Israel is in the final heat of the local election season. On October 30, citizens will cast two ballots at their local polling stations: a yellow ballot for mayor or chairman of the local authority in a direct election, and a white ballot for a party list of candidates for the city or local councils.
In the past, local elections were held in conjunction with national elections and functioned with a similar representational system. A major reform in 1975 separated local elections from national ones, with local elections to be held every five years. In 1978, the new double ballot system was implemented, and also established that mayoral candidates need to win at least 40% of the votes.
Perhaps, if electoral reform had been in place decades earlier, Tel Aviv could have boasted having Israel’s first Sephardic mayor and first woman mayor.
Moshe Chelouche: Tel Aviv’s 10-day mayor
In 1906, a group of Jews formed the Ahuzat Bayit society whose goal was to create a new city. Meir Dizengoff, a member of Ahuzat Bayit, was elected head of town planning in 1911. In 1921, under the British Mandate authority, Tel Aviv received township status. Dizengoff was elected the town’s first mayor in 1922 and served till 1925.
In 1928, Dizengoff returned to the mayoralty where he oversaw Tel Aviv’s galloping development and fought to gain city status, which was received on January 21, 1934. Dizengoff ran again in 1935 on the Independent Party list.
Dizengoff died in office in 1936. His post was filled temporarily by Deputy Mayor Yisrael Rokach, until the city council could vote on a replacement. The Workers Party nominated the No. 2 man on the Independent Party list: Moshe Chelouche, who had switched allegiances to the left.
The Chelouche family, prominent members of the North African Jewish community who had lived in Jaffa since the mid-19th century, were Ahuzat Bayit founders and highly involved in civic and public affairs, including bridging between the Arab and Jewish populations.
Moshe Chelouche headed the Israel-Poland Chamber of Commerce, founded the Israel-France Friendship Association, served as honorary consul to Bulgaria and was one of the founders of the Palestine Philharmonic Orchestra. He had already served on the city council, the first time in 1928 when he ran on the Sephardic Party list.
Chelouche faced opposition from the right, headed by Rokach. According to author Aharon Chelouche in his family history, From Galabiya to Kova Tembel, the right launched a defamation campaign alleging, among other things, that Chelouche had a foreign name (Musa), held French citizenship, and had spoken ill of the Anglo-Palestine Bank while abroad. Nonetheless, on October 20, 1936, Chelouche was elected by a vote of 8 to 7, subject to approval by the British High Commissioner.
Chelouche served as mayor for only 10 days, however, before being informed by the British High Commission that the nomination was rejected due to Chelouche’s being a “Francophile.” British-allied Rokach was announced as the city’s next mayor.
Despite public uproar about British intervention in the democratic process, Rokach served as mayor of Tel Aviv until 1953 (although newspaper Davar continued to refer to Rokach as the “Official in Charge” for many years thereafter). Chelouche served under Rokach as director of the Department of Economics and Statistics.
Golda Meir: Not good enough to be mayor
In 1952, Rokach was named Minister of the Interior and, similar to what had happened two decades prior, left the post of mayor before a replacement could be elected.
Given the blurred lines between party politics on the national and local levels, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion instructed then Minister of Labor and National Insurance Golda Meyerson (better known later as Golda Meir), to head the Mapai Party list running for Tel Aviv City Council in the 1955 election race.
According to a short history on the Tel Aviv Municipal Archive website, “The goal was to ‘conquer’ the city, after years in the hands of the General Zionist party and its affiliates (then called ‘citizens parties’)…”. General Zionist Party head and acting Mayor Haim Levanon headed the opposition list.
Meir promised support to new immigrants and weaker population sectors, and more equitable division of the taxation and municipal resources between Jaffa and the more affluent areas of the city.
Her campaigning worked. Mapai won the election and on September 5, the new city council met to elect the new mayor among three nominees. A majority of 16 votes was needed. Due to a number of abstentions and intentional absences, Meir garnered 13 votes, Levanon eight votes and Moshe Ichilov five votes. A run-off was scheduled for the following day.
The mood on September 6 was tense. As the Tel Aviv Municipal Archive essay describes it, “The second and third round which took place the following day, started late because Levanon had been busy negotiating at his home with representatives of the religious factions. Golda lit cigarette after cigarette.”
Meir had been promised support from 14 representatives. But how would the representatives of the religious factions and Progressive party vote?
Agudat Yisrael opposed having a female mayor. Mizrahi and Hapoel Hamizrahi made their support conditional on Meir, as a government minister, cancelling public transportation on the Sabbath in Haifa. Meir hoped that Hapoel Hamizrahi, a workers’ party, would support her. But its members, too, had reservations about electing a woman mayor, the essayist reported.
In the fourth round of voting, Levanon received 16 votes while Meir received only 14, the Progressives having abstained. Meir lost by two votes from a bloc that withheld support on the grounds that she was a woman.
In her concession speech, Meir said, “In this country of Hannah Szenes, in 1955, the eighth year of the State of Israel’s existence, you dare to raise this dismal argument — that women have no equal rights in the State of Israel.”
Meir went on to become Minister of Foreign Affairs from 1956 to 1966, where she built MASHAV, Israel’s international development cooperation program aimed at sharing Israeli knowhow and technologies with the developing world. She then served as prime minister between 1969 and 1974.
In 1956, Hannah Levine was elected mayor of Rishon Lezion. Since then, seven other women have served as city mayors in Israel, four as regional council heads, and five as heads of local authorities. But so far there hasn’t been a female mayor of Tel Aviv. This year, no women are running for the post against popular incumbent Ron Hudai.