Fleur Hassan-Nahoum is the deputy mayor of Jerusalem who holds the city’s “foreign ministry portfolio.” Hassan-Nahoum, who was raised in Gibraltar, was a featured speaker at the national convention and gala of Canadian Hadassah-WIZO (CHW) in Toronto. This year’s gala supported the CHW Hadassim Children and Youth Village, which serves immigrant and Israeli children from disadvantaged families and has a regional high school for more than 1,700 students.
You’re the deputy mayor of Jerusalem but your job includes a foreign relations component.
Jerusalem has the most diverse population in Israel, with 37 per cent Arabs, 25 per cent ultra-Orthodox Jews, 21 per cent secular Jews. We’re talking about a place that could be the laboratory for the solution of how you create a shared society.
My mission as the foreign relations deputy mayor is first of all to bring investment to the city so we can ensure that all elements of the city have quality employment and economic opportunities.
I’m also in charge of philanthropy coming into the city. I want to make sure the philanthropy is strategic and tries to solve our real issues.
And thirdly, I’m in charge of tourism. Jerusalem has got a stronger brand in the tourism world than Israel. Tourism is a big part of our income and the way businesses survive. So I’m constantly looking for different ways and methods to advance and grow the tourism coming to us.
You mentioned investment in Israel. We know that Israel is a leader in the high-tech sector. Does that include Jerusalem?
Seven years ago I would have said to you that we’re not an area of high-tech. But in seven years we created an amazing revolution. It was an area that should always have been in high-tech. The best academic institutions in the country sit in Jerusalem.
The chronology of it is interesting. The government never really saw Jerusalem as a high-tech hub. A group of Hebrew University students with a vision decided to create the first accelerator in the city. Nobody even knew what an accelerator was. It’s a hub to teach people how to take a small startup and turn it into something viable.
Then the government came in and said, there’s something going on here, we’re going to start investing.
In the last seven years, we’ve built a vibrant high-tech ecosystem, along with a biotech ecosystem. We’ve tripled the amount of startups in the city. We’ve quadrupled the amount of investment in the city. We’ve managed to convince a lot of the young talent to stay in the city with the startups. We’ve had an enormous amount of tax incentives and government incentives to stay in the city, to bring research and development businesses in the city and create a better economic reality, where we’re not just dependent on government offices and tourism to survive as an economy.
The reputation of Jerusalem isn’t necessarily for high-tech, but for religion, and for religious people who study all the time and don’t work. Is that stereotype true?
It’s true. Let me tell you why Jerusalem’s economy has challenges, and it involves the haredim and the Arabs.
Among the haredim, one in two men work. Not good enough when the national average workforce participation for men is almost 80 per cent.
The same type of ultra-Orthodox men in New York or Toronto are working.
Israel, for historical reasons, wanted to restore Torah study and gave these men army exemptions and stipends. David Ben-Gurion did that when there were 5,000 of them. Today, they are almost 20 per cent of the population.
Of Israel or Jerusalem?
Of Israel. In Jerusalem, they comprise 25 per cent of the population.
The new generation of young men don’t want to be poor anymore. Let’s talk about families that live seven kids in a room. They live off a little stipend and what the wife makes, which is normally minimum wage.
We are encouraging men by giving scholarships, doing accelerated learning programs to make up for the years of high school they didn’t do.
We encourage them into academia and then job placements to try to get more into the working world.
Have you seen a shift in the numbers of people working?
In macro numbers, it’s gone up one or two points. On a micro level, you go to any college in the evening in Jerusalem, it’s full of ultra-Orthodox men. It may not have shifted yet, but I see thousands of them going into academia now.
The ultra-Orthodox women have always worked, but many or most of them were working in low-paying, minimum wage jobs, like kindergarten assistants.
We’re going to schools, recognizing the ones who are good at math, who can code, and bringing STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) subjects into haredi girls schools, mainstreaming them into colleges and getting them to be out there programming.
In Israel, the well-paid jobs are high-tech jobs.
And then you have two populations, the Arabs and the ultra-Orthodox, who are dying for quality, well-paying employment that will shift everything, that will change the entire dynamic of their communities.
What I spend my day doing is building the bridge between the demand, which is these engineering jobs, and the supply, which is talented and intelligent people who have been, because of the policy of their leadership, kept poor and ignorant.
We’re doing it with the Arabs as well.
What is the relationship between the Jewish and Arab populations of Jerusalem? Do they get along or is there friction?
You only hear about problems. The day-to-day reality is we live and we work together. Arabs live mainly in east Jerusalem, but we all live in the same city.
I go to the mall and you have Arab men and women, ultra-Orthodox men and women. In my gym, I have Arab women, Orthodox women. That’s how we live. We share a society, we share a city.
Do we still have a lot to do to embrace them into the economy? Absolutely, we do. Their education system is completely bankrupt, mainly because the Palestinian Authority are the people who decided what the curriculum is, and the curriculum has two main problems: one is it doesn’t teach them Hebrew, and the second is it teaches them incitement, which means it blocks any opportunity at coexistence.
The biggest demand we see now is for Hebrew, and people take out loans for thousands of shekels to take Hebrew lessons at night or after school, when their school system could have taught them Hebrew as a second language.
My girls are learning Arabic in school. Why couldn’t they learn Hebrew?
What impact did the relocation of the American embassy and the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital have on the city?
I’m very excited about that. The United States recognized a reality, that Jerusalem is our capital. It always has been our capital. It always will be our capital.
What it did was it created a domino effect. We still don’t have any other huge countries, but smaller South American countries, like Guatemala and Honduras, and the Czech Republic are on their way.
Everybody is opening economic offices in Jerusalem. There is a domino effect, and there have been zero security issues.
What it did on a practical economic level is provide more jobs, create a more cosmopolitan atmosphere. I’m working on a plan to create an embassy district. All these things are only good for the city, and for all the residents of the city.
You think Arabs are not going to get jobs at the American embassy? Or other types of immigrants?
It’s only good for the economy of the city. It’s only good for the reputation of the city, and I call on Canada to also move their embassy to Jerusalem.
We have a lot of advocates for the Palestinians here in Canada who say that, in terms of receiving services, they lag behind Jewish neighbourhoods. Is there any truth to that?
They’re right to a certain extent.
In Jerusalem, for many years, many successive governments, whether they were right- or left-leaning, kind of thought that, one day, east Jerusalem wasn’t going to be their problem, as there might be a Palestinian state. We’re kicking the can down the road.
Two and a half years ago, there was a historic government decision to start taking responsibility for east Jerusalem, so its residents have equal services, equal education, the same job opportunities as everybody else.
This is a difficult thing. You have to understand, the Arabs in east Jerusalem could have voted and been part of the political process in east Jerusalem. They’ve chosen not to vote, because for them, it’s a statement on sovereignty. So if they would have been as strategic as the ultra-Orthodox, who comprise almost half of my city council, even thought they represent only 25 per cent of the city, the Arabs could have had exactly the same resources.
This interview has been edited and condensed for style and clarity.