Jerusalem Election Diary: Haaretz gets it so wrong

by Brian on November 7, 2008

in In the News,Only in Israel

I don’t usually write about the same topic two weeks in a row, but, with less than a week to go, the upcoming Jerusalem mayoral elections is so critical that I feel compelled to post again.

Last Friday, the Haaretz newspaper, considered Israel’s version of “The New York Times” (and a paper which I regularly read) published an editorial slamming mayoral candidate Nir Barkat and endorsing “a responsible haredi” (a code word for Meir Porush, the only ultra Orthodox candidate running for the position). Many Jerusalemites like me were outraged.

The reason for Haaretz’s position is that Barkat has come out in support of building a Jewish neighborhood near the Arab village of Anata, at the foot of the Jerusalem neighborhood of French Hill. The area has long been a thorn in the Palestinian’s side: building there would help connect Jerusalem to the satellite city of Ma’aleh Adumim in the West Bank, but it would also have the effect of preventing territorial contiguity for a new Palestinian state.

Barkat says that building this new Jewish neighborhood will help solve the city’s “shortage of housing for students and young people.” But it’s also a clear ploy to help win over Jerusalem’s “swing vote” – the Modern Orthodox residents who, according to recent polls, are split between Barkat and rival Porush. Given that most of the city’s voters, whether religious or secular, tend to be right wing, it’s not a bad campaign tactic.

Whether you agree or disagree with Barkat’s position, Haaretz – by coming out against the current front-runner in the race – is saying something far more disturbing about Israel’s attitude towards Jerusalem.

Haaretz is, in effect, giving up on Jerusalem. Or perhaps they already have. In the eyes of the Tel Aviv-based newspaper, Jerusalem is already all religious; there’s nothing to do here; no nightlife; it’s too far away; too dangerous; too tense; and ultimately not even worth a visit. The Western Wall, the Old City, the quaint alleyways and gourmet restaurants, the cool summer air, the unique architecture, the spirituality, the Knesset and center of government – all of these are unimportant to the enlightened readers of Haaretz where the heaviness and tension that are part and parcel of Israel’s capital might, God forbid, impede the never ending pursuit of next party.

Indeed, to Haaretz, Jerusalem is not a city at all. It’s a metaphor, a bargaining chip on the geo-political stage to be divided in an eventual peace. Anything getting in the way of that end must be resisted, fought, denigrated. Haaretz couldn’t care less about the problems the city faces, from transportation gridlock to cleanliness and jobs, reverse emigration, religiously-mandated unemployment, and a rapidly deteriorating education system, all areas for which Barkat – in contrast to the other mayoral hopefuls – has clear, step-by-step plans for rapid execution. The quality of life in Jerusalem can go to hell, Haaretz is saying, as long as the next mayor doesn’t stoop to interfere with the inevitable outcome of Oslo and Annapolis.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m no right wing extremist. I think Barkat was wrong to inject such a controversial issue into a local election campaign at the last minute. It seems too pandering. And, at least in our liberal Anglo bubble, not an insignificant number of people have vowed to submit an empty ballot on election day.

But it’s not as if mayoral competitor Porush holds a significantly different view. Haim Watzman, writing in the excellent South Jerusalem blog, points to Porush’s campaign site where the haredi mayoral candidate also advocates building Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, although he’d make them ultra-Orthodox rather than ear marked for students and young people as Barkat proposes.

In the end, though, how much influence does a mayor even have over national issues like where to build and which settlements to keep? That’s for the next prime minister to decide along with the rest of the Knesset. And in any case, if Barkat wins – and despite this misstep, I sincerely hope he does – he’ll need to put together a municipal coalition that will almost certainly have to include the left wing Meretz party, which will temper if not entirely block Barkat’s right wing ambitions.

Who becomes Jerusalem’s next mayor is important not only for the city but for the future of Israel as a whole. Listen to what Porush said this week to a private gathering of Belz Hassidim:

“God willing, in another ten years’ time there won’t be a single secular mayor in any city. Maybe just in some run-down village,” Porush told the assembled crowd in Yiddish.

“Dear teachers and esteemed scholars, look at what is taking place here,” Porush continued. “We are currently in a situation where we already have an ultra-Orthodox candidate in Jerusalem, there has been one for five years and there will be another one for another five years. Not far from here, in the city of Beit Shemesh, God willing within ten days there will be an ultra-Orthodox mayor. And so on and so on.”

Someone in the hall made a surreptitious recording of the talk which was widely distributed across all of the news media. Porush later that night visited a street party on Jerusalem’s trendy (and decidedly non-haredi) Emek Refaim Street. When asked to elaborate on his comments, Porush at first denied them entirely. When he learned that an audio recording of his speech was making the rounds, he backtracked, claiming that he had only been speaking about the connection between the national religious and haredi sectors.

Haaretz ends its editorial by urging Labor and Meretz voters to withdraw their support for Barkat. It stresses that Barkat “lacks political wisdom.” I disagree. Barkat has vision. He can, like the hope placed in U.S. President-elect Barak Obama, mend the widening rifts between populations in this beleaguered city. He truly does represent change.

I say to residents of Jerusalem: don’t let Haaretz scare you. There’s too much at stake. We need a mayor who will represent all of the city’s diverse population. So, get out to vote this coming Tuesday. And, for the sake of Jerusalem, vote Barkat.

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: