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Monday, October 28, 2013 

Tzfat gets its first female and black council members

For the first time in modern history, the municipul council in Tzfat had its first female member elected, and also its first black member, the former which doesn't play well with Haredi politicians who've got too much representation on the council:
Five days after the municipal election, Safed residents still find it hard to believe that for the first time in years they are not being forced to deal with weeks of a fierce second round. Ilan Shohat, Safed’s young mayor, managed to soundly defeat his opponent and win a second term in office. Victory for an incumbent in Safed is rare enough, and in one round of election, no less.

It seems however that the holy city of Safed is having a harder time dealing with the fact that for the first time in the city’s history, a woman has been elected to serve on the city council. Viki Elkabetz stirred up quite a bit of anger among the ultra-Orthodox community just by running for the position, made history by front-lining a ticket and even managed to get another representative from her list elected.

Elkabetz, 55, who has served as a coordinator for the Movement of Working Women & Volunteers for many years, ran on an independent list that won support from the Labor Party. MKs Hilik Bar, Stav Shaffir, Isaac Herzog and Itzik Shmuli traveled to the northern city to campaign for her list.

Elkabetz admits that the election results surprised even her. “In Safed men control everything, and unfortunately even women haven’t encouraged other women who have tried to get elected to the city council. The fact is that I’m known, and the personal touch, are what tipped the scales, but without a doubt I received support from the secular community as well,” she says.

In her distant past, she says, she played on the women’s national soccer team and was known for her perseverance. “I didn’t for a second think to quit during the election campaign, either,” she notes.

“Unfortunately, the secular community is becoming less involved in the daily life of the city. It saddens me that they’ve become indifferent, but the votes for me show that perhaps the secular community is starting to raise its head again. At the moment, people have great expectations of me and that's a little daunting, but I’ll do my best to live up to them."

According to figures from 2012, Safed has a population of 32,064. The average income in 2010 was NIS 5,034 per month (in Upper Nazareth at the time the average income was NIS 5,808.) New immigrants (who moved to Israel from 1990 onward) comprise 18% of the population. Shohat, a Safed native who straddles the line between traditional and secular (he does not wear a skullcap) has served as the city’s mayor since 2008.

Safed’s population began to stagnate in the mid-1980s as young children from local families increasingly began to leave the city. A large influx of ultra-Orthodox came to the city, most of them from a lower socioeconomic standing. Today, the ultra-Orthodox make up a third of Safed’s population. Tourism, which in the past was a primary source of income for the city, dwindled, and an alternative source of income has not been found.

The last few years have seen some renewed interest and investment in Safed, and a new medical school was recently founded there, along with many other new educational endeavors.

Yoram Omer, who has been involved in Safed's local media for some 15 years, led Elkabetz’s campaign. “The choice to work with Viki was first and foremost an ideological one. I was born in Safed, and I’ve been here through the good times and the bad times. The political roster in Safed is quite clear: It’s all men, and most of them are Haredim. It was clear to me that voting for Viki, above all, conveys a social message: We need a woman on the ‘men’s council.’ A woman’s voice must be heard,” he says.

“It cannot be that in a city with a population of over 30,000, most of whom are not ultra-Orthodox, there are 11 ultra-Orthodox men on the city council, out of 15 representatives. The message was clear: For Safed to win, it needs a woman on the council. It worked, and we managed to win two seats. I believe that in another five years we can double that,” says Omer.

Michal Halevi, a resident of the city, voted for Elkabetz although she did not know of her prior to the election. “I don’t know her and I’ve never met her,” says Halevi, who voted for her “as someone who represents what is needed to empower this city. She’s a woman, she’s secular and she has a clean past.”

Elkabetz says that she decided not to try and win votes among the city’s female ultra-Orthodox population. When trying to convince one such voter, Elkabetz was scolded and told that her campaign was inappropriate, and that a woman’s place is in the home. This both hurt and saddened her, she says.

“It pained my heart. It’s hard for me to believe that women live with this kind of mentality and this is how they raise their children. This kind of lifestyle perpetuates a sad economic reality and a life of poverty.”

The other representative on Elkabetz’s list to be elected has also made local history: Arik Mangiste has become the first Ethiopian immigrant to serve on Safed’s city council.

Omer is convinced that their election is a strong statement and the start of a social revolution. “Safed residents did not let this historic opportunity slip through their fingers. I believe that now, more opportunities will arise,” he says.
I admire them for their success, and if they've got a true love for the land of Israel, that'll be all the more reason to hope they stand strong against the Haredi fools who've been setting such poor examples of living.

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