Beit Shemesh's new mayor prepares for change

Aliza Bloch Photo: Jonathan Bloom

Aliza Bloch, who won the election in a tremendous upset, talks about economic growth, tolerance and transparency.

Anyone entering newly-elected Beit Shemesh Mayor Aliza Bloch's office will notice something different about the room. Bloch points to pictures of President Reuven Rivlin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and she explains, "Besides the flowers, there were many pictures of rabbis here, but none of the prime minister. I decided differently."

"Globes": What is the first thing that you changed in Beit Shemesh?

Bloch: "I don't think that getting rid of people is the right thing to do. I did publish tenders for senior positions, such as municipal engineer, personnel manager, and welfare. Some of the organizational changes that the municipality has to go through involves transparency. A resident should know that he doesn't need a connection or a wheeler-dealer to get service. My working assumption about municipal employees is that most people want to do good; they're not all criminals. If we catch someone doing something in breach of proper administration, however, we'll show no tolerance for it. Keep in mind that we're a city of 122,000 people, and we'll have 250,000 people within a decade. Our socioeconomic classification is low - 2 - and we have to raise it."

The mayor of a certain city whispered in my ear a few years ago that it was worthwhile leaving his city with a low rank, because it guaranteed he would get money from the government.

"I don't agree with that at all. I have no interest in a low ranking. I definitely want an exemption from grants, and I want economic independence. We have backing from the government right now, and I also received a city with a considerable deficit, but the real challenge is stabilizing the budget and bringing entrepreneurs who will invest in high tech and industry in the city. Young people from the general public who left the city will come back here to live, because leaving here was a mistake. We're in the best possible place between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. When the city becomes economically independent, the residents will automatically feel better."

How do you do it without support from the government?

"Many of the city's problems are due to decisions by the government, which sent large numbers of people here with no solutions for infrastructure or employment. In past meetings I had with the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Construction and Housing, however, I saw a great desire to help Beit Shemesh. They realize that this city is a difficult one, and that this is an opportunity that must not be missed."

"60% of municipal taxes should come from business"

"52% of the city's municipal property tax revenues comes from residential property, in which many people are entitled to discounts; only 48% comes from commerce and industry. In order to balance the budget, 60% of revenues from municipal property taxes has to come from commerce and industry and 40% from residences, and then the percentages have to improve every year.

"Beit Shemesh has an enormous advantage in its location. I'm aware that the services that industrialists receive from the city have been poor up until now, whether it's garbage collection, lighting, or economic benefits. I'll do everything necessary to give industrialists benefits, so that it will be worthwhile for them to come here, including releasing land for industry, and I'll give benefits to industrialists who employ young haredim, which is a very important thing here.

"Hundreds of haredi families came here without any jobs. We have to take care of them, especially employment for haredi women. Today, it takes an hour to get from Ramat Beit Shemesh Gimmel to the railway station. We'll strive to arrange public transportation that will take residents from the neighborhood straight to the industrial zone. There's no reason why Beit Shemesh residents should have to travel to Jerusalem or Tel Aviv to work.

"Something else that hasn't been here at all is tourism. We're close to the Beit Guvrin Caves and Avshalom Cave, in what just might be the most beautiful area in Israel, and there are no tourist services here. I definitely regard tourism as another means of increasing the city's revenues. We'll prepare land for hotels. Just like I want to see the biggest companies in the services and high-tech sector here, I also want to see hoteliers here. The smartest investment for entrepreneurs will be in Beit Shemesh, because the prices are still cheap, but they'll go up in a few years."

To the previous mayor's credit, he managed to take the Hartuv industrial zones away from the Mate Yehuda Regional Council and add them to Beit Shemesh.

"And nothing happened with it - it was simply wasted. We have areas zoned for industry that have to be developed, but it wasn't a high priority for the preceding administration."

