JERUSALEM (JTA) – It sounds like the beginning of a joke: A rabbi, a Russian oligarch and a high-tech millionaire are running for mayor of Jerusalem.
Except there’s no punch line, just each of them offering up himself as salvation for the hallowed capital’s many troubles.
Many Jerusalemites view this year’s municipal elections, scheduled for Nov. 11, as a historic turning point for a city that is Israel’s poorest, still vulnerable to terrorist attacks and wracked by economic, political and religious divisions. At stake, many say, is Jerusalem’s very character and future viability.
The election is “likely to be the most crucial local ballot ever held in the modern history of the capital,” Calev Ben-David, a Jerusalem Post columnist and longtime Jerusalemite, wrote recently.
Among the foremost concerns for Jewish Israelis is the hemorrhaging of Jerusalem’s Jewish population, particularly its middle class. These Israelis are being driven out of the city by high housing costs and scarce employment opportunities.
For secular residents, the growth of Jerusalem’s fervently Orthodox population is further cause for concern that the Orthodox will dominate the personality and priorities of the city.
In the predominately Arab eastern half, where most residents long have refused to vote in municipal elections in protest of Israel’s sovereignty over the city, basic social services have been neglected for years by City Hall. Many families live in cramped quarters because building permits are difficult to acquire, classroom shortages are so bad that at some schools different grades take turns using the same room, and road repair and garbage collection are routinely ignored.
Some observers argue that the neglect of eastern Jerusalem ensures that the capital may again be divided by an international border. Within the city’s Arab community, many warn that the gap in services leads to resentment that can be seen in the growing political and religious radicalization of Arab youth. Several times this year, relatively young Palestinians from eastern Jerusalem perpetrated terrorist attacks against Jews in Jerusalem, sometimes with deadly results.
Elias Khoury, a lawyer who represents Arab residents of Jerusalem on issues of property, building and residency rights, says the boycott of municipal elections by Jerusalem Arabs only hurts the community.
“Today the situation in East Jerusalem is ‘tohu va’vohu,’ ” he said, using the biblical term for chaos. “If we don’t participate in elections, we need an alternative to managing our lives.”
The youngest of the three candidates is Nir Barkat, 49, a City Council member who made his fortune developing pioneering anti-virus software in the 1990s. A secular Jerusalemite, Barkat advocates reviving the city and its economy by focusing on tourism and making Jerusalem a world-class center for medicine and life sciences.
The Orthodox candidate is Rabbi Meir Porush, a seventh-generation Jerusalemite and longtime fixture on Israel’s Orthodox political scene who officially joined the race at the last minute.
The current mayor, Uri Lupolianski, who is fervently Orthodox, had agreed to step aside for another Orthodox candidate, but it took the fervently Orthodox political establishment until the 11th hour to settle on a final candidate. Several names were floated, but Porush became the man of choice only after disgraced ex-Shas Party chairman and Knesset member Aryeh Deri, who spent time in prison for taking bribes, was disqualified from running because his crimes constituted acts of moral turpitude.
Porush, who advocates holding the national government accountable on unfulfilled pledges to invest millions of dollars in Jerusalem, hopes to win the mayoralty by galvanizing the city’s powerful fervently Orthodox voting bloc. Orthodox residents make up 30 percent of the city’s Jewish population but comprised the majority of voters in the city’s last municipal election, helping usher in Lupoliansky, the city’s first Orthodox mayor, in 2003.
Porush cites Jerusalem’s Arab-Jewish demography as the city’s greatest challenge. He told JTA the first thing he would do as mayor would be to declare “an emergency situation” to boost the city’s Jewish population, which stands at about 66 percent.
“If this problem is not dealt with we will lose Jerusalem,” Porush said.
Rounding out the field is Arcadi Gaydamak, Israel’s flashiest political enigma, a billionaire who says he speaks for the people.
Gaydamak’s past includes an international arrest warrant for allegedly illicit arms dealing in Angola and paying out of his own pocket to house Israelis fleeing the rocket fire in the North during the 2006 Lebanon war.
Zuhir Hamdan, who briefly ran as Jerusalem’s first Arab mayoral candidate, recently joined Gaydamak’s campaign in the hope of becoming his adviser on Arab affairs if Gaydamak is elected.
On a recent campaign foray to Jerusalem’s open-air Mahane Yehudah market, Barkat shook hands and smiled for the cameras in his charcoal gray suit and Oxford shirt.
“My goal and mission in life is to build the future of Jerusalem,” he told a gathering of foreign journalists before outlining his plans, which include tapping international philanthropists and private-sector funds for support for Jerusalem.
Addressing the poverty issue, he noted that the average Jewish income in Jerusalem is $16,000 annually compared to $24,000 in the Tel Aviv area – and just $4,000 among Arab residents of eastern Jerusalem.
All of the candidates are trying to woo voters on the issue of affordable housing. Foreign demand for property in Jerusalem has contributed to skyrocketing housing of prices and a dearth of new middle-class housing. Most of the city’s current building projects are luxury housing for Diaspora Jewish buyers, with prices per meter ranging from $7,000 to $10,000.
The high cost of living in Jerusalem has driven many residents to the suburbs.
Two new parties comprised of young Jerusalemites have made the issue their focus in the race for City Council seats. Aimed at trying to stem the tide of young people fleeing the city, one party is made up predominately of university students and other 20-somethings and is called Hit’orerut – Hebrew for “wake up.” Earlier this month it merged with the other like-minded party, Yerushalmim – Hebrew for “Jerusalemites.”
“We need a change, and we understood it had to come from within,” said Ofir Berkovitz, 25, the head of Hit’orerut.
Party leaders helped organize a demonstration several months ago in which activists piled suitcases on their cars and drove to the city’s entrance with megaphones blaring, “Don’t leave us with no choice but to leave!”