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Jerusalem elects secular mayor

Jerusalem mayoral candidate Nir Barkat at polling place to cast his vote on Nov. 11, 2008. (Brian Hendler)

Jerusalem mayoral candidate Nir Barkat at polling place to cast his vote on Nov. 11, 2008. (Brian Hendler)

(JTA) – The victory by secular businessman Nir Barkat in Jerusalem’s mayoral elections was greeted with relief by Israelis concerned about the increasingly fervently Orthodox character of the city.

Barkat, a city councilman and high-tech entrepreneur, defeated his fervently Orthodox rival, Rabbi Meir Porush, 52 percent to 43 percent, in Tuesday’s election. The other high-profile candidate, Russian-Israeli tycoon Arcadi Gaydamak, finished a distant third with less than 4 percent of the vote.

Barkat’s election returns control of City Hall to secular hands five years after Jerusalem elected its first fervently Orthodox mayor, Uri Lupolianski. Barkat lost by a narrow margin in 2003.

While Lupolianski, the founder of a highly regarded nonprofit that aids the elderly and disabled, was widely seen as sympathetic to secular concerns, his would-be Orthodox successor, Porush, was not thought to share those sympathies.

Earlier this month, Porush told a fervently Orthodox audience 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.

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

The victory by Barkat, a self-made millionaire and venture capitalist, comes 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. A recent survey of Israel’s 15 largest cities ranked Jerusalem last in terms of livability. 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 its increasingly Orthodox character.

Many Jerusalemites during the campaign 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 — Modern Orthodox included — Barkat’s election is a welcome change from five years of fervently Orthodox 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.”

In his victory speech, Barkat said, "I’m aware of the depth of the challenge and the complexity of the mission. Now is the time to work together for the good of the city."

Despite Barkat’s victory, his political party, Jerusalem Shall Succeed, finished second in City Council elections behind Porush’s fervently Orthodox United Torah Judaism.

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 boycotting the city’s elections.

Tuesday also saw municipal elections in dozens of other cities and towns across Israel, from Tel Aviv to Sderot. In Tel Aviv, incumbent Ron Huldai handily defeated his challenger.

Turnout nationwide reached about 40 percent, with the election in Jerusalem receiving the highest turnout among large cities. The lowest turnout was in Netanya, where just 7 percent of eligible voters cast their ballots.

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