Fleur Hassan-Nahoum’s work as Jerusalem’s “Foreign Minister”—her real title is Deputy Mayor in charge of foreign relations, international economic development and tourism—normally keeps her on the go all day. But now, like everyone else, she is stuck at home. She decided to stay in almost a week before the government’s order to try to quell the spread of COVID-19.
“I was meeting people face-to-face, trying to meet outdoors on the benches of Safra Square”—the site of the Jerusalem municipality—“because I thought it was safer. But then I started to panic. What am I doing? I have four children,” she recounted. Like so many others, Hassan-Nahoum has now moved her busy workday to video conferencing on Zoom.
On the morning she spoke on the phone with Tablet, Hassan-Nahoum also spoke with a Palestinian-American orthopedist who owns orthopedic parts factories around the world.
“I’m helping him open a factory in Jerusalem, because I want more jobs in Jerusalem, and I want more for the Arab community,” Hassan-Nahoum said. “He does a lot of sales in the Middle East, so the Arab-speaking community is a good fit. If all goes well, it should open in six months. Coronavirus shouldn’t disrupt the bureaucratic process to open a factory,” she added.
Hassan-Nahoum came to the businessman, whose name she kept to herself in the interest of not endangering the deal, through peace activist Gershon Baskin, a pathway which helps to illustrate the nature of her job. “My job as deputy mayor is to make shidduchs”—matchmaking—“for investments, philanthropy, businesses and different communities in Israel, and bring them all to Jerusalem,” she said.
In the meantime, though, Hassan-Nahoum has to find ways to combine her match-making skills with battling the virus.
Jerusalem is the poorest city in Israel, and the deputy mayor’s first priority during the epidemic is helping the residents who need it most. The biggest obstacle she faces is the fact that Israel does not have an elected government these days, and the country’s interim government must work within a limited budget.
“I went to three ministries to help me, and they said ‘Fleur, if we had a government, I’d give you the money tomorrow,’” she recounted. “Who cares? We can’t release budgets to help the unemployed. It’s irresponsible. It’s criminal! No one can release a penny—and they would otherwise!”
In the 2015-2016 “knife Intifada,” the government set up an emergency fund for Jerusalem, Hassan-Nahoum said, and ideally there would be something similar now. In lieu of help from the national government, Hassan-Nahoum is using her connections in the philanthropic world to make more shidduchs.
“I’m asking for help with special-needs children and their families. It’s never happened before that their school system is closed. People don’t understand how bad it is if someone has a severely autistic child who is normally in a school framework until 6 p.m., and now you have to take care of them. We have 6,000 of those cases, 2,000 of them are severely under the poverty line,” she said.
Hassan-Nahoum’s other current focus is trying to pull together an emergency business fund for small businesses in Jerusalem that are suffering in the current lockdown. “Jerusalem is going to suffer tremendously, because more than any other city in Israel our economy is very service-oriented. Tourism is a huge chunk—hotels, restaurants,” she explained. She took to twitter to encourage people to postpone, not cancel their trips to Jerusalem, in an attempt to provide some kind of economic horizon to the faltering industry.
Hassan-Nahoum’s unique background lends itself to making connections between different cultures and parts of the world. The deputy mayor is originally from Gibraltar, and she grew up speaking English and Spanish fluently. Her father is Sir Joshua Abraham Hassan, the first Chief Minister and Mayor of Gibraltar, who famously advocated for Gibraltarians to have the right to decide whether they want to remain part of the United Kingdom—which they chose to do.
Aryeh Lightstone, the Senior Adviser to U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman cited Hassan-Nahoum’s unique past as something that makes her so successful. “Both mayors Nir Barkat and [current Mayor] Moshe Lion deserve credit for understanding that as a major international city, you have to have a foreign policy shop,” Lightstone said. Hassan-Nahoum “has become the go-to person for much of this stuff and acquitted herself extremely professionally. It does not hurt that she’s fluent in many languages and conversant in many cultures.”
“Fleur has found a way to put herself in the middle of things that are extremely pertinent to the U.S.-Israel relationship,” he added.
The deputy mayor cited her father as her guide for how to behave in politics: “I learned a lot from my father,” she told me. “He is my model for what a statesman should look and act like. He was a very humble person and never thought he was more special than anyone else. He spoke to everyone in the street and was completely accessible. He would speak to people clearing the garbage and to other politicians in the same way. … The idea of public service was always in my veins.”
Hassan-Nahoum did not always have her eye on politics, though. At age 18, she left Gibraltar for law school in London, where she met her husband. They moved to Israel together in 2001, during the Second Intifada. “Our families were very against it, but we thought that if we were going to wait for a good time, we’d never find one,” she explained. “For the first six months it was very hard. Cafés were blowing up; we lived in real fear. But I’m so happy my kids were born here. They’re Israelis—I feel like I gave them a gift,” she said.
