How This Jerusalem Left-wing Bastion Turned Right in Israel's Last Election

Once the Jerusalem stronghold and symbol of Ashkenazi elite, a plurality of Rehavia voters backed Likud in last election

The Rehavia neighborhood in Jerusalem, March 4, 2020.
אמיל סלמן

There was a small political revolution in this month’s Knesset election in Jerusalem’s prestigious Rehavia neighborhood: The party that got the most votes was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud.

That surprised even Pini, the owner of a tiny neighborhood delicatessen, who was pleased and proud about the development: “For 40 years, I fought without success with residents who didn’t vote Likud,” he says. “I couldn’t believe it when I heard about the victory. I don’t know how it happened.”

The longtime Likud activist has worked on Gaza Road in the heart of the West Jerusalem neighborhood for 40 years, although he doesn’t live there. Many years ago, his store also served as a Likud headquarters.

Pini acknowledged the mixed nature of his success over the years. Referring to a late geography professor and his son, who was an army major general, a cabinet minister and Labor Party Knesset member and later the Israeli ambassador to China, Pini says: “Some people became more left-wing. The most right-wing was Prof. Zev Vilnay, but his son, Matan Vilnai, wasn’t right-wing.”

Pini also made mention of former Likud cabinet minister and former Knesset member Dan Meridor.

Pini in his neighborhood delicatessen, March 4, 2020.
Emil Salman

“Dan Meridor was right-wing, but today, he’s left-wing.” He called Meridor a close friend, but said he doesn’t come to the store as often these days. “At one time, we supported him,” he says. “Now he doesn’t need us as much.”

Referring to the founder of Likud, Menachem Begin, Rehavia resident Haim Baluashvili recounts: “In 1978, I was an 18-year-old kid. When they asked me who I voted for, I said Begin.” That, Baluashvili adds, prompted Labor Party supporters to shun him, “so I learned not to talk about it.”

He doesn’t live in the neighborhood either, but he is a familiar figure in Rehavia, having spent 41 years working at a neighborhood convenience store. “[Prime Minister] Yitzhak Shamir would eat a hard-boiled egg sandwich there in the morning,” he reminisced.

Baluashvili expresses pride in the diversity of the neighborhood, which is just adjacent to the center of the city, and even the fact that he sells 25 copies of Haaretz on Fridays. “That’s a lot,” he says, while explaining the changes that the neighborhood has undergone. “The longtime residents moved to Tel Aviv. Ultra-Orthodox residents have moved in, right-wing voters, but they’re fine – liberal, not fervent.”

Rehavia was founded in the 1920s and over the years was considered a symbol of an arrogant Ashkenazi elite, even though it was also home to Sephardim whose families had lived in the city for generations. It was a neighborhood of Supreme Court justices, Hebrew University professors and straitlaced German immigrants who came in the 1930s.

Gavirel Ginio says he wants the names of Likud voters, 'I’ll go after them with my cane!', March 4, 2020.
Emil Salman

Give me their names

Gavriel Ginio, 94, has always lived there. Asked if he could believe that for the first time Likud came out on top in a Knesset election in Rehavia, he quips: “Here? What are their names? I’ll go after them with my cane.”

Asked how he votes, Ginio refers to Israel’s first prime minister, who for much of his political career was associated with Mapai, the forerunner of the Labor Party. “I’m a [David] Ben-Gurion man,” he says with deliberate vagueness. Ginio, whose family immigrated to Jerusalem from the Greek city of Thessaloniki 200 years ago, still has a beef with the late prime minister.

Ginio lives across from the home that served as the prime minister’s residence when Ben-Gurion was in office. “Ben-Gurion cost me a lot of money, because when we built our house here, his wife, Paula, told me: ‘Every day at 1:30 P.M. I send [the prime minister] to take a nap. He needs to rest.’” To keep things quiet for the prime minister, everyone in the vicinity had to stop work for two hours, Ginio says.

Getting back to the present, Ginio says he’s still trying to digest the political shift in the neighborhood.

