From Barack to Barkat: A Look Back at the November Elections

by Brian on November 14, 2008

in In the News,Only in Israel

The just concluded Jerusalem election, while certainly not as important on a world stage as last week’s U.S. presidential contest, was in many ways spookily similar to its overseas counterpart. For those who supported Nir Barkat, who beat his main competitor Meir Porush by a commanding 9 points (52 to 43 percent), the sheer jubilance that erupted across the city (though certainly not in all parts of it) reminded me of what I’d heard from so many friends and family in the U.S. after Barack Obama bested John McCain.

That tolerance had triumphed over extremism. That inclusiveness would now prevail, not sectarianism. And most importantly, that hope, pride and patriotism had been restored – in the case of Jerusalem, at a time when many residents were saying, either outright or under their collective breaths, what one Beit Hakerem resident was quoted by Haaretz as lamenting: that this election would “determine whether I’m staying” in the city.

The resemblance between the two races extended beyond just the similarity in the winning candidates names. One candidate preached change, the other more of the same. One ran a relatively clean campaign, while the other (or his supporters, it’s not clear) spent much of his political capital on negative attack ads.

To wit: I took a walk several days before the election. There were posters claiming Barkat was really a closet leftist; that with only five years in politics he “lacked the experience” to manage such a complex city as Jerusalem. Sound familiar?

Barkat, to be sure, didn’t run a flawless campaign the way Obama did. He flip-flopped on political positions and took pot shots at low hanging fruit (the light rail fiasco, the over priced “Bridge of Strings”). Posters appeared on city streets in the waning days of the contest almost messianically proclaiming him “HaTikva,” a play on words: the literal translation is “The Hope” but it’s also the name of the Israeli national anthem.

But Porush had his own Sarah Palin debacle when he was caught on tape boasting that, following his presumed election, “there would be no more secular mayors anywhere in Israel within 10 years.” Once publicized, that statement more than any others did the job of scaring away any remaining voters still on the fence.

As in the U.S., both candidates were Internet savvy. Their websites were filled with information and video and opportunities to get involved. Barkat’s people sponsored a MoveOn-inspired email campaign where recipients were asked to personalize a letter urging friends to vote and automatically send it to up to 25 others at once. I’m not sure if Porush did the same – after all, many of his supporters are not supposed to be on the Internet at all.

As the campaign dragged on, it became difficult to find a neutral ground. Barkat supporters decried Porush as a religious fundamentalist who would turn the clocks back 100 years. The Porush people painted Barkat as an operator who’d promise anything to anyone for a vote. Both made a desperate effort to win over the city’s swing vote – the national religious public – our equivalent of Ohio and Florida.

Like Obama, an inordinate amount of expectation has now been placed on Jerusalem’s mayor-elect. Obama ostensibly has it easier. With Democratic control of Congress, Obama will be able to push through more of his policies than Barkat who still has to cobble together a coalition with a motley bunch of small to moderately sized parties, each with their own agendas.

These range from the ultra-Orthodox (UTJ and Shas) to the uber-leftist (Meretz) and everything in between (there’s one party with a slate of civic-minded young people, another that got in to push a single issue: easing the traffic jams from the satellite neighborhood of Pisgat Ze’ev). Would that it were as simple in Israel as having just the Democrats vs. the Republicans in power (but then, what fun would that be?)

The new mayor of Jerusalem will not be expected to repair an ailing economy on a grand scale as in Washington, but the creation of jobs, ensuring that the city’s diminishing tax base can cover municipal services, and creating a viable partnership between public and private enterprise are all badly needed parts of the post.

Here too Barkat’s election inspires confidence, for who better to address these issues than a businessman who made the jump from the private to public sector himself. And unlike the bankers on Wall Street who refuse to part with their exorbitant bonuses, Barkat has promised not to take a salary at all.

I know no candidate is perfect. Like Barack Obama, Nir Barkat holds views I don’t necessarily agree with. But I truly believe he will try to run the city like the hi-tech manager he is. I can imagine Barkat appointing a “CTO” for the city as Obama is trying to do for the U.S. Both will push for transparency. Their joint goal is nothing short of restoring the good name of their respective constituencies worldwide.

There’s one area, though, where the similarities between the elections end and the essential Israeliness of ours becomes paramount. This was the first election where my oldest son, Amir, has been able to vote. Four hours after the polls closed, Amir flew off to Poland.

Visiting Poland to experience what Jewish life was like before and during the Holocaust is a right of passage for seniors (and sometimes juniors) in Israeli high schools. It is a life-affirming trip that cements the students’ identity as Jews and as Israelis. The timing this year served to further drive home the fact that the Jews weren’t given the right to vote from the death camps. They weren’t given the right to live.

For us, being able to participate in the building of a thriving community in Israel, as the homeland for the renewal of the Jewish people as a sovereign democratic nation, is not just a privilege, but an emotional and poignant responsibility. Living up to that challenge is our patriotic duty, and casting a vote to shape the kind of society we want to live in, is a critical part of how we exercise that right.

I am proud of my nation, my city and my family for coming out this week to cast a ballot that may at last return hope to Jerusalem, the most important city in the world.


Next week…we’ll be back to a more normal “This Normal Life” – no more politics (for awhile at least).

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