Jerusalem Elects Secular Mayor

The apparent victory of a secular businessman in Jerusalem’s mayoral elections was greeted with relief by Israelis concerned about the increasing Orthodox character of the city.

Early exit polls Tuesday showed Nir Barkat, a city councilman and high-tech entrepreneur, leading the fervently Orthodox candidate, Rabbi Meir Porush, by several percentage points. The other viable candidate in the race, Russian-Israeli tycoon Arcadi Gaydamak, appeared to be headed for a distant third-place finish in the single digits.

If Barkat’s lead holds, his election would wrest control of City Hall from the hands of the fervently Orthodox.

While Jerusalem’s current mayor, the haredi Uri Lupolianski, is widely seen as sympathetic to secular concerns, his would-be successor, Porush, is not thought to have the same sympathies.

Earlier this month, Porush told a fervently Orthodox crowd that “in another 15 years there will not be a secular mayor in any city in Israel.” His remarks, delivered in Yiddish at a yeshiva, were not intended for public consumption, but Porush was unaware that an Orthodox radio station was broadcasting his remarks live.

Porush’s spokesman acknowledged that the candidate, a veteran fixture of Israel’s Orthodox political scene and a seventh-generation Jerusalemite, is a proponent of Orthodox-only cities.

The apparent victory by Barkat, a self-made millionaire and venture capitalist, returns Jerusalem’s mayoralty to secular leadership at a pivotal time for the Israeli capital.

With one-third of its residents Orthodox and one-third Arab, Jerusalem is Israel’s largest city and its poorest. The city is wracked by political and religious divisions, and its young, secular population is dwindling due to a dearth of affordable real estate, limited job opportunities and what some decry as an increasingly Orthodox character.

During the campaign, many Jerusalemites pointed to the controversy surrounding a celebration in June marking the opening of a new bridge at the western entrance to the city as emblematic of the battle for Jerusalem’s soul.

At the ceremony, a fervently Orthodox deputy mayor compelled a teenage girls’ dance troupe to wear hats and long, loose-fitting clothing so as not to offend the sensibilities of Orthodox viewers. Many Jerusalemites and Israelis were outraged, blaming Lupolianski for what they called the Taliban-style outfits.

For these residents of Jerusalem, Barkat’s election is a welcome change from the five years of Lupolianski’s leadership.

“There is the sense that if another ultra-Orthodox mayor gets elected, the city’s last secular residents will leave,” one voter told Israel’s Channel 10 News on Election Day. “There’s a feeling that this is the last chance for this city.”

Tuesday’s vote was marred by some irregularities. Barkat voting slips apparently disappeared from some polling stations, and his Web site was victimized by hackers who redirected surfers to Porush’s site. At another polling station, a group of Orthodox men reportedly hurled a stone at a police officer, lightly injuring him, in a bid to bar people from voting. Police dispersed the group.

During the campaign, Barkat campaigned on a platform of investing in the city’s tourism-based economy and ensuring that Israel’s capital city remains majority Jewish.

“We have to build Jerusalem economically,” Barkat told JTA in an interview earlier this year. “Jerusalem has only 1.5 million tourists that come annually. We have more to offer than any city. We have to open Jerusalem up to the global tourism marketplace.”

While the turnout exceeded the last municipal elections, in 2003, the vast majority of Jerusalem Arabs stuck to their policy of refusing to participate in the city’s elections.

Tuesday also saw municipal elections in dozens of other cities and towns across Israel, from Tel Aviv to Sderot.

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