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Monday, August 31, 2009
Interview With Meir Margalit
This is Meir
Yedioth Yerushalayim (p. 22) by Asher Kesher -- [August 28] “The only suit I have worn since my bar mitzvah,” laughs Meretz councilman Dr. Meir Margalit, “was for the pope’s visit to Jerusalem. I was told that I had to wear one, after all, it was the pope, so I went to a second-hand store and bought a suit.”
Q: And the tie?
“I was in a meeting with the Spanish consul in Jerusalem at the time, and I told him that I had to dress nicely for the pope. He asked me to wait, and brought me a small box with a beautiful tie lying in it.”
There is something naïve about the appearance of Margalit, 57. He wears sandals, wears khaki trousers and a faded blue shirt, and sports a few days worth of fair-colored stubble. His rivals, including many of those who share the city council table with him, are certain that this naïveté is also characteristic of his political path, but there it could also cause damage.
There is an informal atmosphere in Margalit’s small office in Safra Square. Both his young assistant Sahar Vardi, and two guests from a Spanish organization, sit with their bare feet crossed on their seats, and all of them conduct a vigorous conversation in Spanish on a future peace conference in Jerusalem, with the participation (they hope) of world-renowned linguist Prof. Noam Chomsky.
Like Margalit’s external appearance, which does not hide behind an ostensibly respectable façade, his political opinions and actions are also open and clear: “Last week, in the city council meeting, I requested to dismiss the municipality’s director general, Yair Maayan,” he relates, “all the council members jumped on me immediately and shouted, how could I do such a thing in his presence. What do they want, for me to behave like them, doing everything behind people’s backs?”
“The spirit of renewal that has been blowing from Safra Square since the last municipal elections has not yet reached East Jerusalem,” Margalit wrote about four months ago in his personal blog. “Municipal technocrats implement with their own hands nationalistic policies, and inadvertently work for the settlers and their compatriots. Too many pyromaniacs are roaming the municipality corridors and playing with fire, while the city yearns for calm. In my opinion, it will not be long before officials involved in house demolitions will also be prosecuted. I know what I am saying, because I personally am involved in preparing indictments against them in courts abroad. If any of the city’s leaders have not understood, I am accusing them of conducting a racist policy, and I would be glad to be prosecuted. Then we will see how the court will rule.”
On one hand, Margalit serves in the city council as the representative of a faction that is part of the municipal coalition, but on the other hand he acts as a fighting opposition figure and fiercely attacks the policies of the same municipality, as its leftmost member and the bad boy of the city council.
Q: Having your cake and eating it too?
“I have an uneasy stomach. If it becomes clear to me in the future that I am not adding or changing anything, I will certainly return the Volvo and the paycheck,” Margalit sums up.
This past Sunday, council member Margalit, who is also chairman of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, decided that we would begin the interview with him at the hot site of the demolished houses in the Silwan neighborhood. “This time, the ax came down on 88 homes in the al-Bustan area on the outskirts of Silwan,” he says, “this is a highly sensitive area that could ignite a great blaze in Jerusalem. The story of al-Bustan is in fact the collective story of most of the families in East Jerusalem, families that do not succeed in obtaining building permits for their land and are forced to build without a permit, because in the clash between the ‘law of the state,’ that bars construction without a permit, and the ‘law of life,’ which requires one to build a home for one’s household, the ‘law of life’ always takes precedence.”
Q: But this is illegal construction.
“In most cases, these are hard-working people, whose only sin is that they put a roof over the heads of their families. The municipality refuses to give them building permits, and has thereby turned these people into offenders against their will.”
On the narrow paths between the houses of al-Bustan, crisscrossed with fig trees and vines, lie the leftover fireworks from the festivities of the start of Ramadan. Paper lanterns hang on the gates of the houses, and only the ruins of former houses and murals showing a bulldozer demolishing a house, attest to the reality of life in the neighborhood over the past weeks.
“Do you know that the mayor has decided to turn Silwan into the Tuscany of Jerusalem?” Margalit smiles, “he decided that for this purpose, he has to evacuate a few houses, or thin out the area, as he puts it. He has offered the residents alternative housing in Beit Hanina, in the houses of residents who were evacuated themselves a few years ago. It’s so sad that it’s funny.”
Q: Why aren’t building permits given in East Jerusalem?
“The usual excuse is, ‘the area is not planned,’ or, ‘it’s a green area,’ or there is no master plan, or if there is a master plan, there is no infrastructure. In my opinion, these pathetic excuses barely conceal a clear political trend associated with the extreme right wing.”
