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Israeli Life: The Carpetbagger Who Did Good
Relocating to the desert to continue the work of his pioneering predecessors, Amram Mitzna has brought new opportunities to a once-impoverished Negev town.
At a time when Israeli politicians are accused of greed and corruption, the country yearns for idealistic leaders like David Ben-Gurion, who left politics to live on Kibbutz Sde Boker and develop the Negev.
Yet, not far from Sde Boker in the development town of Yeruham, a half-hour desert drive from Beersheba, 63-year-old Amram Mitzna, former mayor of Haifa, is following in Ben-Gurion’s footsteps.
Mitzna, once head of the Labor Party, has lived in Yeruham for the past four years, running the town’s administrative council. The Israeli government appointed the council to replace Mayor Baruch Elmakias, who was charged with mismanagement and corruption and impeached.
Mitzna spends long weekends with his family in Haifa, according to Ha’aretz journalist Avner Avrahami. During the week, he lives in a simply furnished basement apartment in Yeru-ham, often heating up his wife’s chicken patties in a microwave.
“He’s spartan, hardworking and very talented,” says Uri Liberti, a Yeruham resident. “He works 12 hours a day with a lean, efficient staff.” Mitzna’s many connections in the government, Army (he is a former general) and among Jews worldwide have been a great boon to Yeruham. “For more than a year, the Miami Federation sought a twin city,” notes Liberti, former chairman of the Yeruham-Miami Partnership, established in 2006. “It was Mitzna’s effectiveness that won them over.”
Yeruham, founded as a transit camp for new immigrants, was first settled by Romanians in 1951; of its current 10,000 residents, half are of Moroccan descent, with Indian and Russian olim comprising 30 percent. In recent years, the town has seen an influx of haredim, religious Zionists and Army groups: Nahal, in which soldiers divide their time between military service and volunteering in development towns, and hesder, for those committed to both the Army and yeshiva education.
Reminiscent of an isolated town out of an American Western movie, Yeruham is a patchwork of housing projects and small, white stucco homes. A group of townhouses was built in the 1980s around a central play area for children in an attempt to create a model community, but it failed when homeowners did not landscape or cultivate a green environment. Under Mitzna’s watch, beautiful new neighborhoods, including the in-demand Nof Midbar, have begun to develop, with lovely homes painted in various desert shades that cost less than other areas in the Negev.
Mitzna’s office is located in the newly renovated municipal building off Yeruham’s palm tree-lined main street. Nearby is a commercial center where Bedouin women in black and haredi women wheeling strollers shop alongside flashy young Israelis. A picture of Yitzhak Rabin hangs on one wall of Mitzna’s office; another wall is decorated with photos of his grandchildren.
“I came to Yeruham because I wanted to get back into action,” says the bearded Mitzna, looking, in a black T-shirt, every bit the Army man. “In November of 2005, I heard that the Department of Interior was replacing the elected mayor and city council of Yeruham. I called Ofir Pines, then minister of interior, and told him I’d like the job as head of the administrative committee. Friends thought I was crazy to give up a Knesset seat to come down to Yeruham. I told them that this is the frontline. Our primary danger isn’t Hezbollah. It’s demographic. We must bring Jews to the Negev.”
Mitzna and Yeruham form an odd political couple. Mitzna, born on Kibbutz Dovrat in 1945 and raised in Kiryat Haim near Haifa, represents Israel’s secular, pioneering old guard. He credits the Me’uhedet youth movement, once part of the Labor Party, with its ethos of social responsibility, as the most formative force in his life. Many Yeruham residents, on the other hand, are traditional Middle Eastern and North African Jews who came to Israel during the 1950s. They harbor a longstanding resentment toward the Israeli establishment because, instead of finding more central housing for these immigrants, the Jewish Agency dropped them in the middle of the night in makeshift Negev towns such as Yeruham. Though the towns grew and eventually factories were established that provided jobs for unskilled laborers, the immigrants felt forgotten and neglected. By the time Mitzna arrived, Yeruham was at a social and economic low point.
“When I came, municipal services were at a standstill, the community center was closed,” Mitzna recalls. “But the main problem is that the population had a low self-image. Even physically, the town looked like it did 40 years ago.”
Almost immediately, Mitzna began giving the city a facelift. He had new façades built on the main street housing projects and refurbished the community center. “It looks like a country club,” observes one visitor.
“A population of 10,000 can’t sustain a theater, night club or even a movie house.” Mitzna explains. “The community center must provide it all. We want young people to identify with the city, to remain here.”
“Until recently, the more ambitious fled Yeruham,” says Michael Biton, a Yeruham activist and a fellow at the Jerusalem-based Mandel Leadership Institute, a program for Israeli leaders who have proven themselves in education and social-action initiatives. “My siblings and I were fortunate. Our parents connected us with the positive forces of education, hard work and hospitality. In addition, religious Nahal units came to Yeruham in the ’80s. They became models for us. They worked in Yeruham as part of their Army service, went on to university and eventually more than 50 professional couples came back. Others followed them.” Biton himself married a Nahal member, as did his brother.