For her first 15 years in Israel, Hassan-Nahoum worked in nonprofits, serving as the director of the Tikvah Children’s Homes which help abused Jewish children from the former Soviet Union. Then, she opened a business communications consulting business. One of her clients was the Yerushalmim party that advocated for a more pluralistic Jerusalem, and she ran on their slate for the first time in 2013. In 2016, she made it onto Jerusalem’s City Council, and in 2018 she jumped to the slate led by Likud minister Ze’ev Elkin, who holds the Jerusalem Affairs portfolio in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet and ran a failed campaign for mayor that year.
Hassan-Nahoum, who calls herself “a proud Zionist feminist” in her twitter bio, is also a proud Likudnik. “It’s a real party that’s democratic, the members decide who their representatives are,” she explains. “I also like that there is a lot of diversity, there are Haredim and LGBT people in Likud. We have everything; I love that. That’s what I want for Jerusalem—richness of diversity that we need to celebrate.” She sees herself as fully in-step with the party’s views on national politics, as well. “We don’t have a peace partner in the Palestinians,” she said in her brisk pragmatic tone. “They’re not ready to make peace with us. Territorial compromises when they’re split into seven pieces is suicide. That’s why I’m right-wing.”
At the same time, Hassan-Nahoum emphasized that she doesn’t fit into the American right-left divide. “If people wanted to put me with Democrats or Republicans I couldn’t find where I should be. I grew up in Europe, I believe in universal healthcare,” she said.
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In office, Hassan-Nahoum has focused a huge amount of her time on the Arab residents of east Jerusalem, who are residents but not citizens of Israel, and whom the Palestinian Authority views as Palestinians. Living in limbo between competing definitions of their citizenship, Jerusalem Arabs may apply for Israeli citizenship, but few have; for those who try, the process can take years. While non-citizen residents may vote in Jerusalem’s municipal elections, only 2% did in 2018, leaving a large number of Arab Jerusalemites without active citizenship and without much of a voice in how they are governed.
Still, she said: “When I look at east Jerusalem, I see 37% of my constituents, whether they vote for me or not doesn’t matter. I look at what’s going on, and I see 80% poverty.”
Hassan-Nahoum researched and analyzed the situation in east Jerusalem and drew the conclusion that the problem begins with education—specifically, the fact that schools continue to use the Palestinian Authority curriculum. In her capacity as the Deputy Mayor for Foreign Relations, Hassan-Nahoum petitions PA donor countries against PA textbooks, which she called “disturbing” and said feature “incitement, antisemitism and an obsession with the right of return.” But she’s also very focused on short-term solutions to give Arabs in east Jerusalem advantages that will help raise them out of poverty.
“The most disturbing thing of all, to me, is the fact that they don’t teach them Hebrew,” she said. Without even basic Hebrew, Hassan-Nahoum pointed out, only low-paying jobs are available to them once they graduate. “What happens when they’re 18 years old?” she asks. “They have zero opportunity for higher education or any decent job. … I owe a duty to my constituents, to a third of the city, to give them the same opportunities that my kids get.”
Hassan-Nahoum has worked on opening more Hebrew learning programs and mechinot (pre-college academies) for east Jerusalem Arabs to prepare them to get into Israeli colleges. She has also sought to convince schools to switch to the curriculum that Arabs throughout Israel learn, which she emphasized is “not Zionism being rammed down anyone’s throat.” The latter has been less of a success, she admits, blaming “propaganda from the PA that says if you take the Israeli curriculum, you’re a traitor.” She has also launched an entrepreneurship center that has been helping women to open home bakeries and daycare centers, among other businesses.
Lighstone recounted spending a day in east Jerusalem with Hassan-Nahoum, which included the entrepreneurship center, where she was greeted warmly. “She’s enhancing employment and quality of life in east Jerusalem. … The people running these organizations were extremely comfortable and forthright in a way you wouldn’t normally see,” he said. While the deputy mayor is “obviously a political animal,” Lightstone added, “every moment she spent with me on that day was providing a voice for people who don’t normally get seen and I was very moved by that.”
Hassan-Nahoum has taken similar actions to help prepare Haredi men, another underemployed group, to enter the workforce. She has advocated for higher wages for Haredi women, whose employment level mirrors the general population, but are often paid less for their work.
As the deputy mayor explained her philosophy: “We can’t say Jerusalem is one united city but then ignore them and give them no resources or infrastructure for development. There’s no reason why the Arabs of east Jerusalem can’t be part of the prosperity of the Start-Up Nation. They’re not less clever than we are. They have the same potential.”
The Jerusalem that Hassan-Nahoum is trying to shape may be a kind of laboratory for Israel’s future, she acknowledges. “In 30 years, the demography of the whole State of Israel will mirror the demography of Jerusalem today,” she said. “It will be 30% Haredi and 30% Arab. What we’re doing is not just looking for ways to develop the economy in a more equal way, but to develop models for a shared society, economy and development.”
Lahav Harkov is the diplomatic correspondent for The Jerusalem Post. She tweets at @LahavHarkov.