The Small-town Mayor Who Could Rekindle Zionism

Michael Biton, who heads Yeruham in the Negev, is turning a poor town into a high-tech gem. He should run the Jewish National Fund.

Ari Shavit
Ari Shavit
Yeruham Mayor Michael Biton
Yeruham Mayor Michael BitonCredit: Kobi Kalmanovitz
Ari Shavit
Ari Shavit

At first glance, Monday’s election in the Labor Party convention is trivial: Who will head the Jewish National Fund. The election ostensibly revolves around an internal question: whether the candidate supported by Labor Party chief Isaac Herzog will be elected or the one supported by his predecessor, Shelly Yacimovich.

But the truth is, the Labor Party's decision could have a major significance for all Israel: The geriatric party has a one-time chance to send a new kind of politician to the old centers of power, someone who represents a different kind of politics. Labor can redefine itself by sending to the JNF — which buys, afforests and develops land — one of the most fascinating and promising public figures to blossom in Israel.

Michael Biton was born in 1970 in Yeruham. He grew up and was educated in that poverty-stricken small town in the Negev, and after serving as an officer in the Golani infantry brigade, served his hometown as a community organizer, educator and head of the community center. After being active in a number of NGOs and establishing a number of nonprofit groups that brought real change in Yeruham, he was elected to head the local council.

In the 2010 local elections, Biton won less than 45 percent of the vote, and in 2014 he won nearly 70 percent. Even though he joined Labor, spoke at the J Street conference and met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, religious-Zionist, ultra-Orthodox and Likud voters preferred him to lead them. They knew why: Over the past five years, Biton has turned Yeruham around. He has made it teem with activity and energy, a place pulling itself to the future.

A few weeks ago, when the despair in the political center became unbearable and the center-left’s complaining was getting on my nerves, I went down to Yeruham for a day. A long bicycle trip with Biton through his changing town brought the shine back into my eyes.

What the Nahal outposts in the Sinai did for singer Naomi Shemer once upon a time, Biton’s Yeruham did for me. Not the girls in Shemer’s song who walked between the lines of trees, not a lost Land of Israel, beautiful and forgotten, did I find around the corner. But on every street corner and in every science center and in every library Biton showed me Zionism — flesh-and-blood Zionism, human-sized Zionism, Zionism of the 21st century.

Villas in the booming town of Yeruham in the south. Credit: Eyal Toueg

In the previous decade a few dozen housing units were built. In the past few years, 1,500 were built. After the town’s population remained in a deep freeze for generations, it now looks set to double by 2022.

But this isn’t enough: Under the leadership of a committed, empathetic, traditional and enlightened mayor, the education system has improved and the percentage of students receiving a matriculation certificate has risen gradually. The entire town has signed up for the local flagship project: robotics; the dream is to send Yeruham’s satellite into space in a few years. In the meantime, a great effort is being made to develop and rehabilitate everything possible: the lake, parks, the social fabric.

About half the residents still live in poverty. The socioeconomic problems are enormous, and life is very different than that in the affluent cities in the center of the country. But wherever you turn, the great effort is clear. Pre-army preparatory programs, academies and new forms of social organization reinforce the feeling of identity, the meaning and pride of community. Yeruham is fighting for its future and offering the (many) new people who have joined it not just a single-family home but values and pioneering.

So bringing Biton into the center of Israeli political life could very well unleash a revolution. Such a step would have enormous symbolic value and far-reaching practical applications. Putting the head of the Yeruham local council at the head of the JNF would grant new life to the Zionist institution that has become so corrupt, and to the social-democratic party that has become so fossilized.

The choice isn’t one between Yacimovich and Herzog. It’s about a person who could transform Israeli politics.

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