Tears and Loathing in ‘Israel’s Ohio’ as Election Day Nears

Rehovot has long been considered a bellwether for Israeli elections, which is why leading politicians were out in force there last week — along with Bibi die-hards and youthful support for a pro-pot party

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A Likud supporter manning the party's stand in a Rehovot mall, April 4, 2019.
A Likud supporter manning the party's stand in a Rehovot mall, April 4, 2019.Credit: Ilan Assayag
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

Want to know how Israelis will vote in Tuesday’s election? Forget the polls, take a walk around Rehovot. 

They call it Israel’s Ohio. As this central Israeli city goes, it is often said, so goes the nation.

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It was no coincidence that just five days before the election, virtually every political party was out in force here, hoping to rally support and win over undecided voters.

Over the course of several hours last Thursday, the biggest names in Israeli politics took turns parading through Rehovot’s main shopping mall — accompanied by flocks of cheering supporters in what was probably the biggest organized election event of the entire campaign. 

Meretz candidate Mehereta Baruch Ron, left, speaking to a potential voter in Rehovot, April 4, 2019.
Meretz candidate Mehereta Baruch Ron, left, speaking to a potential voter in Rehovot, April 4, 2019.Credit: Ilan Assayag

For Hadas Avivi, director of the municipal archive, it is quite obvious why her city has assumed the role of Israel’s bellwether. “There’s no doubt that, socially and economically, Rehovot is a microcosm of Jewish Israel — and I say Jewish Israel because, sadly, we have no Arabs in this city,” she says.

Indeed, in the last election in 2015, the vote breakdown in Rehovot would have been almost identical to all of Israel were it not for the fact that the Joint List — an alliance of four Arab parties — captured barely a tiny fraction of a percent of the vote in this city. By contrast, the Joint List (which recently split into two factions) won more than 10 percent of the vote in the country, emerging as the third largest party.

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Avivi is a scion of the legendary Smilansky family, who were among the first to settle in Rehovot in the 1890s. These original founders hailed from Eastern Europe, but virtually every subsequent major group of immigrants has left a foothold in this city.

Kahol Lavan candidates Miki Haimovich and Gabi Ashkenazi meeting supporters at a mall in Rehovot, April 4, 2019.
Kahol Lavan candidates Miki Haimovich and Gabi Ashkenazi meeting supporters at a mall in Rehovot, April 4, 2019.Credit: Ilan Assayag

The first Yemenite Jews to make their way to Ottoman Palestine — long before the establishment of the state — ultimately found their way to Rehovot. And many of their descendants are still proud townies, residents of the well-known Sha’arayim neighborhood.

Both Russian and Ethiopian Jews are heavily represented among the population, as are the ultra-Orthodox. In fact, after Jerusalem and Bnei Brak, Rehovot has possibly the largest population of Haredim in Israel. It also has a large contingent of Modern Orthodox Jews, many of them immigrants from English-speaking countries. 

Situated 25 kilometers (15 miles) south of Tel Aviv, Rehovot is home to the esteemed Weizmann Institute of Science and counts Nobel Prize winners and world-renowned researchers among its nearly 140,000 residents.  

When it comes to Jews, 52-year-old Avivi says she “can’t think of many other places with this much diversity. You basically have the entire nation of Israel in this one city — so while I’m not aware of the exact breakdown of votes in past elections, it definitely makes sense to me that we would vote like the entire country.”

A voter casting her ballot for Kahol Lavan into a fake election box in a Rehovot mall, April 4, 2019.
A voter casting her ballot for Kahol Lavan into a fake election box in a Rehovot mall, April 4, 2019.Credit: Ilan Assayag

As a municipal employee, she is not at liberty to divulge which party she will be supporting on Tuesday. She suffices with this response when pressed a bit: “I have voted and will always vote for a party that promotes universal and humanistic values, and represents all the citizens of this state.”

‘Every king receives presents’

The local fruit and vegetable market, located a few blocks away from the big shopping mall, is undeniably Likud territory. This is where visitors can count on meeting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hard-core base.  Take Elvis Aharonov, whose barbershop — featuring a prominent photograph of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe — lies right on its outskirts. 

“Nobody is capable of replacing Bibi,” says the 26-year-old, referring to the prime minister by his nickname. “Every time he speaks, he makes me feel secure. So I’m definitely voting for him.”

Elvis Aharonov at his barbershop in Rehovot. “Every time Bibi speaks, he makes me feel secure. So I’m definitely voting for him.”
Elvis Aharonov at his barbershop in Rehovot. “Every time Bibi speaks, he makes me feel secure. So I’m definitely voting for him.”Credit: Ilan Assayag

“So am I,” chimes in one of his customers. 