In 1997, Margalit was one of the founders of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, and since then he has not stopped his activity in the organization: “We believe that house demolitions embody all the injustices of the occupation. I think that after murder, there is no great injustice than to demolish a family’s home. Demolishing a home is in effect destroying an entire family. Think about the trauma that it causes to the children, but not only to them. This is something that is never erased.”
Q: And if it is a terrorist’s house?
“Here I have an emotional problem. In the past, I was asked to appeal the decision to demolish the house of a terrorist who placed a bomb in the cafeteria of the Mount Scopus campus. I couldn’t fight for this house the same way I fight for the house of another person, who is truly innocent. This is also because I know people who were killed in this terror attack.”
Q: You work for the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, which is based mainly on donations from abroad. Don’t you see a problem in the fact that a member of the Jerusalem city council receives a salary from foreign elements?
“I have no ethical problem. The committee receives funds from legitimate organizations, which are legitimate, open and transparent. If I can make use of the funds for populations in distress—so much the better.”
Crossed the lines
Margalit traversed a long and winding route until reaching his present-day positions. Margalit: “I was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 1952. I grew up in a relatively poor home. My father was a Holocaust survivor and a great Zionist, so I came to Israel in 1972 with a group belonging to the Beitar movement. I asked where the most remote place was that I could be, and was told that it was Dikla in Sinai, after Yamit. So I went there immediately after getting off the plane. Three months later, I joined a Nahal group associated with Beitar that established Netzarim. It’s funny, but I established with my own hands this settlement in the Gaza Strip. We received a fenced-off sand dune with a few tents, and established the settlement. We were there for an entire year, and then we moved to Argaman in the Jordan Valley. I lived there until 1975, until one day they decided to turn the place into a moshav ovdim [a semi-cooperative workers’ community]. At that point, there was no communal lunch room and no communal laundry, and single people did not have good living conditions. I left and went to serve as a counselor in a Youth Aliyah boarding school, still as a Beitar member, until I moved to Jerusalem.”
Margalit says that the political turnabout in his life began in the Yom Kippur War. “I fought as a tank soldier and was injured. I lay in the hospital for a long time and had a lot of time to think. I slowly began to understand that the greater Land of Israel ideology was not worth the cost in human lives or injuries, and that was its cost. I then began a slow process of turning towards the peace camp. I grew up on the ideology of Jabotinsky, and I can tell you that if he were living among us today, he would also vote for Meretz.”
Q: How did your surroundings accept your turnabout?
“All my friends were Beitar members, I was alone in Israel and they were like my family, so it certainly slowed the process. My parents, who remained in Argentina, received a photograph of mine from the hospital, in which the genius photographer unintentionally cut away the picture. Judging by the photograph, they were sure that I had lost an arm and was afraid to tell them. It accelerated their immigration. I can remember myself in 1973 still voting for Begin and the Likud. I was still hospitalized and the documents were in the base in Sinai. I ran away from the hospital so that I could reach my documents and would be permitted to vote.”
“It took a few years until I reached Peace Now. After a few years of activity there, I reached the conclusion that in order to make a difference, I had to go into real politics, and I joined Meretz.” […]
Margalit, separated and a father of two, who until recently lived in the Gilo neighborhood, over the Green Line (“for purely economic reasons”), understands that the city cannot be partitioned, and therefore proposes “a functional division, without walls, between Jerusalem, the capital of Israel, and Baldat al-Quds, the Palestinian capital.”
He was first elected as a council member in the municipal elections of 1998, along with Anat Hoffman and Pepe Alalo, but during the term resigned for personal reasons. In the previous elections he did not run for a council seat and focused on his studies, and only following the last municipal elections did he return to Safra Square.
In his positions, actions and criticism of the municipality’s conduct, Margalit has succeeded in infuriating the right wing council members, who in the past few months have demanded more than once that the mayor remove him from the coalition.
Yakir Segev, for example, who holds the East Jerusalem portfolio in the city council, said this week: “Margalit’s opinions are dangerous to the State of Israel, but along with this, he is a decent man, who believes in the justness of his path.” And Segev is the most moderate of Margalit’s critics.
Margalit: “I don’t need them. A few months ago, I submitted my resignation on my own to the mayor, when there was a wave of demolitions in the course of the week that went beyond the municipal average. I can say outright that I don’t get along with Barkat’s views, but surprisingly enough we were in accord in the coalition negotiations, when he told us that he intended to improve the standard of living in East Jerusalem, for his own interests, of course. It is difficult for me to serve under a mayor who doesn’t understand the problems in East Jerusalem.”
