Money, faith and votes
Nov 13th 2008 | JERUSALEM
From The Economist print edition
A secular entrepreneur is elected to run the holy city
THE hollowness of Israel’s rhetoric about “united Jerusalem” is never starker than on local election day, when the city’s 537,000 adults, together with the rest of Israel, can go to the polls to pick their new mayor. Among Jerusalem’s Palestinians, who make up some 30% of the citizenry, hardly anyone bothers to vote. In East Jerusalem, the mainly Arab part of the city captured and annexed by Israel in 1967, polling stations in schools and public buildings stay yawningly empty, apart from a trickle of municipal employees and their families.
This time was no different, except that most of the Palestinians who did vote in Jerusalem on November 11th gave their support to Arkady Gaydamak, a colourful but mysterious ex-Russian oligarch who has been trying to make his way in Israeli politics despite a French warrant for his arrest on gun-running charges. With the help of Palestinians, he got a paltry 3.5% of the overall vote. Palestinian commentators attributed his modest popularity in their community not just to his wealth but to the fact that he doesn’t look Jewish.
This could hardly be said for the man who came second, with 43% of the vote. Meir Porush sports a long and lush grey beard, and long sidelocks too, which he hoists up under his big black hat. He is every inch a haredi, or ultra-Orthodox Jew, which he claimed was why the city’s shrinking non-haredi Jewish population was so doggedly determined to block his way to the mayor’s office.
On paper, Mr Porush was to the mayoralty born. His father and his grandfather before him served as deputy mayors of Jerusalem, squabbling ferociously but in the end always compromising somehow with the thoroughly secular Teddy Kollek, mayor from 1965 to 1993. The 53-year-old Meir, the father of 12, did his stint on the city council, too, before moving on to national politics as a member of parliament.
The man who has won the invidious job of running Jerusalem is a 49-year-old high-tech millionaire, Nir Barkat. He and his ecstatic supporters insist they weren’t fighting Mr Porush for who he is, but for whom he inescapably represents; the city’s large and fast-growing haredi minority. Safe with 52 % of the votes after a tense all-night count, Mr Barkat promised to be everyone’s mayor. But he campaigned—and won—as the candidate who can rescue Jerusalem from a takeover by the haredim.
Jerusalem for years has been losing young, secular citizens, who often cite creeping “haredisation” as their reason for leaving. A civil-service and university town, it is short of industry and investment. Many of the haredi families are poor, because the men choose to study in religious seminaries rather than work. Many Palestinians are poor, too. As a result, despite constant efforts to raise philanthropic funds abroad, the city is chronically short of money.
This accounts objectively for some of the secularists’ gripes. Non-religious interests are underfunded in Jerusalem not just because money is tight, but because of the pro-haredi bias under the outgoing ultra-Orthodox mayor, Uri Lupolianski—especially in the allocation of land for schools and synagogues for the haredim.
And secular grievances are also driven by a changing cultural climate. When the city inaugurated a striking new bridge earlier this year, young girl dancers were swaddled top-to-toe in dark cloth for reasons of religious modesty. Haredim are steadily encroaching on formerly secular or mixed suburbs. Families remaining in them feel increasingly isolated and uncomfortable, especially on the sabbath. Granted, the violent confrontations over roads, cinemas and clubs that used to take place each Saturday are now a rarity. Nightlife is lively, and undisturbed. But the threat to their lifestyles, say many secular Jews, is more insidious and much more pervasive.
Mr Barkat waited five long years for his victory, on the opposition benches of the city council. In 2003 he was beaten by Mr Lupolianski, the haredi parties’ candidate but not a professional haredi politician. Then, Mr Barkat blamed secular apathy. The turnout was 38%, which, factoring out the Palestinian boycott, was actually much higher than the national average.
This time, with both sides vigorously knocking on doors and Mr Barkat’s campaign even busing ex-Jerusalemites up from Tel Aviv to vote, 41% of eligible voters turned out, or about 60% of the city’s Jews. In Tel Aviv and Haifa, by comparison, turnout was below 40%. In both cities the incumbents were returned.
Mr Barkat benefited from a vicious rift in the haredi camp, with the rabbi of one large Hasidic sect instructing his followers to vote for the secular candidate rather than for Mr Porush. Mr Barkat was supported, too, by Jerusalem’s modern-Orthodox community, many of whom liked his strongly nationalist opinions. Asked on November 12th about the call by the outgoing prime minister, Ehud Olmert, for Israel to cede the Arab areas of Jerusalem to a future Palestinian state, the new mayor said it was “a very serious mistake”.
But then, Mr Olmert himself would have doubtless said the same when he was elected mayor of Jerusalem in 1993. After ten years in that job, and five more as deputy prime minister and prime minister, he knows it is not so simple.
What the author failed to mention here was that Jerusalem’s 30% Palestinian citizenry is that by design. The Jewish Israeli government mandated that the ratio of Jews to Muslim and Christian Palestinians, should not exceed 30%!This is the democracy we hear about often!