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A Tale of Two Cities

It wasn’t a pretty sight: tires burning, hysterical men and women charging at the gates to the Knesset. This time it wasn’t the handicapped, or the unemployed. This time it was the municipal employees of Beit Shean, a development town in the Jordan Valley. They were protesting the fact that the till had finally run dry, leaving sanitation, clerical and other municipal employees without paychecks.

The collapse of Beit Shean is simply the first domino to fall. Financial difficulties and the inability to respond to citizens’ needs is a problem facing many, if not most, of Israel’s local governments. Many, of course, have legitimate unmet needs. But the truth is that huge salaries, nepotism, trips abroad, dinners and weekends in hotels, have long been a standard component of local government. Again and again, the Ministry of Interior has been asked to dig deep into public pockets (i.e. mine!) to bail out the at best incompetent and – at worst – corrupt local officials who obviously don’t understand that thousands minus more thousands equals less then zero.

Here in my home town in northern Jerusalem (which shall remain nameless) , we pay the highest municipal taxes in the country. And yet, the streets are often dirty, public gardens unkempt, police presence ridiculously minimal, public roads raggedy, public sports facilities overpriced and ill-cared for…

In contrast, another township only a five minute drive from me has its roads lined with blooming, colorful flowers. There is a well-run, inexpensive public pool, clean streets, a well-planned shopping center, all of which my home town lacks. What makes the difference? The answer is very simple: the quality of the people on the local council. I have no idea how the people in charge of my neighborhood got their jobs. There were never any elections. And certainly no performance reviews.

Just how big a difference the human factor can make, can be seen with startling clarity in the renaissance of a sleepy little town tucked into the hillside outside of Haifa.

Zichron Yaakov was founded in 1882 by members of the Hovevei Zion movement from Romania with the help of the Baron Edmond de Rothschild, who bankrolled them to plant grape vines. It never did become a great farming area. Aside from the winery, there aren’t many local industries or natural resources. But it does have stunning views of the hillsides and the blue Mediterranean.

At a certain point in the last decade, developers began to push to make Zichron a high rise suburb of Haifa. But a member of the local council, Alvit Fruend, had a different idea. Instead of imitating the ugliness of  urban sprawl a few kilometers away, why not preserve, refurbish, and polish Zichron’s colorful history? Why not turn the little town overlooking the sea into something so beautiful and charming people would drive miles and miles simply to wander its streets and sit in its coffee houses?

Anyone who has witnessed the growth and transformation of Zichron over the past five years really feels like rubbing their eyes to make sure it isn’t a mirage. The town center, once full of neglected, turn–of-the-century farmers’ houses, has undergone historic preservation. Framed pictures of the original settlers give visitors a taste of the town’s history. Street signs, porches, landscaping done with incredible sensitivity and taste, transport the visitor back in time.

The local residents are delighted. When we passed by the charmingly restored synagogue, built during the Ottoman Empire, we were invited inside by a friendly local resident, an older man wearing a skullcap. He explained how the synagogue was built against Ottoman Empire restrictions. The residents told the Turks it was a barn. When it got larger and larger, they said it was going to serve as a storage center for agricultural produce for the whole area. When they added the women’s section and the stained glass windows, the Turks apparently gave up. “I came here after the Holocaust from Romania,” our guide tells us. “I married, began a new family. This place has been full of blessings for me, and so I try to give a little back by volunteering here. Isn’t Zichron beautiful? It’s our local council. It was their idea,” he says with pride.

A few miles away as the crow flies is another historic hill city with incredibly beautiful views: Safed. Home to Jewish mystics and famous 16th century rabbis who escaped from the Inquisition, Safed was for many years an artists’ colony, filled with craftsmen and painters who drew inspiration from its exquisite location and inspiring history. The story of Safed is a mirror image of Zichron Yaakov’s. The artists are gone, their lovely hillside homes transformed into cheap shops selling kitschy tourist items. The center of town is neglected and depressing. Yeshivot and other nonprofit institutions have taken up where the artists left off.

The results are not pretty.

I tried calling the local Municipality to find out how all of this happened to one of my favorite spots in Israel. It was one-thirty on a weekday afternoon. The phone rang and rang, but no one at the Municipality picked up.

I suppose I got my answer.

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