel Aviv has become such an international city in recent years shouldn't be taken for granted, Horowitz says. “Maintaining its charm for tourists and foreigners requires action,” he says. “You need, for example, to reach out to them more and provide them with services and information in their own languages.”

The same holds true for the gay community. “Just because the gay community gets more resources in Tel Aviv than elsewhere in the country doesn’t mean it gets enough,” says Horowitz, who admits he fancies the idea of becoming the first openly gay mayor in the Middle East.

“There also has to be more investment put into educating children here about tolerance and sensitivity to gays,” he says. “It’s not only a problem in Tel Aviv. It’s a problem everywhere.”

Lest other voters misunderstand, though, he doesn’t see serving the gay community as his overriding mission. “I don’t intend to be mayor of just the gay community in Tel Aviv. I’ll be the mayor of everyone,” he says. “Everyone.”

MK Nitzan Horowitz.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

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