In remarks about a decade ago at a conference of the Israel Association of Public Law, the president of the Supreme Court at the time, Dorit Beinisch, spoke about how a new slur had developed: “And it’s called Rehavia,” she said.

“I assume that many of the younger generation around the country don’t know at all about the significance of Rehavia. Years ago, decades, it was the most prestigious neighborhood in Jerusalem. Its prestige wasn’t in that it was a neighborhood of the wealthy, but rather that intellectuals, Hebrew University professors, Zionist leaders and also some of the judges who contributed their talents to the Supreme Court lived there,” she told her audience.

“Eventually someone invented a populist gimmick, as if Rehavia was rich people who were cut off from ordinary Israelis, and now it is portrayed, with no basis in reality, as a left-wing stronghold,” she added.

In 2011, journalist Ari Shavit wrote in Haaretz an article that ended in a plea to another neighborhood resident, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, appealing to him to return to the values of the neighborhood. “Rehavia may be a place for bleeding hearts, but Rehavia is enlightenment and strength. In your better days, Rehavia is also you.”

Nissim and Avraham Haim in front of their grocery story, March 4, 2020.
Emil Salman

In the March 2 election, Rehavia was again Netanyahu or, more precisely, Likud. A quarter of the neighborhood’s votes went to Likud, ahead of the center-left Kahol Lavan’s 22% and Labor-Gesher-Meretz’s 15%

Support for Likud was up 6 percentage points over the September election and the increase appears to a considerable extent to have come at the expense of the Yamina slate of right-wing parties, which saw support drop by three points.

“According to the data, it’s not correct to say that Rehavia has gone Likud,” says Eitan Zinger, the CEO of the Madlan real estate website. “But it has certainly moved to the right, because of the support for parties on the right and the strengthening of [the ultra-Orthodox party] United Torah Judaism.”

The writer Kobi Arieli, who has lived in Rehavia for a decade, notes the growth of the neighborhood’s religious population. He recounts going to the main neighborhood park with someone who grew up in the area. “Together we looked at the population in the park,” he said, “and there wasn’t even a single secular person – just Haredi mothers and children.”

And, in addition to the rising strength of right-wing parties, also notable is that UTJ nearly doubled its vote tally in Rehavia compared with 2015. That is for the most part due to the fact that wealthy Haredim have increasingly been leaving the confines of the adjacent Haredi neighborhood of Sha’arei Hesed and have begun buying homes in Rehavia.

“That’s just part of the urban experiences,” says Arieli. “Here it’s part of the day-today experience – a neighborhood that is changing its tone but not its style. The truth is that I’m amazed when people cry over the changes in the neighborhood. Did someone promise you that things would always be the way they are?”

You hear a lot of crying around you?

“It’s a mark of honor for one-time secular residents and for yekkiness [the straitlaced lifestyle of old German-Jewish residents], although it’s hard to cry when your property has tripled in value. People may not be crying, but a large numbers of them are leaving. On the other hand, there are a lot of new-comers from Britain and France, I believe they day will come that more and more of the most observant Haredim will settle here and Haredim like me will leave.”

Matan Alkalai, 26, grew up in Rehavia, march 4, 2020.
Emil Salman

Everyone is served

The brothers Nissim and Avraham Chaim host everyone who turns up at their Yom Tov fruit and vegetable market on Gaza Road. Shas Chairman Arye Dery, Meridor and Beinisch have been among their regular customers. And the driver of Yisrael Beiteinu Chairman Avigdor Lieberman used to stop by to get cherries for his boss. “Here in Rehavia, Likud? That’s hard to get your head around,” says Nissim.

He says he doesn’t know of anyone who voted Likud. “Our customers don’t like to talk politics. If they do, then they don’t come to the store or are hurt,” he says and turns to Avraham. “Can you believe Likud won here?”“Ridiculous,” his brother answers. “They’re making fun of us.”

Except for Pini from the delicatessen, no one who spoke to TheMarker can believe that Likud was the biggest vote-getter in the neighborhood. That includes Matan Alkalai, 26, who has a business next door to the brothers. He grew up in Rehavia. His father is an architect and his mother worked at a nurse at Hadassah Medical Center.