"Haredim also deserve quality of life"

When Bloch talks about the construction challenges in the city, she first talks about her inheritance from the previous mayors. "They were busy here with high-density construction for haredim with big planning problems. Today, I have to deal with a shortage of public buildings, infrastructure problems, and crowding, and to make sure that neighborhoods are less crowded. All of the developers here asked for permission to build more and smaller apartments in projects, and got it. We won't allow it any more.

"They increased the number of apartments by 30% but didn't increase infrastructure and public buildings. This is choking the city, and we won't allow it anymore. It puts a burden on infrastructure and causes poorer service for residents

"Our goal is to live in the long term. Haredim also deserve quality of life. We won't sentence them to live in crowded neighborhoods like Ramat Beit Shemesh Gimmel. I don't plan to stop construction for haredim, like I've been accused of; I just think that they deserve some quality of life. Granting Form 4 before residents have infrastructure - a mikveh, mother and child clinics - isn't very smart. We have land reserves for Ramat Beit Shemesh Daled, which will be for the haredi sector, but it will be a high-quality neighborhood, because haredim are also entitled to good quality of life.

"In Ramat Beit Shemesh Hei, which will be for the general public, there will be a sports club and suitable public buildings. Half of the apartments in both neighborhoods will be in the framework of the Buyer Fixed Price Plan. Another thing I really want to focus on here is a neighborhood for policemen and people serving in the permanent army, because we have a national college for policemen here in Beit Shemesh. No less important is urban renewal in four old neighborhoods: Bialik, Ramat Lehi, Gefen, and Saviyon. High-rise construction will attract young people.

"They lived in ghettoes here. Urban renewal breaks up ghettoes, because both veteran residents and new residents who buy new apartments live in the neighborhood. Living together is what I ran on in the elections, and I'll go on waving that flag. This whole rift here results from fighting over who is stronger, under the assumption that the stronger people will win and set the tone. That prevailed because the city leaders came from the extremes. Those days are gone. The absolute majority is going to dominate the dialogue now."

The question is whether a city in which people spit at a little girl is ready for such leadership.

"Those words make me angry. Have you seen anyone spit at a little girl? I haven't. How many people do you know that have spat at little girls? There are extremists here, and there are also extremists in Tel Aviv. My extremism is being a moderate. I don't mind people traveling on the Sabbath in a place where there are no haredim, just like I don't mind if the roads in a haredi neighborhood are closed on the Sabbath because it bothers them.

"Nothing will happen to a secular person if he honks a horn when he passes a synagogue on the Sabbath. Making concessions in order to live with someone isn't weakness; it's strength. What has to be done here is to break the ghettoes apart. I think that the photo taken on the night of my election victory showing a group of haredi men dancing and singing Aliza Bloch was a photo that showed the walls being broken. In the streets, we saw hundreds of people, haredim, modern Orthodox, Ethiopians, and Russians dancing together. It's incomprehensible, but it's a nice story in itself. I want every resident to know that he's entitled to service. This business of dealing only with people like you is finished."

How is this reflected in the planning dialogue? What if a haredi living in a neighborhood slated for urban renewal tells you that he can't live in a high-rise, or if the rabbis oppose a plant you initiate? What will you do?

"The number of haredim in the veteran neighborhoods is marginal. There are a lot of haredi neighborhoods in Beit Shemesh. I want to enable anyone who wants to buy an apartment in the city to do so. It's all right if a secular person doesn't want to live in Ramat Beit Shemesh and a haredi doesn't want to live in a high-rise. There will of course be disagreements with the rabbis, and that's all right."

What about enforcement of construction law and regulations? Entire basements in the haredi neighborhoods that are listed in the building permits as stores are being used for residences.

"It's true that it would have been easier for me to get a brand-new city. But I'm getting an existing situation, and I first of all have to minimize damage caused by past concessions that led to construction violations because of planning negligence, difficulty in obtaining construction permits, and lack of enforcement.

