Interview: Ron Huldai
In his third term as mayor of Tel Aviv (officially Tel Aviv-Jaffa), Ron Huldai, 64, is presiding over the city’s 100th anniversary. He came to City Hall after distinguishing himself as a combat pilot and senior officer of the Israel Air Force, followed by a term as principal of the prestigious Herzliya Gymnasia (Herzliya Hebrew High School). He serves as international chairman of the Tel Aviv Foundation.
Q. Many people believe Tel Aviv is more than just a city, that it has a magical aspect. To you, what is the elusive quality your city commands?
A. Let’s start with the reality. We are located in the very center of Israel. We are near the ancient port town of Jaffa. We are on the beach, and this beach is growing in charm with every passing year. Even in 1906 [three years before its founding], at the meeting of the association that dealt with the need to build a city outside the walls of Jaffa, people were describing it as the New York City of the Middle East. As early as the 1930’s, our tiny town had a philharmonic orchestra, theaters, world-class architecture. Opera was being performed regularly here. Perhaps it was in the genes of the founders of this city: They shared this amazing vision [of] a dynamic metropolis looming ahead in the future. Beyond thinking and planning big, there also is the unique spirit that fills Tel Aviv as the primary city of the bourgeoisie in Israel, with arts, culture, science and research. We have felt intuitively for a century that ours is an international city…and so we grew into the dream.
Q. History is full of city pairs and rivalries—Athens and Sparta, New York and Washington—cities that are close physically yet worlds apart. Jerusalem is less than an hour away by car, yet so different from Tel Aviv. What is the essential difference?
A. [Tel Aviv] is of and for…open people. It feels itself a part of the international scene. Rebels flock to live among us as a result of this spirit. Here, the gay community feels at home, not in Jerusalem. Here, you will find a helping hand extended to communities of illegal workers. Moreover, we are a genuine metropolis…. We have and welcome so many diverse groups who comprise our vitality. It is truly a city for everybody.
Q. What is the most important goal you want to achieve for Tel Aviv by the year 2020?
A. If I must choose one single challenge…it would have to be public transportation. We are at a crossroads. Tel Aviv absolutely must develop a dramatically more efficient public transportation system. To achieve this, I hope we will make decisions…in the very near future that will bring us smoothly into 2020. This will include a lot of light-rail lines and much more efficient bus service.
Q. What improvements are you planning to Tel Aviv’s already vibrant beachfront?
A. I am continuing to develop the promenade as energetically as possible. We are strengthening the pedestrian pathways throughout its length, along with bicycle lanes that will stretch all the way from Herzliya in the north to Bat Yam to our south, [and] work is progressing at a very fast pace. We are [building] a new bridge to connect the promenade with the western side of the power station [in north Tel Aviv]. We are simultaneously developing the port of Jaffa, together with another huge park south of the port, in the direction of Bat Yam.
Q. With diaspora communities and philanthropists as your partners in these works, is the city feeling a pullback caused by the worldwide economic crisis?
A. The recession…is definitely being felt here in Israel. We are today making intense efforts to strengthen and extend our support network to more and more individuals in the global Jewish community. We fully hope to fill the gaps that are showing and, of course, the situation affects us as it affects everyone.
Q. Based on your experience as an air force officer, an educator and as mayor, are you optimistic or pessimistic about Israel’s future?
A. I am optimistic…. So many problems, so many experiences—and so many solutions. I have already faced one real recession here when the intifada occurred in 2000. The situation then was far worse than the one we face today.
I was the mayor of Tel Aviv when the horrific terror bombing took place at the Dolphinarium, and there were many other attacks. Bibi Netanyahu is the sixth prime minister during my term as mayor. Somehow, Tel Aviv seems to retain a certain sense of calm and continuity despite [everything].
In this, our 100th year, which we now celebrate with all Israelis and all Jews everywhere, I am only the ninth mayor of the city, believe it or not.
Q. You mentioned the concentration of illegal workers in Tel Aviv, the largest number from Africa. Why do they gravitate here and why are your arms so wide open in greeting?
A. The issue is not whether I want them or not. They are here because the city—this city in particular—attracts them. There are jobs, tolerance, opportunity. As mayor, my approach is that all people must be treated with respect. That is the main reason that we are giving them as many [municipal] services as we possibly can. They are part of our education system. Lately we have needed to deal with an influx of refugees from Darfur in Sudan. These people have suffered much, and it is our obligation to treat them as human beings.
Q. Are you succeeding?
A. To be honest, everything is relative. But I can tell you for sure that we are trying our best, and we are doing a decent job.
Q. Tel Aviv is not an especially religious city, yet many say it is a very spiritual place. Do you see a distinction?
A. That is a very difficult question for someone like me to answer. And the only answer I can give you is a personal one. I am a Jew and part of the Jewish nation. I am part of the Jewish heritage, and the city of Tel Aviv is part of the Jewish state. It is the embodiment of the Zionist dream. It is a thriving cosmopolitan city by the sea, a city that celebrates independence, modernity, technology, diversity and pluralism. This is the first modern Hebrew city….
[But] we embrace the fact that we have a variety of groups of people and many different approaches to life…. We serve Israeli society [as] the nation’s center of commerce. We are the cultural center for the entire country. Seventy percent of Israel’s theaters are located here within our city boundaries, and 50 percent of the employees in the public industry are working here. Only one third of the employees of the city are residents, two thirds are coming from outside. More than any other place in all of Israel, we truly belong to the entire nation.
Q. As a former military man, in a period when our enemies are developing weapons of mass destruction, are you concerned about the strategic dangers to your city?
A. If you speak about the Iranian situation, this is not a strategic threat against Tel Aviv per se. It is a threat to the entire State of Israel. Kassam missiles and suicide bombers and Hezbollah in Lebanon are likewise not local challenges. These are all problems national in scope and danger. An atomic attack against Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, these are the same thing. It’s the kind of thing that we can only deal with on a state level. There is no strong Tel Aviv without a strong Negev or a strong Galil. We are all part of the whole.
Q. What is your vision for Tel Aviv’s second hundred years?
A. I am not the kind of person who tries his hand at prophecy. However, I can wish and dream that this incomparable city will retain its spirit and its values for the next 100 years and still be the dynamic cultural center of the State of Israel—an open, tolerant, pluralistic city that will continue to prize its status as a lighthouse of values for all the people of the city, all Israel and all Jewish people everywhere. H