Margalit also managed to anger his fellow faction members, when he announced his opposition to opening the Carta parking garage on the Sabbath. He explained the fact that he sided with the Haredim by saying that “we shouldn’t set the city on fire.” In fact, this was a stated policy that he had written about in the past, of an attempt to find a path from the left to the heart of the Haredi public. […]
Q: Your rivals say that you have become an informer to foreign governments and international organizations against the actions of the municipality and the government.
“As a council member I had access to information, such as in the Interior Ministry or the Israel Police. In the past, it was easier for us to call the US consulate and tell them that a certain compound was going to be demolished in Hebron, in Jerusalem or in a remote town in Samaria. They would pick up the phone and speak to Peres, Shlomo Ben-Ami or Yossi Beilin and resolve the matter. Today we still report to the Americans, but they no longer make calls and solve problems. I don’t call this informing.”
Q: In your previous term as council member, you were accused of exceeding your authority and giving unlawful permits to Arabs, and the mayor’s adviser even filed a complaint against you with the police for doing so.
“There was a period when there were thousands of Palestinian residents of Jerusalem, who lived here without ID cards, which were confiscated by the state. These people walked around in Jerusalem without documents, and when a Border Policeman would catch them, he would harass them. Some would be beaten, others were sent to detention, some were fined. I tried by every possible means to obtain an alternative certificate for them in order to prove that they were Jerusalemites. In the end, when I couldn’t take it any more, I wrote a letter with the logo of the Jerusalem municipality, stating that I confirmed that so-and-so was a resident of Jerusalem despite the fact that he had no [ID] card. I signed as a member of the Jerusalem city council. If in half the cases, a policeman saw the letter and accepted it, I have done my part. When Ehud Olmert learned of this, he filed a complaint against me with the police for overstepping my authority. One journalist wrote, ‘who knows to whom Meir Margalit gave these letters, and who knows whom they reached.’ The story was published during a period of terror attacks, and people interpreted it as meaning that more than one terrorist had entered the city by means of my letters. My children were in eighth or ninth grade at the time. They said to me, ‘Daddy, people say that you’re helping terrorists.’ This completely broke me down. It may be an extreme example, but it demonstrates the price you pay when you go with your opinions all the way.”
Q: Did you pay a personal price?
“Of course. Being a left winger in Jerusalem is not simple. People here consider me an enemy of Israel. I worked in the municipality for 20 years, and at a certain point, my promotion was halted due to my political opinions.” […]
The response of the mayor’s spokesman: “The policy of councilman Meir Margalit is different from the policy of the mayor on diplomatic issues. The mayor does not share his path or behavior on the matter, but as is customary in a democratic country, he is entitled to express his positions.” […]
“The mayor intends to promote ancient Jerusalem [referring to the area of the City of David/Silwan—INT] and its residents in the areas of trade and tourism. There is no intention to thin out the neighborhood, but rather to promote, serve and assist the residents living in it.”
Right wing embrace
“There are not many good people like Meir Margalit in our politics,” says about him his extreme right wing negative, Aryeh King, of the Israel Land Fund.
Margalit: “A few years ago, I saw Aryeh King one Friday demonstrating at Paris Square, opposite a group of Women in Black who were standing there. The police asked him to leave, but he refused and they arrested him. It pained me to see a person, never mind if he was a right wing activist, being arrested. I remember, to my regret, too many such stories from Argentina. I came to the detention facility in the Russian Compound and signed a bail bond for him, and thought that this was the end of the story. A week later, I received a call from an elderly man from Haifa who I didn’t know. He read about the story in the right wing newspaper Makor Rishon and asked me whether I was, by any chance, the grandson of Meir Margulis from the town of Kalusz in Galicia. When I told him, in complete surprise, that I was, and asked how he knew, he said that my grandfather was just like me, and helped everyone in the town, whether they were Gentiles or Jews.” […]
King: “It’s simply wonderful that even these days, it is possible to have a good relationship with people with whom I disagree with over 95 percent of their opinions. From a human standpoint, I wish there were more right wing people like him.”
Q: So how do you reconcile this with his politics?
“That’s it, I think that all of his activity on behalf of the Arabs comes from exactly this place. The problem is that he isn’t aware of the fact that the Arabs are simply taking advantage of his good-heartedness, and in the end it will boomerang back at him.”