Saving Jerusalem

The city has almost as many mayoral candidates as it has problems to solve.

Aryeh Deri 

It was 5:27 on a Monday morning, and someone was knocking on the door. Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, at 98 the spiritual leader of hundreds of thousands, was preparing to leave for the synagogue. But urgent business had to be addressed first. The guest was ushered into the house for a brief meeting. Is it advisable for me to run for mayor of Jerusalem? the visitor asked. In one form or another—nobody knows exactly what was said—Elyashiv gave his blessing. The guest, Aryeh Deri, former Knesset member, former minister of the interior, former leader of the Shas Party—and a convicted felon—was therefore free to decide: If the courts allow it, he is going to run.

Overused, overquoted, and overanalyzed, Yehuda Amichai’s poem “Mayor” has become a familiar cliché in Israel: “It’s sad,/ To be the Mayor of Jerusalem./ It is terrible,/ How can any man be the mayor of a city like that?” Overused—but evidently not intimidating enough. As sad and terrible as the job may be, the list of men who want to be the city’s new mayor come Nov. 11 is growing by the day.

There’s Meir Porush, a Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) who hopes to repeat the success of the current mayor, the first Haredi to hold the office. There’s Nir Barkat, a secular high-tech millionaire entrepreneur. There’s Arcady Gaydamak, a flamboyant Russian-born populist billionaire. And now, there’s Deri—a Sephardic Haredi—a political meteor of the 1990s, investigated and convicted for bribery in one of the most controversial trials the country ever saw, well-known for his reformist spirit and brilliance. Deri will be able to run only if the court decides that he is eligible.

All the candidates share one goal: to save Jerusalem. But they don’t agree about what they’re saving it from. Barkat wants to “save” Jerusalem from Haredi expansion. Porush would like to save it from a return to secular rule. Deri wants to save the Haredi community from Porush, who is perceived as “too Haredi” to be electable. The Russian billionaire’s motivations aren’t exactly clear, and he might quit the race, but for the moment his main cause seems to be saving Jerusalem’s sports teams.

And, of course, they all want to save Jerusalem from the Arab Palestinians—about one-third of Jerusalem’s population—who traditionally don’t vote in elections because they don’t recognize Israel’s sovereignty. This year, however, they may reconsider this Palestinian tradition: For the first time, a Palestinian Jerusalemite has announced that he is definitely going to run. (Previous potential Arab candidates didn’t make it to the polls under pressure from the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank.)

Jerusalem is a city in perpetual crisis. Israelis overwhelmingly say they oppose its division; Palestinians overwhelmingly demand that it be the capital of their future state. In May 2007, the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute published a “strategic plan for the strengthening of Jerusalem as the civilizational capital of the Jewish people.” This worthy goal is fraught by difficulties: “Jerusalem is a poor city”; “conflicts hinder Jerusalem from being seen as non-controversial center”; it is “not seen as a safe city”—as was proved earlier this week by yet another terror attack; it is “hostile to diversity”; and so on and so forth.

So, saving it will not be the easiest of tasks. Jews have been leaving Jerusalem in large numbers in recent years: Fourteen thousand per year left between 1990 and 1994, 16,000 1995-2004, 17,400 2005-07. Meanwhile, the number of people moving to the city of nearly 750,000 was much smaller. Forty-three percent of those who left said they could find no work in Jerusalem. Indeed, the more that East Jerusalem Palestinians and West Jerusalem ultra-Orthodox make up the vast majority of Jerusalemites, the more the city faces difficulties sustaining a viable economy. The 2007 edition of “Jerusalem: Facts and Trends,” produced by the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, concluded that 32 percent of families in Jerusalem live below the poverty line—compared with 14 percent of the families in metropolitan Tel Aviv and 21 percent in Israel as a whole.

The men who would be mayor have two very different attitudes toward poverty: The ultra-Orthodox candidates point out that their community is in greater need of help. Nir Barkat will emphasize his economic background. He will argue, not without merit, that the Orthodox are the problem, rather than the solution, for Jerusalem. Haredi men, who study the Torah instead of working, and Palestinian women, who stay home because of Arab traditionalism, are largely responsible for the city’s low rate of work participation.

Saving the holiest and perhaps most complicated city in the world is a task littered with obstacles. Can anyone convince the Haredi community that it is in their interest to vote against their own candidates? Can anyone convince secular Jerusalemites that the “Haredi scare” (secular Jerusalem’s erroneous belief that the ultra-Orthodox are “taking over”) is being used for political reasons, and that a Haredi mayor can do the job as well as anyone else? Is it even realistic to expect that the city can be efficiently governed—saved—when the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not yet solved?

If the ultra-Orthodox split their votes between the two Haredi candidates, a secular candidate will have a better chance of winning. Barkat is leading in the polls, but pollsters often make mistakes in places with a large Haredi population, since they tend not to respond to surveys. If the court bars Deri from running, maybe Porush will have a better chance. On the other hand, it is Deri, rather than Porush, who could also win votes from beyond the Haredi neighborhoods. And if the Arabs suddenly decide to participate, that could also be a game-changing event.

Jerusalem is internationally important, but it is becoming more fractured, more polarized, more prone to being torn apart by interest groups. The political choices are as numerous as the problems that need to be solved. But in the end, the outcome of this year’s mayoral race—arguably one of the most fascinating in the city’s 3,000-year history—will be determined by local trends, influential rabbis, and by the power of one faction to cancel out another. The next mayor will probably be the candidate who is most successful at taking advantage of Jerusalemites’ fears.