Aharonov says he’s not concerned about corruption charges leveled against the prime minister. “Every king receives presents, so why shouldn’t he?” he says.

Yet no sooner has he finished singing Netanyahu’s praises than the young barber, with no prompting whatsoever, launches into a monologue about struggling to make ends meet. “Ten years I’ve been working here,” he says. “Ten years, day in, day out, and I still don’t have enough money to buy myself an apartment.”

So might it not be time for change?

“If you mean Benny Gantz,” he responds, referring to Netanyahu’s top challenger in the centrist Kahol Lavan, “this is a guy who wants to divide up the land we sweated so hard for.

Labor Party leader Avi Gabbay greeting a supporter in Rehovot, April 4, 2019.
Labor Party leader Avi Gabbay greeting a supporter in Rehovot, April 4, 2019.Credit: Ilan Assayag

“And if you mean Avi Gabbay,” he adds, referring to the Labor Party leader, “the guy’s a total clown.”

“Mr. Banana” is the name of a fruit and vegetable stand located just across the road. It’s run by Amir Dwaik, a rare example of a Muslim Arab who lives in the city. What brought him to this overwhelmingly Jewish city isn’t entirely clear, but where he stands politically definitely is. “Only Bibi,” the 25-year-old vendor says. “Nobody else is capable of running this country.” 

A short conversation reveals that an issue of paramount concern for him is teenage girls who disregard modesty rules. 

Mr. Banana fruit and vegetable stand owner Amir Dwaik, a rare example of a Muslim Arab in Rehovot. “Only Bibi,” the 25-year-old vendor says. “Nobody else is capable of running this country.”
Mr. Banana fruit and vegetable stand owner Amir Dwaik, a rare example of a Muslim Arab in Rehovot. “Only Bibi,” the 25-year-old vendor says. “Nobody else is capable of running this country.”Credit: Ilan Assayag

Ziv Malaku owns a small shop in the market that specializes in Ethiopian spices and delicacies. He will not be voting this time around. “My vote makes no difference at all,” says the bearded 43-year-old, who immigrated to Israel nearly three decades ago. 

His entire family will be voting Likud, he says, adding that he too once supported the party. “But Bibi is a racist and an extreme right-winger, and I can’t bring myself to vote for him anymore,” he says. 

Malaku had considered voting for Hayamin Hehadash, the new right-wing party headed by Naftali Bennett. “But I realized that he’s no better,” he says. 

Meretz supporters trying to sway voters at a mall in Rehovot, April 4, 2019.
Meretz supporters trying to sway voters at a mall in Rehovot, April 4, 2019.Credit: Ilan Assayag

One of his regular customers walks in, a woman who appears to be in her forties and does not want her name published. As she waits for Malaku to pack up her order, she chokes back tears describing the hardships she has endured since immigrating to Israel. And whom will she be voting for on Tuesday? “Bibi,” she says. 

Just the ticket

The Hebrew University Faculty of Agriculture, Food and Environment is situated about a mile away. Politically speaking, though, it is another world away. On this warm spring day, small clusters of students can be found relaxing on the main campus lawn surrounded by gorgeous vegetation.

Aviv Zinger, a third-year student in the plant sciences department, says he will be voting Labor in this election. “Originally, I thought I might go with a different party,” says the 27-year-old. “But the truth is, I couldn’t find a party with a better ticket. And its platform addresses the issues that concern me most — the peace process and cost of living.”

Classmate Fouad Kheir, an Israeli Druze, isn’t completely decided yet, but says he’s leaning toward Kahol Lavan. “I’m not sure Benny Gantz is going to make a good prime minister,” he says, “but he’ll be better than the one we have.”

Shoppers resting at a mall in Rehovot with ads for Moshe Kahlon's Kulanu party behind them, April 4, 2019.
Shoppers resting at a mall in Rehovot with ads for Moshe Kahlon's Kulanu party behind them, April 4, 2019.Credit: Ilan Assayag

Omri Asher, who is in his third year of veterinary medicine, says that in all likelihood he will cast his ballot for Labor. “I like all the people on their list,” says the 28-year-old. “They’re not totally right wing and not totally left wing. I like their defense platform, as well as the fact that they have lots of women at the top of the slate and are very supportive of the LGBT community.”

Bar Basson, 26, says he is “almost sure” he will be voting for Kahol Lavan. “It’s mainly because I’m not happy with the current government, and I think it’s time to give someone else a chance,” says the third-year plant sciences student. 

“And in my opinion,” he continues, referring to the numerous corruption scandals plaguing Netanyahu, “there’s no smoke without fire so it’s time he made way for someone else — a prime minister who will unite, rather than divide, the people.”

Sitting on the grass next to him is Yuval Koznitsov, a first-year student in the agroecology department.  Raised in a religious home, she says she voted for the religious Zionist party Habayit Hayehudi in the last election. Right now, though, she’s considering voting for Zehut — the libertarian party that champions a peculiar combination of Jewish supremacy and pot legalization. 

Supporters of Benny Gantz's Kahol Lavan party at a mall in Rehovot, April 4, 2019.
Supporters of Benny Gantz's Kahol Lavan party at a mall in Rehovot, April 4, 2019.Credit: Ilan Assayag

“I don’t really feel there’s a party out there that truly represents my values, which are love, freedom and equality,” says the 22-year-old student. “I have lots of friends who will be voting for Zehut, and so I just might, too.”

Top two issues

Rabbi Mikie Goldstein, the Conservative movement’s first — and to date only — openly gay pulpit rabbi in Israel, lives here in Rehovot.  Born in Liverpool, where he belonged to the national religious Bnei Akiva youth movement, Goldstein moved to Israel in 1989. 

Nearly five years ago, he was installed as the spiritual leader of Adat Shalom-Emanuel, one of the oldest Conservative congregations in the country. About 60 percent of the congregation’s members are immigrants, he says, the majority of them from English-speaking countries. “I would say that the members of this congregation definitely span across the left-right spectrum,” he notes. 

Gesher leader Orli Levi-Abekasis talking to a member of the public in Rehovot, April 4, 2019.
Gesher leader Orli Levi-Abekasis talking to a member of the public in Rehovot, April 4, 2019.Credit: Ilan Assayag

Goldstein, who also serves as president of the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative movement in Israel, does not believe it is his job to tell his congregants how to vote. Rather, he see his role as “pointing out issues that they should be thinking about” when making their decision.

And what would those be? The peace process should be “number one,” he says, followed by religious pluralism.

Born in Germany, 88-year-old Yehoshua Rosin has been living in this city for more than 60 years. The veteran left-wing activist counts himself among a tiny fraction of local residents who will be voting for Hadash-Ta’al, one of the two Arab alliances running in the election. “I’m a leftist with a capital ‘L,’” he says proudly. 

He didn’t always vote for far-left parties, though. Rosin, a retired executive from an agri-business firm, says that until 1967 he was a Labor Party supporter. “I was part of the consensus, maybe on the left side of it, but still part of the consensus,” he says. “After the Six-Day War, everyone else in the country moved to the right. I just stayed where I was.”

FLYING THE FLAG FOR BIBI: A Likud supporter outside a mall in Rehovot, April 4, 2019.
FLYING THE FLAG FOR BIBI: A Likud supporter outside a mall in Rehovot, April 4, 2019.Credit: Ilan Assayag

Make Israel fun again

Hadash-Ta’al is so outside the consensus in this city that it doesn’t even have a booth at the Channel 13-sponsored election event being held at the shopping mall. On the ground floor, participants are lining up to cast their votes in a mock election. Rehovot being Rehovot, the parties are sure to be watching the outcome here closely. Alas, a few hours into the voting, several locals are caught stuffing the ballot box and the race is called off.

Left-wing Meretz has been teetering on the electoral threshold, according to recent polls. But over at the party booth, local activist Ital Batzir Alsheh says she is feeling upbeat. “When the municipal elections were held here in October, people were also saying we wouldn’t get in,” recalls the 43-year-old public relations executive. “And what do you know? We got enough votes for two seats in City Hall.

“If we have the same luck now,” adds the recently elected city council member, “you’re going to be witnessing a major upheaval in the next Knesset.”

Yarden Nathan was born in this city and moved back 11 years ago, after spending a big chunk of her life in London. The flamboyantly dressed 61-year-old is a die-hard Bibi fan. “I don’t think he can do anything bad for this country,” she says. “He can only do good. And you wait, I promise you. Just like he says, all the allegations against him will turn out to be nothing.”

Elior and Elyse Birmo are strolling around the mall with their baby. He’s an Ethiopian-Israeli, she’s an immigrant from France. They’re both voting for Zehut. “It’s the only party that cares about unity in this country between religious and nonreligious, even between Jews and Arabs,” says Elyse, explaining their joint decision. “It’s the only party that’s trying to make this country fun to live in.”

But as religious Jews, are they not concerned about marijuana legalization? “It doesn’t bother me,” says Elyse. “Marijuana is no more harmful than alcohol or cigarettes.

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