This influx of dedicated, educated people helped provide the resources and population to raise the educational level. Eight years ago, Yeruham was able to establish the Science Center for the Negev. The center provides state-of-the-art laboratories for high school-level study for students in Yeruham and the surrounding kibbutzim. “There are science clubs from an early age, as well as the highest matriculation level in the sciences,” says Shula Levi, former codirector of the center.
“Where else in the country do you have a Children of the Moon Camp that brings kids into the desert from 6 P.M. to midnight to study the stars, nighttime animal behavior?” asks 14-year-old science enthusiast Noga Liberti, Uri Liberti’s daughter.
In particular, religious Zionist education has thrived in Yeruham. A hesder yeshiva, the initiative of Shmulik Ben-Shalom, a former resident of Yeruham who set out to close the achievement gap between social classes, brought 60 families into the town. And in its wake, a boy’s yeshiva high school, Be-levav Shalem, was established. “We have applicants from all over the country,” says Yoni Wolf, administrative head of Belevav Sha-lem, “but we give priority to Yeruham students. We believe in bridging the social gap” between the middle class and the poor, the educated and uneducated.
There is also Kama, a cutting-edge religious high school for girls. “Yeruham children were always going out of town for a good education,” says Levi, who is now a coprincipal of Kama with Tammy Biton, “but now, girls from the upscale suburbs of Beersheba are pounding at our doors to gain admission.”
And there are many other socially conscious programs, such as the Bamidbar Study Center, where religious and secular kibbutz members study Jewish sources together, and Be’er, a pre-Army girl’s yeshiva that combines study and volunteering.
“There’s a thriving religious community in Yeruham,” says Mitzna. “But we must create an attractive environment for secular Israelis. It’s beginning to happen. Real estate has been thriving. Recently, there were 150 applicants for 30 lots being sold [in Nof Midbar]. And we’re working to bring high-tech, tourism and Army people to Yeruham. But it all depends on the quality of life we can create.
“First and foremost, it’s my goal to raise the level of education,” Mitzna adds. “We’re proud to say that today, 68 percent of high school students are taking high-level matriculation tests. The number of Yeruham residents in higher education has tripled.”
In the 1990s, under Mayor Motti Avitzrur, matriculation climbed from 18 percent to 40 percent. Many students now remain in the Negev, attending Ben-Gurion University, the Sapir College near Sderot and the Beersheba Technical College of the Bar-Ilan University campus in Ashkelon.
Another of Mitzna’s major achievements is Mercaz Ofek (Horizons Center), a one-stop shop promoting higher education, vocational training and recreation. This program is part of a national network for young adults. The sleek, corporate-looking offices of Mercaz Ofek are located in the community center.
Kinneret Suissa, director of Mercaz Ofek, grew up in Yeruham and had planned to make a fast getaway. Now she is working to influence young people to study, learn a profession and return to the town. “After national service,” she explains, “I worked at Aegis cosmetics factory [here] and got to know the people of Yeruham. They were warm-hearted, encouraged me to go to the university.
“At Mercaz Ofek, we literally hold their hands through matriculations tests, vocational counseling and scholarship applications,” says Suissa, who attended Ben-Gurion University and is now married with three children. “We find them tutors to teach them how to study.”
Mercaz Ofek works in conjunction with Young People in Yeruham, a nonprofit organization established by Michael Biton that grants fellowships to university students who live in Yeruham and do volunteer work.
“There are young people whose parents didn’t always work,” continues Suissa, citing job instability among uneducated and unskilled workers. “They have no models from home. They could easily hang around the streets. We want to break that cycle, instill ambition. There are also youngsters who don’t go to the Army, but we’ve received ‘job slots’ for them to do national service in Yeruham.”
The idea is to instill a sense of community and pride in the town—and for the students to have fun so they return after their studies. “There’s a clubhouse for young adults, and this summer, they created a virtual sea-shore—without water,” Suissa says. “They brought sun umbrellas, beach chairs, painted a seascape on the wall, and every Friday had a social gathering. Around 100 young people showed up.”
Aliza Dayan, a lively, middle-aged woman, relates how Mercaz Ofek helped her upgrade her skills. “I worked with retirees [in recreational programming], but [Ofek] gave me the push to retrain,” she says. “I’ve gone into alternative medicine specializing in reflexology, in the hope that Yeruham will develop a spa as part of Negev tourism.” In the meantime, Dayan has opened a small reflexology clinic in her home.
Even as the town reverberates with plans for the future, a sense of anxiety can be discerned: Mitzna’s term—which has already been extended for two years—is ending in November 2010. “Mitzna has done wonderful things for Yeruham,” notes Biton. “But are his accomplishments sustainable?”
“We’re afraid who will be the next mayor,” adds Levi.
Some Yeruhamites complain that Mitzna hasn’t cultivated local leadership. “He’s a doer. He wanted to get things done and didn’t want to get into local politics,” says Biton.
But, Levi notes, “Mitzna brought in outside people. He didn’t include Yeruham people in decision-making positions.”
Mitzna contends he has used Yeruham leadership on a volunteer basis. “There are wonderful young people here,” he says. “When I came to Yeruham, I was pessimistic about the future of the country. But today, I am very optimistic.”
And what about his own future? “I’ll only return to the government if I can have an impact,” he insists. H
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