On a recent Saturday night, my wife and I walked to Jerusalem’s redone train station. As we approached, we heard the sounds of an Oud. In the center of the square, 150 people were singing, clapping and dancing during a Melave Malka – bidding farewell to the Sabbath queen. We saw our friend Elan Ezrachi, who chairs the Ginot Ha’ir Community Council Board of Directors. He helped launch this program and many others, especially the 16 amazing Friday afternoon “Onegei Shabbat” ceremonies this summer welcoming the Sabbath with story and song, which attracted hundreds, from across the religious spectrum and, it being Jerusalem, from all over the world.
Elan, who is a real peoplehood person, understanding Jewish peoplehood’s power, hailed this new space as a meeting place for young and old, Jerusalemites and tourists, Ashkenazim and Sephardim, traditionally religious Jews and more modern ones. Ginot Ha’ir has reached a strategic agreement with the visionary developers who transformed an abandoned ruin into a vital place to “develop the First Station into a pluralistic Jewish space in Jerusalem.”
Jerusalem is becoming a more open, expansive, welcoming space, with cultural landscapes like “The First Station” and its accompanying Train-Tracks Park, mixing various Jews – and non-Jews – in ways that empower and respect everyone without hurting anyone. Two days ago, on the tracks, I saw a yuppie couple cycling away, decked out in the latest, tightest, most synthetic spandex, with those state-of-the-art super-helmets in dayglo colors. As they zipped by, the husband and wife chatted in Arabic – biking home to Beit Safafa.
Last week, Jerusalem hosted Israel’s largest funeral ever with 850,000 Sephardim (that’s what I am expected to write), along with Ashkenazim honoring Rav Ovadia Yosef. And today, like every day, the eternal city, the city of King David and King Solomon, of the Holy Temples and the devastating destructions, is hustling, bustling, whizzing and whirring, with more than 800,000 residents – plus visitors and commuters – working, learning, texting, phoning, processing, building, or simply being in this modern metropolis. This pluralist vision of a modern city embracing all, cherishing its past and charting an exciting future, transcends the constricted zero-sum approach that made many people believe Jerusalem either had to become an ultra-Orthodox shtetl or a modernist Sodom.
As an historian, I find it easier to imagine Jerusalem’s rich past – and get poetic about that – than to envision its future. My children used to have a Jerusalem picture-book which began with drawings imaging King David 3,000 years ago, and ended with a bizarre drawing of a futuristic Jerusalem, setting the defining David’s Tower and old city walls against a futuristic Jetsons’-type backdrop, surrounded by space pods and flying saucers.
But before we get there, this city needs a more basic “shiputz,” renovation. I feel lucky to be living in a city with Nir Barkat as mayor – and have been supporting his re-election enthusiastically. Although no wordsmith, he brings a certain poetry to his work, the pluralist poetry of a modern democratic city manager, running a great, complex, world-class city. And it is the poetry of an engineer who gets systems humming, goods flowing, and, as a result, people flourishing.
Unlike so many politicians today – see, for example, the American government shutdown – Barkat is a bridge-builder. He is also a visionary working on creating 100,000 new jobs, a longer school day, a new business quarter at the city’s entrance.
Barkat has the system analyst’s peripheral vision. He understands that a new business quarter can boost the housing market by luring dentists and accountants and lawyers out of apartments into professional suites – with easy parking. He knows that a longer school day – whether the child is religious or not – will attract more young families and change the Jerusalem narrative. He has shown that if you manage the light rail’s construction, rather than letting the builders dictate the terms, they can build one section at a time, rather than ripping up Jaffa Road and torturing tax-paying businesses for years. He sees that if you improve roads and build more classrooms in East Jerusalem, everyone’s quality of life improves, even if it doesn’t gain him any votes. And he understands that having an honest, idealistic, Jerusalemite running the city to make it the best it can be, generates an enthusiasm and optimism that are as infectious as his predecessors’ lethargy and pessimism were.
I take the point of my friend David Gleicher, a Jerusalem attorney, who with tongue-firmly-in cheek, notes that Barkat is merely a local, while his main rival “is ignorant about Jerusalem or its people… yet he is willing to commute daily from Givatayim, and even rent an apartment here, just to give us his ideas for running the city.” Gleicher jokingly wonders whether Barkat is as dedicated.
Of course, this job is too important for on-the-job training. Fortunately, Jerusalemites have a veteran, who spent five years in constructive opposition, and the last five years leading and learning. In 2008, Barkat’s election – and the election of young activists like Rachel Azaria – was part of a grassroots revolution that showed Israelis that democracy can work, that the power-brokers, back-scratchers, and crony capitalists don’t always win. Barkat won, and Azaria was elected to the city council, because voter turnout spiked from the usual mid-30s – which favors organized blocs -- to 43 percent – and it should be higher!
People who care about Jerusalem should vote on October 22. That’s our job as citizens. We should for the pluralist revolution that preserves Jerusalem’s unique spiritual character. We should vote for the engineer-as-poet. We should vote FOR our city’s future, which may not have spacepods but can create a special space in the spirit of King David and King Solomon, of Teddy Kollek and Nir Barkat.
Gil Troy is a Professor of History at McGill University. His latest book, Moynihan''s Moment: America''s Fight Against Zionism as Racism was recently published by Oxford University Press. Watch the new Moynihan''s Moment video!