From 1965 to 1993 Jerusalem was led by Teddy Kollek who is widely regarded as the best mayor of modern times. He is credited with much of the growth and modernization of the conflicted, historically-bound city. Ehud Olmert, later Prime Minister, followed Kollek until leaving the city for bigger ambitions in 2003.
The previous manifestation of the religious-secular battle came in the mayoral election of 2003. Uri Lupolianski ran as the first Haredi candidate and beat out relative unknown Nir Barkat. His term has been marked by partiality towards ultra-orthodox institutions and simultaneous malaise in the local economy. Lack of jobs and expensive housing essentially prevents young people from staying or moving into the city. This is less of an issue for the ultra-orthodox who are supported by the welfare subsidies from their yeshivot, schools, and the government.
The major candidates stepped into this environment seeking to sell their vision to the people of Jerusalem. Rabbi Meir Porush comes from a respected ultra-orthodox family and is an MK for the ultra-orthodox party, United Torah Judaism, yet he had difficulty rallying the various Haredi sects behind him. In order to make himself more palatable to secular Jerusalemites, Porush plastered the city in campaign banners depicting a cheerful little cartoon version of himself waving. His slogan “Jerusalem will love Porush” combined with the cartoon to evoke the impression of Santa Claus, or Hanukah Harry out here, rather than a religious zealot.
Nir Barkat is a very successful venture capitalist from Israel’s strong high-tech sector. He ran his campaign on the basics of improving the school system, municipal infrastructure, and bringing in business to the city in need of jobs. His campaign slogan was “Jerusalem will succeed.” In the final stretch of the campaign, he ran into trouble amongst secular liberals when he talked about building housing in East Jerusalem, the contentious and predominantly Palestinian half of the city. Lost in the controversy was the fact that Barkat would have no real control in the matter since it is a national, rather than municipal, decision. Barkat survived the storm, eventually capturing 51% to Porush’s 43%.
The third and most intriguing candidate was Arkady Gaydamark. He’s an immensely wealthy Russian oligarch who is charged by the French government for allegedly earning his money from arms sales to Angola. In recent years, he has thrown his economic weight around Israel for various high profile causes. During the 2006 Lebanon War, he paid for luxury facilities for those under rocket fire in the north. In Jerusalem, he bought the city’s soccer team and poured heaps of money into it; he also bailed out a hospital on the verge of bankruptcy. Gaydamark never really stood a serious chance of winning, but overcame his handicap of not knowing Hebrew in an interesting way. He covered the city in posters of him with his campaign slogan “He doesn’t talk, he does.” The overall experience for those of us walking the streets or waiting for a bus is a flurry of jolly cartoon Haredim’s, average secular businessmen, and stoic mute Russians zipping by, telling us that our future lies with them.
At Hebrew University I am mostly immersed in the secular world and most of my interactions prior to the election favored Barkat. This favoritism ranged from devout atheists to pious modern orthodox Jews. There was a sense of urgency that Jerusalem was at a precipice and the slightest breeze could push it over the edge. There was a certain degree of sadness at how much the secular cultural vibrancy of the city had declined, but cautious optimism on the future. Although there is much greater difficulty in penetrating the introverted world of the ultra-orthodox, there was a sense that this was a major event for them as well, for the secularists were leading an open public attack on all that they’ve accomplished over the past years. This was apparent in the posters of the far-left secular party that said “Stop the religious-ization of Jerusalem” and “Freedom or religion/fear.”
The loudest silence of this noisy municipal election came from Jerusalem’s Arab community. East Jerusalem Palestinians have the right to vote in municipal election but they boycott them so as to not endorse Israeli rule over what they believe should be the Palestinian capital. Neither of the two major candidates made any attempt to appeal to them as both held right-wing views concerning the question of territories and Jerusalem’s role in it. Gadamark alone made efforts to reach out to the East Jerusalem Palestinians with Arabic fliers and promises of greater funding for the Eastern municipality. In this sense, his lack of Hebrew fluency was an advantage, as it allowed him to posture as an outsider to the Israeli political class.
With Barkat’s election, the non-Haredi segment of Jerusalemis breathing a sigh of relief. A blend of cautious optimism and cynicism lead many to wonder what he’ll truly be able to accomplish in his five-year term. Yet many hope he can strike a balance on the fine line between the city of God and the city of man.