A Tough Vote in Jerusalem

by Brian on September 18, 2013

in Politics

Naomi TsurRachel AzariaIf you’d asked me a month ago who I would be voting for in October’s Jerusalem municipality race, I’d have answered quickly: the incumbent mayor, Nir Barkat, and the Yerushalmim party headed by Rachel Azaria. But then everything got all mixed up with the entry of a new movement called Ometz Lev (literally “braveness of heart”), with Naomi Tsur at its head.

Unlike in national elections where the largest party in most cases also determines who will be the prime minister, in municipalities like Jerusalem you vote twice – for a party and a mayor separately.

Both Azaria, 35, and Tsur, 65, are returning council members and both have been impressive politicians, contributing in not insubstantial ways to the improvement of the city over the past five years under Barkat’s stewardship. I want both to be on the next city council. But I can only vote for one.

Yerushalmim and Ometz Lev held intimate parlor meetings in the last week to trot out their lists and present their platforms. Azaria’s party is well known for working toward gender equality and greater religious pluralism in the city. The former head of Mavoi Satum, an organization that aids women who are unable to obtain a divorce, Azaria has rallied against women’s exclusion from advertising on buses (including her own face in the last election campaign) and lobbied to prevent gender separated sidewalks in Meah Shearim during Sukkot.

As a mother with young children herself, Azaria helped champion legislation that eventually made its way to the Trajtenberg Committee (formed after 2011’s summer social justice protests) that resulted in free education available from age 3. Azaria has put together a list of like-minded liberal Orthodox leaders, including Nachlaot Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz, who has been on the front lines fighting to create an alternate system of kashrut licensing for restaurants that want to be kosher but resent being tied to the user unfriendly Rabbinate.

Tsur, on the other hand, has put environmental issues at the top of her priorities while in Barkat’s coalition. The enormously successful Train Track Park winding between Baka and the German Colony would likely not have happened without her efforts, going back as far as the mid-1990’s. A former head of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI), she helped defeat the Safdie Plan, which would have destroyed wide swaths of forest around Jerusalem to build 20,000 apartments and extensive ring roads, and she takes pride in the creation of the country’s first “urban nature reserve,” the Gazelle Park, in the southern part of the city. Earlier this year, Tsur sponsored an international “Green Pilgrimage” conference to promote eco-friendly tourism to the city.

Both parties emphasize the need to ensure that women’s voices are a major part of the decision-making process going forward in this overwhelmingly male-dominated city’s political system (of the current council’s 31 members, only 6 are women). Yerushalmim has 3 women in its top 6; at Ometz Lev, all but 2 of its list of 10 are women. Ometz Lev’s slate includes Reform Rabbi Susan Silverman, who has made the news for her active participation as a Women of the Wall, as well as Masada Porat, an ultra-Orthodox woman, marking the first time any woman from the haredi world has run for council (the haredi parties are notably 100% woman-free).

Both Azaria and Tsur’s parties appeal to a certain type of progressive demographic, with strong outreach to Anglos (Azaria’s mother is from the U.S.; Tsur herself is from the U.K.). Both are supporting Nir Barkat for mayor. He’s running his own list, on which Tsur got onto the council five years ago. From media reports, he offered her a place on his list this time around that was too low to realistically expect to get back in, hence her decision to go out on her own. Tsur told her parlor meeting this week that she left because she felt she could get more accomplished as the head of her own list.

While Azaria and Tsur share many commonalities, the biggest take away’s my wife and I left from each of the respective parlor meetings were that Azaria was focusing more on the needs of young families to help them stay in the city and build up a stronger base of modern, Zionist (and tax-paying) citizens, while Tsur would employ her environmental sensibilities to push for smarter urban planning and a long term sustainable city. (The latter is already an unavoidable issue: for example, when you build apartments for 1,000 new people in Baka, where we live, without taking into account how this will impact on local schools or the already clogged roads, you are writing a recipe for ruin.)

Tsur doesn’t discount young families in favor of exuberant tree hugging; on the contrary, she points to the Train Track Park as an example of positive urban development that turns neighborhoods like the Katamonim, which for years suffered from its proximity to the park, when the latter served as an unofficial garbage dump, from an undesirable slums to attractive (and still relatively inexpensive) options for the very young families Azaria is targeting with lower priced kindergarten and after school programs.

Neither Yerushalmim or Ometz Lev will likely get more than 1-2 seats each. Indeed, perhaps the biggest concern for voters like me is that the two parties will split the vote and neither will get in. That would be a shame. But still, we need to vote. So do you cast your ballot for the party you really want or the one you think needs the most help? What happens if everyone else does the same?

Hopefully, Jerusalemites will come out in great enough numbers so that both will be returned to the city council. And while they’re at it, they should be sure to vote for Barkat as mayor (see my article here). Because without a sympathetic ear at the top…well, it won’t be just women’s voices that will remain in the opposition.

Here’s the Yerushalmim platform. Here’s more on Ometz Lev.

This article appeared originally on The Times of Israel.

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