The extraordinary story of an observant Jewish woman, who nearly held Jerusalem’s strictly-Orthodox politicians to account, unfolded last week in a whistle-stop speaking tour by Fleur Hassan-Nahoum.
In the UK under the auspices of the Zionist Federation, Hassan-Nahoum, 44, London-born and Gibraltar-raised, is one of the few Brits to enter politics in Israel.
Six months ago, she and Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat brokered a deal where she, leader of the Yerushalmim opposition party on the city council, would become deputy mayor.
The complex deal was all the more extraordinary because its lynchpin was a bid by the observant Hassan-Nahoum to improve life for non-Orthodox Jerusalem residents.
Specifically, she says: “For me to go back into the coalition meant it had to be a big win for the pluralists. What I managed to get out of the mayor was an agreement that he would fund activities on Shabbat in community centres in pluralist [or secular] neighbourhoods.”
Along with this remarkable agreement, Hassan-Nahoum was to be named head of a powerful allocations committee in the city council, responsible for providing upwards of 50 million shekels (just over £10m) every year to a variety of causes.
But she was already head of the municipal audit committee and had highlighted that many of the organisations getting money from the allocations committee “were bogus organisations – people’s friends, their cousins, that sort of thing”.
Weeks after the deal was agreed, it came to the city council to be ratified, but the Charedim in Barkat’s coalition could not stomach Hassan-Nahoum as deputy mayor, head of the significant allocations committee, and leading the way for pluralistic activities on Shabbat.
They blocked the appointment and the mayor, as Hassan-Nahoum puts it simply, “caved in”.
She explained: “He screwed up. At the moment of ratification, the Charedim threatened to walk out. So he gave in. I don’t think they would have, but the threat was enough to make him chicken out. That’s why they continue to have power, because the leaders always chicken out.”
Hassan-Nahoum went back to being leader of the opposition and head of the city’s audit committee. Barkat has announced he is standing down to run for a Knesset seat with Likud, but Hassan-Nahoum rules out standing for mayor herself.
“There are too many candidates running on a pluralistic ticket, and if I run I will be splitting the vote. I want to focus on getting more seats for the secular/pluralist public,” she says. “If Jerusalem does not remain diverse, we will lose it as the capital of the Jewish people and of Israel.”
This one-off politician continues to campaign for secular causes, from Gay Pride to municipal bikes that can be ridden on Shabbat. “The minute Jerusalem becomes B’nai B’rak, that the diaspora cannot identify with it, that we lose the diversity of it, the government won’t put a penny into the city. The diaspora won’t come to Jerusalem, and we will have lost it. ”
The lawyer and former campaign director for World Jewish Relief, before her aliyah in 2001, has little patience with those who secure “cheap votes” by denouncing situations often of their own creation.
“It’s much harder to be a responsible, restrained leader, who has the best intentions for the greater good. I want to be one of those leaders.”
Becoming an enemy of the Charedim, she says, “will not give me the long-term integrity I need to become a leader who doesn’t go for cheap headlines”.
Of one thing she is sure – America’s designation of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and the place for its embassy is “fantastic”.
She adds: “Israel has the right to choose its own capital. There is a domino effect: I speak Spanish and I speak to the South American countries. It adds an international flavour to the city, to the economy and, ultimately, it doesn’t impede peace.”