Must the Mayor of Jerusalem Speak English?

by Brian on October 9, 2013

in Politics

Moshe Lion at OU CenterIt was meant to be a relatively simple, if snarky post to Facebook. I’d received an email in English that Jerusalem mayoral candidate Moshe Lion would be speaking at the OU Center, a venue that caters nearly 100% to English speakers…but not in English, rather in “easy Hebrew.” I found this rather ironic and commented that the man running to head what I consider to perhaps be “the most important city in the world apparently can’t speak English.” His competitor, Nir Barkat, was pictured opposite Lion in the same flyer with a caption that clearly indicated his linguistic proficiency.

The ensuing torrent of comments – 102 at this writing and still growing – made this my most talked about status update ever. Perhaps that’s small for some popular Facebookers but it was quite eye opening for me. In particular, I was chastened by the speed by which the conversation lost any sense of civility and turned into the online equivalent of a shoving match, covering topics quite far afield from the initial question of language facility.

Here are just a few of the hot topics that became fodder for my fellow armchair pundits. Is it important that a potential mayor has previous experience actually living in the city he’s to represent? (Lion just moved to Jerusalem a few weeks before submitting his candidacy; his kids still go to school back in his hometown of Givatayim. Barkat, by contrast, grew up here.) Who really gets credit for the wildly successful First Station project and Train Track Park? (Lion’s people say that, as the former head of the JDA, which put some money into it, he does.) Is Barkat a leftist? (One commenter thinks so because of Barkat’s association with councilperson Meir Margalit. But try spinning Barkat as an Oslo fan to the folks in Meretz who would go quickly apoplectic in a sprint to disagree.) And, finally, is Jerusalem really the “most important city in the world?” (At least one commenter from California submitted his hometown of Sherman Oaks for that prize.)

When the 24-hour mudslinging marathon was all over, none of the dozen or so agitated respondents had changed their opinions, but I found myself reeling under the realization that this election is even more pivotal and polarizing than I’d originally thought.

Barkat’s supporters think Lion is a bad joke dreamed up by a couple of corrupt political cronies from out of town, Yisrael Beytenu’s Avigdor Liberman and Shas’s Aryeh Deri, and who is solely reliant on the deliverance of a haredi block of votes controlled by rabbis in Bnei Brak (see this story in The Jerusalem Post) rather than purely local concerns.

Lion’s supporters believe Barkat has squandered his 5 years in office with nothing of substance to show other than this author’s statement made in a previous column that there has been “a dramatic improvement in the atmosphere in the city…a feeling of hope, pride and excitement in living in Israel’s capital.” And since when, asked Yisrael Beytenu’s deputy director of communications in a comment, does a politician have to be raised in the city s/he’s running for? Would new immigrant Stanley Fisher, the former chairman of the Bank of Israel, be disqualified because he grew up in South Africa?

Ultimately, Lion did wind up speaking in English after all in front of the crowd of 50 at the OU Center on Sunday night. According to one commenter who was at the event (I was still at home fielding the Facebook fracas), as well as this article by my colleague Linda Gradstein, Lion started out in English with a meek apology that he would be continuing in “easy Hebrew, because it is easier for me.” (Commenter: “the #1 rule in public speaking is ‘know your audience.’” It’s not about making it easier for you.) Lion then suggested that questions could be asked in English, although he’d still answer them in Hebrew (prompting one woman to ask: “but how will I understand what you are saying to me?”). About four minutes into his speech, when “he realized that half the room did not understand him,” he finally switched to English, according to my impromptu correspondent. Gradstein called his delivery “halting.” The Jerusalem Post also covered the event.

Of course, had Lion read my Facebook debate beforehand, perhaps he would have realized what he was getting himself into and avoided the embarrassment of flip flopping on language choice, taking the high road from the get-go rather than having it forced upon him by a surly crowd of what he must have previously assumed were irrelevant Anglos. I assure you, Mr. Lion, we are anything but; we may not be the largest constituency in town, and we don’t always vote the way the rabbis in Bnei Brak would prefer, but in a race that looks like it could be quite tight, every vote counts.

Since we now know you can in fact speak English, however difficult it may be for you, I suggest you try another venue, advertise that the talk will in fact be in English, not “easy Hebrew,” and speak to us directly. We may not agree with you, but we really would like to hear what you’re saying.

This article appeared originally on The Times of Israel.

The full transcript of the discussion can be found in this Facebook note.

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