Jerusalem Elections 2008: The Most Crucial in Years

by Brian on October 31, 2008

in In the News

Several weeks ago I gave an Israeli take on the upcoming U.S. elections. But there’s another vote in November that may prove to be just as momentous for this country. I’m talking about the Jerusalem mayoral elections.

Five years ago, the status quo was broken when the ultra-Orthodox (haredi) community fielded a candidate for mayor for the first time…and won. Before that, haredi Jerusalemites were careful not to promote one of their own for fear that an Orthodox mayor would be forced to sanction “non-kosher” activities (such as the annual Jerusalem Gay Pride Parade). Accordingly, the last two Jerusalem mayors, Ehud Olmert and Teddy Kolleck, were both secular.

But in 2003, Uri Lupolianski ran and narrowly defeated millionaire businessman and philanthropist Nir Barkat. Lupolianski captivated both secular and religious voters with his background as the founder of the Yad Sarah organization which is dedicated to helping the elderly and disabled. He received numerous awards for his work there: the President’s Volunteer Prize; the Knesset Speaker’s Award; the Kaplan Prize for Efficiency; and in 2004, the Israel Prize.

Lupolianski wasn’t a bad mayor – he kept a decent balance between the different groups in the city and even allowed his dreaded Gay Parade to proceed (earning him considerable scorn from his constituency). More non-kosher bars and clubs opened during Lupolianski’s term than ever before.

The biggest criticism many residents had of Lupolianski  was that he was dull– he showed little vision other than canceling the Safdie plan to build 20,000 homes on prime forest land that was decried by local environmentalists.

But he’s not running this year. Lupolianski is a member of the ultra-Orthodox Degel HaTorah party. In order for the entire haredi community to throw its support behind a single candidate, Degel hooked up 5 years ago with rival Agudat Yisrael, with the provision that when the next elections rolled around, an Aguda candidate would run.

The Aguda candidate is Member of Knesset Meir Porush. And that’s where the trouble starts.

Porush is not a relative moderate like Lupolianski. He has spent his entire career advancing haredi sectarian interests. His campaign has barely tried to disguise the fact that his mission is to push an ultra Orthodox agenda on the city. The unstated goal: that Jerusalem will eventually be entirely Torah observant.

Just look at the advertisement placed in last week’s Jerusalem Post. The headline reads “10 reasons why Porush is our man.” Whose man? It’s not hard to figure out.

“Education is essential,” screams one of the bulleted points – for the religious community only. “Porush intends to assist the religious public schools, Torah-oriented public schools, Talmud Torah institutions and various religious Zionist educational networks.”

There is no mention of the secular community at all.

How about housing? Porush says he will locate land in Jerusalem for establishing new national religious neighborhoods and will “raze and build in areas targeted by the religious Zionist public.”

How about neighborhoods for non-religious Jerusalemites?

The list of one-sided statements goes on and on.

Culture? Only if it “builds on our national spiritual past” – a code word for more dance performances where 12 year old girls have to wear ski masks and burqas.

Higher education? For hesder yeshiva and (primarily religious) pre-army preparatory programs.

Calev Ben David, writing in the Jerusalem Post, gives an example of how all this could play out. The school where his children study has been neglected and rundown for years. It was recently forced to relocate. A haredi educational institution moved in and the long overdue improvements were quickly made. “It is this kind of preferential treatment…that so infuriates other residents of the capital,” Ben David says.

Don’t get me wrong. I believe Jerusalem has a special place as a holy city that enhances Jewish tradition. But Jerusalem as an open, pluralistic city is in the best interests of the entire country, if not the whole world. The prospect of Porush being elected is truly terrifying.

Fortunately there is an alternative. Nir Barkat, who has led the opposition the last five years, is running again for mayor. Barkat is an impressive individual. I got to know him when he ran the venture capital firm BRM and I was fund raising for a startup I’d founded. He always struck me as thoughtful, professional and a real leader. He retired from hi-tech when he ran for office five years ago, getting involved only after experiencing his own frustrations over education issues.

Barkat addresses all of the key issues that plague the city. The pitiful amount invested in local schools. The lack of affordable housing for young people. The dearth of employment options (that accounts for most of the major flight of working professionals from the city). The filthy streets.

Barkat wants to increase the number of foreign tourists to Jerusalem from the current 1-2 million to 10 million in the next decade, creating 150,000 more workplaces in the city. He’s said as mayor he would promote stem cell research, computer-guided surgery research and hi-tech, three areas in which Jerusalem has leading world experts. He bemoans the fact Jerusalem’s budget for cultural activities is just NIS 10 million per year, compared with more than NIS 100 million for Tel Aviv which has half the number of residents as Jerusalem. Ditto for education spending where schools are allotted only NIS 3,800 per child a year vs. Tel Aviv which spends NIS 11,000.

