OCTOBER 18, 2018 – Midterms? There’s election fever in Israel, too.
The next vote for Knesset is not scheduled until November 2019 (although pending legislation that threatens coalition unity could move national elections forward to as early as February – and let’s not forget the possible criminal indictments against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu).
No, the voting on October 30 will be for local councils, and the contest heating up in Jerusalem bears the most watching, for the city, after all, is often referred to as a microcosm of the country, what with its security issues, communal tensions and deepening poverty, and the results could be a bellwether for the national scene.
FOR DECADES, the majority of Jerusalem’s Jewish voters have been decidedly right wing. They run the gamut from the ultra-Orthodox and the more religiously-moderate modern Orthodox to the non-religious, most of whom tend to refer to themselves as “traditional” Jews, meaning they drive to soccer games on Saturdays yet maintain kashrut and kiss the mezuzah on their doorpost.
The dovish and secular Meretz party can only dream of fielding a mayoral candidate in town, yet this year, there’s a kind of We’re-Mad-as-Hell-and-We’re-Not-Going-to-Take-It-Anymore attitude led by 35-year-old Ofer Berkovitch, who heads a local party calling itself Hitorerut, or Awakening, and is in the lead with 30-35 percent of the votes.
Behind Berkovitch are two candidates with realistic chances: Ze’ev Elkin, with 25-30 percent, and Moshe Lion, with 15-20 percent. A third, Yossi Deutsch, has been scoring in the high single digits with an occasional foray into the very low double digits.
Elkin, 47, is minister for Jerusalem affairs in the government of Benjamin Netanyahu. He’s a Likudnik, but as the party’s Jerusalem branch is not fielding a mayoral candidate, he’s playing musical chairs with outgoing Mayor Nir Barkat by running at the head of Barkat’s party while the mayor seeks a slot on the Likud’s next national slate for Knesset.
Lion, 57, is a city council member. He, too, has ties to Netanyahu, having run the Prime Minister’s Office during Netanyahu’s first term in the late 1990s. After that, he filled high-level political patronage jobs until running against Barkat in the last mayoral election, losing miserably.
Neither Elkin nor Lion is charismatic, but both are fervent right-wingers, wear kippot, and have deep ties to national political machines. Proof of this is the fact that both of them lead Deutsch, the only ultra-Orthodox candidate running in a city where about a third of the Jewish voters are ultra-Orthodox. Most of these voters see Deutsch as having no chance and believe that Lion can do their bidding.
Perhaps proof of this was Lion’s refusal to take part in a candidate forum held early last week at Kol Haneshama, a Reform congregation in Jerusalem where on Simhat Torah earlier this month, someone heaved a rock through a window as congregants danced with the Torah. No one even questioned Deutsch’s absence, while Elkin said he could only send a surrogate. Lion, though, was loud and clear: His “religion” forbade prayer in a Reform synagogue. Only Berkovitch showed up.
Berkovitch, like Lion, is currently a city councilor. He was originally a deputy mayor after steering his faction into Barkat’s coalition, but Hitorerut left in a huff over Barkat’s plan to divide the city into well-defined zones for the secular, modern Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox.
His platform, like those of the other candidates, calls for the usual: affordable housing, better trash collection, additional public transportation and improved school facilities. Of course, all of this costs money and Jerusalem has precious little – while it has the highest municipal tax rate among Israel’s four largest cities (the others are Tel Aviv, Haifa and Beer Sheba), it is the poorest.
The main reason – and it’s no secret – is that the ultra-Orthodox do not carry their share of the municipal tax burden. This is because they tend to prefer poverty by choice, with many of their men studying fulltime in yeshivas and siring large families, often with 10 children or more. The municipality gives them a pass, and everyone else is forced to make up the shortfall. (To be sure, many among the city’s 250,000 Arab residents don’t pay taxes either, and that’s because many of the women are forbidden by their husbands from working.)
Berkovitch’s solution? Stop the exodus of young, secular Jerusalemites who are put off by the growing influence of the ultra-Orthodox. It’s these earners, he says, who foot the tax burden and should be enticed to stay. The solution touted by Elkin and Lion? Entice businesses, especially hi-tech, to come and set up shop. Elkin even wants the central government to bail out the city with a one-time infusion of cash.
Another aspect of governance that Berkovitch’s platform addresses is the city’s Arab neighborhoods, which, like those of the ultra-Orthodox, are the poorest. “We have a social perspective on East Jerusalem – equal rights and equal obligations,” he told the Times of Israel. “We want to invest more in the residents, and also to enforce the law more.”
Both Elkin and Lion say they also want to improve the situation there, but they are quick to blame the fact that Jerusalem’s Arab residents traditionally boycott municipal elections. (For the first time in a long time, an Arab declared his candidacy for mayor in the coming election but withdrew due to a combination of threats from his community and word that Israel was investigating his right to be a resident of the city.)
DOES BERKOVITCH’S LEAD mean he’ll be mayor? Not necessarily, because if no one can garner 40 percent of the vote, the race will move to a second round between the top two candidates, meaning he’d face off alone against Elkin, who believes he can scoop up the votes cast for Lion and Deutsch, especially those of the ultra-Orthodox.
Yet the city’s secular voters are not alone in fearing undue influence by the ultra-Orthodox, and Berkovitch has a few allies among the modern Orthodox, who often resent the way the ultra-Orthodox look down on them for their “less authentic” type of Jewish observance. He also has allies among right-wing Jewish voters who do not care a whit about ultra-Orthodox encroachment yet do resent having to foot their bill.
Will this be enough to make Berkovitch mayor? A cold, hard look says probably not – but far stranger things have happened in a city where resentment against the ultra-Orthodox is high and rising.
Lawrence Rifkin is the Jewish Journal’s bureau chief in Jerusalem.