Alkalai’s childhood friends all left Jerusalem long ago, but he has stayed because of his business – a hamburger takeout restaurant called Burger Room. “A taste like Tel Aviv,” he boasts.

“The whole country has become Likud from what I see, so I can see how it happened here, too,” he says. “A lot of religious people and students have moved here. Once it was just families, but a lot of them have moved to Tel Aviv. When I was a child, there was nothing here. Today, there’s nightlife – bars, restaurants that are open on Shabbat.”

“Rehavia was originally a secular neighborhood, but every property that becomes available in the neighborhood, whether the owners are moving to Tel Aviv or to a cemetery, are mostly bought by a new class of people, mostly foreigners,” says Simon Zerbib, a real estate agent who left the neighborhood for Tel Aviv four years ago.

Lilach Rubin, a restaurateur who defied the trend and move to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv 17 years ago, March 4, 2020.
Emil Salman

“Every potential buyer from overseas who wants a Jerusalem home and would ask where to buy would be sent to Rehavia, even if it was just for investment. So you see a lot of French and Americans. Still, Rehavia is one of the only Jerusalem neighborhoods where you can find businesses open on Shabbat or restaurants that are obviously not kosher because they have bacon on the menu, says Lilach Rubin, a restaurateur who defied the trend and move to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv 17 years ago. Even though religiously observant people have moved into Rehavia, the neighborhood has preserved its liberal character.

“There are a lot of Anglo Saxons [English-speaking immigrants] who want to preserve the secular ambience because it enhances the value of their properties.”

Rubin’s business, Shraga Café, is just a 10-minute walk from her home, so he knows all the neighborhood businesses and their owners and their customers, especially those on Gaza Road.

“While most of the professors who lived here once have moved to the Holyland [residential complex] or single-family homes, the character of the place has been preserved. It’s a neighborhood with a strong commercial center and a student atmosphere. As the older population dies out, young people move in, even if it’s expensive here. We don’t have the kind of nouveau riche that have taken over others places,” says Rubin.

Eli Yitzhaki, who has owned and operated a grocery in Rehavia for 36 years, recalls, “Once you couldn’t even mention Likud in the neighborhood. Today you can’t not talk about Likud in the neighborhood.” Really? “Yes. They’re wild about Bibi.”

Blame the Americans

Eli Yitzhaki at his grocery store in Rehavia, March 5, 2020.
Emil Salman

Yitzhaki attributes the change to the Americans who have moved into the area. “Americans with money have come here, they are investing in the neighborhood and most of the time their apartments are closed up.”

Has that been bad for business?

“There are a lot of nouveau riche who buy a lot. The professors who once lived here were more modest – not that I would complain.”

For all that, Netanyahu did not spend much effort campaigning in the area, but Yitzhaki says the prime minister was once a neighborhood fixture.

“He would take his walks here. He came to my shop for years, even before he was married to Sara,” Yitzhaki says. “He always said hello to everyone, a true gentleman who knows the job.” As to the stories about Netanyahu not paying his bills: “I swear, it never happened that he didn’t pay.”

Tali Friedman, a lifelong resident who was shopping at Yitzhaki’s grocery with her young daughter, isn’t surprised by the change in Rehavia’s voting patterns. Most of her childhood friends have moved to Tel Aviv.

“We have more and more residents coming from abroad. People who experienced anti-Semitism abroad and now they see themselves as fighting for their home,” she offers as an explanation for the electoral revolution. “A lot of them don’t live here most of the time, For example, l live in an empty building. It’s me on the ground floor, the sky and God, But on Election Day they’re all here, they all turn out to vote.”

A man wearing a kippa, who asks not to be identified, joins the conversation. “Likud has succeeded because the people are have come here are modern Haredim,” he explains. “The people who founded this neighborhood are long gone, the professors. The demographic change is most evident on Shabbat, I sit on my terrace and there are almost no cars, maybe on in an hour. Even Mayor Moshe Leon [of Likud] got a lot of votes in the local election.”