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A Unique View of Expanding Social Action in Israel

Timothy Schlindwein, Mayor Huldai,
Richard Sincere, and Keith Spero

Tel Aviv — Although the pursuit of peace and security often dominates Israeli political news, our group was intrigued to learn about the country’s burgeoning interest in social policies.

Two private briefings — with Member of Knesset Dr. Nachman Shai and Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai — explored the fight for equal rights through the lens of country-wide protests against vast socioeconomic gaps, and the trend for young Israelis to turn to countries abroad for more promising prospects.

With one third of the Israeli population now below the poverty line and an average of 7.7 years’ salary needed to buy a home — compared to 2.9 years’ salary in the U.S. — educated and ambitious young Israelis are tempted to live abroad in search of a better quality of life, MK Shai told AFTAU's guests at a private breakfast. To bring about change, the country must pursue lasting peace, and encourage outlying factions, including the ultra orthodox, to shoulder their fair share of the military and economic burden, he said.

"We have unique needs here in Israel, with over 25 percent of the budget going to defense and security. If we don't find a way to end this long-term conflict, there will be increasingly less to spend on things like education and infrastructure," he said, noting that wage-earning Israelis are feeling the pinch, and finding it increasingly difficult to call the country home. It's a trend that must be reversed if Israel is to continue to capitalize on its fabled brain power, Dr. Shai cautioned.

On the local level, Mayor Huldai has long been tackling these issues within one of the country's largest municipalities. While Tel Aviv has blossomed in recent years, become a hub for research and development, culture, education and tourism, it still faces very real social challenges.

Two projects that are close to his heart are providing adequate public transportation and caring for the city's thousands of refugees, combating what he calls “oppressive laws” to do so. "When you speak about public transportation, you speak about accessibility to education, to employment, to life. In equal societies in the world you find efficient public transportation," said Mayor Huldai to the group. In the last few years, the Mayor has worked to introduce a successful bicycle sharing system to the city, and has challenged federal legislation prohibiting public transportation on Saturday.

Many of those needing greater mobility are the thousands of refugees and illegal immigrants who have flooded into the country in the last decade, with large numbers settling in the municipality. Because they are without legal standing, it is forbidden to give them services. But Mayor Huldai, who is also a Board member at Tel Aviv University, has had an active role in setting up clinics and other services for these long-suffering refugees, becoming somewhat of an "outlaw" in the process.

It's a cause that TAU has also taken up with enthusiasm, with researchers and students across the campus — including the Sackler Faculty of Medicine, the School of Psychological Sciences, and the Buchmann Faculty of Law — volunteering their time and expertise to provide services such as speech therapy, psychological aid, open medical clinics, and legal advice to those in need.


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