TIBERIAS, ISRAEL — In at least 25 years, there hadn’t been even a single a crane looming above the buildings here. Now, construction cranes are popping up everywhere.
The mayor of Tiberias, Joseph Ben David, told the Chronicle during an interview at his City Hall office that he remembers no cranes from his youth here. Others who’ve lived here confirmed his recollection. As the only city in Milwaukee and Madison’s partnership region, Tiberias is in some ways an Israeli version of a medium-sized Midwestern rustbelt city.
With a population of 49,000, the city is on the periphery of Israeli life, adjacent to the Sea of Galilee. It does not move at the fast pace of Tel Aviv. Young professionals have been known relocate from Tiberias to the center of the country in search of better job prospects, according to Yael Eran, director of foreign affairs for the municipality of Tiberias – Sea of Galilee. About 20 percent of Tiberias residents have a social services file with the government, which is considered high.
The city has a long history of receiving immigrants from Morocco, Indochina, France, the former Soviet Union and elsewhere. Their goal has often been to climb out of poverty and the city has not jumped into high-tech as have other parts of Israel. Meanwhile, haredi (strictly Orthodox) sections of the city are growing, with signage barring cars from driving there on Shabbat.
Mayor Ben David, who ran twice before he was finally elected in 2013, has a plan to inject new life into his city. He claims it’s already working and he’s got some evidence on his side as it seems at least some of the city is under construction. Even during an interview in his office – with the window behind him overlooking the Sea of Galilee and the mountains of the Golan Heights – the beeping of construction trucks backing up was ever-present.
The Ben David plan started with a 35 percent cut in taxes on new projects that he says has opened the door to new hotel construction. Eight new hotels are in different phases of the construction process, he said.
Next, he wants to find tenants for a new high-tech business park. He’ll anchor the park with the city’s first railway station, which he said has already been approved. He’s inspired by the way rail built up the United States.
“I can’t rely only on tourism even though I’ve got a treasure,” he said. It’s a sad reality of planning in Israel. When terror or war comes, tourism dissipates.
David also talks of education being the answer, investing in the city’s children.
“One of the best guarantees of the success of a new immigrant family is the children. The child gets the language faster than their parents usually,” he said. This makes the child a resource for the whole family.
But he’s not giving up on tourism. Tiberias has historic hot springs, ancient ties to Rome, the final resting place of the Rambam, and it’s at the foot of a sea that’s vital for Christians. Ben David talks up the city’s 2,000-year anniversary celebration of its founding in 2018; specifics are still to be hammered out.
Ben David does say there’ll be a celebration and partnership city residents will be treated like “VIPs,” if they’d like to come at that time or even beforehand.