Barkat has also called for legislation that would fine foreigners who own Jerusalem apartments left vacant most of the year, as these absentee landlords help create housing shortages that raise prices while at the same time turning certain neighborhoods into “ghost towns.”

Barkat made one misstep in recent weeks when he announced he was supporting the building of a new neighborhood of 2,000 apartments for young people between the Anata and French Hill neighborhoods in the north of the city. Clearly appealing to the city’s overwhelming right wing population, he nevertheless lost a number left wing votes along the way.

The mayoral candidates participated in a debate held this past Saturday night that was co-sponsored by the AACI (Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel), The Great Synagogue and the Jerusalem Post. The room was so packed with thousands of local English-speakers that the organizers had to close the doors and leave tens of people outside.

Porush’s presentation was peppered with divrei Torah and religious metaphors and was delivered through a translator – that’s right, the man who wants to be mayor of the most important city in the world can’t speak English! Barkat, by contrast, spoke in flawless unaccented English as he outlined an explicit step-by-step plan for each of the city’s concerns.

When speaking about how to solve the transportation issues that have brought the city to a standstill, for example, he pointed out that the city’s transportation committee hasn’t met in over five years. Worse still, none of the 26 committees at city hall are even open to the public. Barkat promised to bring transparency and a business-oriented management style to local government.

Perhaps fearing what would happen if he got into a head-to-head confrontation with Barkat, when it came time to begin the debate portion of the evening, Porush literally fled, explaining that he had an important meeting with Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. That left Barkat alone to debate the third major candidate for mayor, billionaire Israeli-Russian businessman Arkadi Gaydamak.

Gaydamak was no match for Barkat. At numerous times during the debate, Gaydamak nonchalantly declared that he has absolutely “no experience” on topics such as sanitation or even with city hall in general, but that he trusted the “professionals” who run their specific departments (the very same professionals who have gotten the city in so much trouble). On the gay parade, Gaydamak said that he “respected homosexuals but I don’t understand why they should be proud,” leading to loud guffaws from the crowd.

The debate was essentially transformed into a platform for a Barkat stump speech and his talk was received by numerous rounds of applause; it’s clear who the mostly modern Orthodox audience would be voting for.

The good news is the polls currently show that Barkat will beat Porush by a handy margin. A Dahaf Institute survey of 500 residents found that Barkat would garner 48 percent of the vote compared with 36 percent for Porush (and that despite his aggressive campaign material which features a cartoon caricature of the candidate waving his hand like a round, gentle Jewish Santa Claus). Gaydamak would receive just 6 percent. However the pollsters also predicted a Barkat victory in 2002 (although to be fair, it was an extremely close race and Barak lost to Lupolianski by less than 20,000 votes).

Among those surveyed in the latest poll, 88 percent of secular residents and 61 percent of modern Orthodox said they would support Barkat, while Porush received 89 percent of the haredi votes and 22 percent of the modern Orthodox vote.

The problem in Jerusalem is that haredi leaders know how to get the vote out. In the last election, 64 percent of the city’s ultra Orthodox residents turned out to vote and all for the same candidate. The non-haredi turn out was an embarrasing 34 percent. So even though the ultra Orthodox population in the city is only 24 percent, the numbers don’t work in Barkat’s favor unless he can convince his target demographic to get off their apathetic tushes on Election Day.

Barkat has been working relentlessly in this direction for the entire 5 years he’s been on the city council. He has made serious outreach to voters across the non-haredi spectrum so as not to be perceived as the “secular” candidate. His day is jam-packed with meetings every day, from the not insignificant Anglo community to sports teams, retirees and even merchants at the Mahane Yehuda market (who he reportedly has locked up).

Barkat has held parlor meetings with Modern Orthodox residents across the city and even studies Torah (whether that’s a campaign ploy or not, you still have to give the man credit). Rabbi Yehuda Aviner (yes, the same one said it was forbidden to watch the popular Israeli television show “Srugim”) has given his tacit support to Barkat.

“Meir Porush and the ultra-Orthodox public have no consideration for the National-Zionist population,” Aviner told the Ynet website. “They aren’t interested in them, do not recognize them and do not think they have any significance.”

Ultimately, Israel is a democracy and if the non-haredi voters don’t vote, then we get what we deserve. My hope is that this year will be different and that we see Barkat prevail. The very future of Jerusalem depends on it.

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