"This will no longer happen. If someone makes a legal request for an extension, we'll consider the request with all due seriousness. If someone is caught breaking the law, however, we'll show no tolerance for it. The goal is for people to obey the law because it's in their interest to do so, not because they're afraid of the municipality. I'm sure that haredim also don't want to live in a place with collapsing infrastructure. They also deserve to live with good quality of life."

"I keep all of the sensitive cases for myself"

Let's talk about the job of chairperson of the Local Planning and Building Commission. It is very sensitive in Beit Shemesh because of the suspicions against Moshe Montag, the previous chairperson, who is suspected of bribery, among other things because of public land on Sfat Emet Street rezoned for residence to the benefit of Satmar Hassidim, an affair that won the title of "The Beit Shemesh version of the Holyland Hotel scandal."

"I won't talk about the past, but I will say that I will be chairperson of the Local Planning and Building Commission. I concluded that at this stage, with the city's sensitive situation, it was best to leave all of the sensitive functions to myself: engineering, education, and personnel. Leaving these matters to a representative of another political party could cause an explosion.

"When we formed a coalition, we held talks about each party's field of responsibility. When I made decisions, the haredim, modern Orthodox, and secular people all got angry at me. Each of them received something that the other was angry about, and each of them will learn to compromise, so I'm optimistic."

Coming from an educational background, aren't you afraid to deal with planning and construction?

"I only wish that more educators wanted to be mayors. I'm confident that the discourse would be different. It's true that I have a lot to learn about things like real estate and budgets. In the end, my job is to manage a city, so I published tenders for hiring the managerial backbone I need to do the best possible job.

"The real challenge is interpersonal - to create public confidence in leadership. The problem here was that they just built apartments; they invested in nothing else, and that's not a healthy situation. The city has to make is possible for young couples and move-up buyers to obtain housing, and space is also needed for industry, commerce, and also culture.

"Beit Shemesh has no cultural center. Why? One of the first things I'm going to do is put a cultural center in the city. The fact that someone wants a high level of prayer doesn't mean that he won't also go to see a good play. There will be a cultural hall and a sports club with a municipal swimming pool, as well as religious study centers and synagogues."

Will the sports center be open on the Sabbath?

We'll start with a sports center open six days a week. Concentrating the debate on the margins is exactly what went before. I say we should begin by agreeing on 80% and then worry about the margins. If we start with the 20% that is in bitter dispute, it's bound to end in failure."

"People voted without hatred"

Beit Shemesh was not the only city to experience a political upset in the recent elections, but what happened in Beit Shemesh was not just an upset. "Part of the story in Beit Shemesh is the negative image it accumulated over many years," says Bloch. "The reason why so many people in Israel got excited about the elections in Beit Shemesh is that Beit Shemesh was thought to be a lost cause. What happened here was upside-down logic; it was something unusual. No political party led me. My campaign cost almost no money. The change came entirely from below - from the residents.

"In essence, even in Israel in 2018, despite the rifts that people talk about, we saw that people voted without hatred. It's true that there were haredim who didn't want to vote for the other candidate, but who also felt uncomfortable about voting for Aliza Bloch, so they didn't vote at all, and the percentage of people who voted among the general public was higher than among haredim. There was an important lesson here for Israeli society."

The status of women is in the headlines these days. How much did that help you get elected or hinder you?

"I didn't want people to vote for me because I'm a woman, just as I didn't want people to vote for me because I'm Sephardic or any other irrelevant reason. I'm a person with my own way of looking at the world, and as a woman, I think I have other skills. What can't be disputed is that my being elected broke through walls that haven't even been penetrated in Tel Aviv."

Aliza Bloch

Age: 51

Family status: Married with four children

Education: BSc in mathematics, MA and PhD in Land of Israel studies

Work experience: Vice-principal of the Givat Gonen school in the Katamon neighborhood of Jerusalem, founder and principal of Branco Weiss High School in Beit Shemesh, lecturer at Levinsky College of Education

Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on December 9, 2018

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2018

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Aliza Bloch Photo: Jonathan Bloom
Aliza Bloch Photo: Jonathan Bloom
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