Struggle over religion fuels Tuesday’s Jerusalem mayoral election

McClatchy Foreign StaffOctober 21, 2013 

— Residents of Jerusalem, a politically contested city that’s a mosaic of cultural tribes, will select a mayor Tuesday in an election that pits secular Israelis against ultra-Orthodox Jews and rightists against leftists, with Palestinian residents mostly watching from the sidelines

.The vote, part of nationwide municipal elections, resonates with all the political and cultural conflicts that roil Israeli society.

At the heart of the contest is a struggle for re-election by the incumbent, Nir Barkat, a former high-tech entrepreneur who’s pushed an agenda of boosting tourism, creating jobs and promoting an array of cultural activities to stem a flight of young secular residents to other cities as the ultra-Orthodox population grows.

The election reflects a culture clash between strictly Orthodox Jews, about 30 percent of the city’s population, and more liberal Israelis over the character of Jerusalem, which in recent years has seen its population decrease as secular Jews flee.

Ultra-Orthodox voters hope to regain control over crucial levers of power and patronage in city hall.

Palestinians, who make up more than a third of the city’s population, are boycotting the vote, as they have for years. They view the Israeli municipality as part of a foreign occupation of their neighborhoods in East Jerusalem.

Barkat’s tenure in office, following an ultra-Orthodox predecessor, has seen a surge of cultural activities, ranging from street parties with live bands downtown to a marathon and race car rally on the city streets. He’s opened a restaurant-gallery-market complex in the city’s former Ottoman-era train station – the complex is open on Saturdays, the Jewish Sabbath – and he’s created a new jogging and biking path along an abandoned railway line in the south of the city.

Barkat also has supported Jewish settlers who’ve moved into homes in Jerusalem’s Palestinian neighborhoods, counting on their religious nationalist supporters to form a crucial swing vote that could help him overcome the political clout of the ultra-Orthodox. He openly advocates keeping all of Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty, declaring, “Jerusalem can never be divided.”

The challenger, Moshe Leon, an accountant and well-connected political operator who moved to Jerusalem recently, is religious and hails from a suburb of Tel Aviv. He was drafted to challenge Barkat by former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, the blunt-spoken ultra-nationalist leader of a party that represents Russian-speaking immigrants, and by Aryeh Deri, the leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, which represents Jews of Middle Eastern and North African origin.

The two political power brokers hope to leverage electoral support from the ultra-Orthodox along with backing from Russian-speaking voters to recapture city hall.

Recent polls suggest that Barkat, who rode to victory in 2008 on a secular backlash against the policies of predecessor Uri Lupolianski, may win a second term, but he’ll need to turn out the vote among secular residents concerned about increasing religious influence in their city.

The austere beliefs and lifestyles of the ultra-Orthodox have created a unique set of election issues, with some parties that are vying for seats on the city council promising that more theaters and restaurants will be open on Saturdays, that efforts by ultra-Orthodox extremists to ban women’s images from public signs and billboards will fail and that more community activities will be organized in public spaces, particularly on weekends, so that secular residents will find alternatives to the traditional Sabbath strictures that shut down businesses and bus service on Saturdays.

A billboard that the leftist Meretz party put up in the trendy German Colony neighborhood in southern Jerusalem – long considered a liberal bastion in an increasingly rightist, religious city – proclaims that the “secular neighborhood will remain secular.”

Despite his strategic alliance with the religious nationalists, Barkat, who’s secular, represents the hope of many liberal voters to keep the Jewish part of Jerusalem vibrant, tolerant and culturally eclectic despite the religious and ethnic tensions that permeate the city.

Palestinians aren’t expected to turn out in any significant numbers Tuesday, underlining their rejection of the Israeli-run municipality and Barkat’s pro-settlement stance. None serves on the city council.

The crucial question is whether the ultra-Orthodox will vote as a bloc for Leon or split their vote, rewarding Barkat for the financial support he’s given their institutions, said Shahar Ilan, former religious affairs reporter for the newspaper Haaretz.

“If there is a split among the ultra-Orthodox, Barkat’s chances are good,” said Ilan, who’s now vice president of Hiddush, a nonprofit group that advocates religious freedom and equality. “All in all, Barkat has been a quite reasonable mayor and the city has been pretty quiet. He’s no pyromaniac” – meaning he avoids needless provocation – “and he’s running a coalition that includes everyone. He delivers the goods.”

Greenberg is a McClatchy special correspondent.

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