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More and more I find myself having to defend to fellow Israelis my decision to continue living in Jerusalem. The capital, they insist, is now a "haredi city," and it is inconceivable to them how someone not part of that community can remain here.
Patiently I explain that there is still plenty of social and cultural life here for those who are not part of the ultra-Orthodox community, certainly more than when I moved here two decades ago - even, if one is so inclined, on Shabbat. Yes, the haredi neighborhoods have been steadily growing during that period, but that still doesn't mean the rest of the city has become another Bnei Brak. Not yet, anyway.
Yet the problems for Jerusalem's non-haredi Jewish residents are in many ways deeper, and more troubling, than these negative clichÃ©s. Earlier this year, for example, I wrote about the difficulties encountered by the grade school attended by my two daughters. Because it belongs to the Tali system, which is officially linked to the non-Orthodox religious streams, it has for years suffered neglect at the hands of Jerusalem's haredi-controlled city hall.
This year Tali Bayit Vagan was forced out of its building and made to "integrate" with another school with no connection to either the Reform or Conservative movements, in part because the municipal education department wanted to both dilute its special character and turn over its building to a haredi educational institution that it saw as more in tune with the changing character of the area.
Adding insult to injury, following the transfer, the municipality carried out long-overdue improvements on the old building that Tali had vainly demanded for years, and also finally removed from its street a nearby roadblock that had made the picking up and dropping off of students there a daily hassle for their parents (which, it is now apparent, was the point).
It is this kind of preferential treatment for haredi concerns, and discrimination against those with a competing interest - and not any kind of objection to Jerusalem having a strong spiritual atmosphere - that so infuriates other residents of the capital.
I agree that Jerusalem is, and should be, Israel's "Holy City," and those looking for an essentially secular urban atmosphere are better off in Tel Aviv, Haifa and elsewhere. But if its non-haredi residents, ranging from non-observant to modern Orthodox, are made to feel like second-class (and over-taxed) citizens, then the capital will indeed end up as little more than a bigger Bnei Brak (with a university and some government offices attached).
Needless to say, it will also result in the predetermined failure of any effort to properly upgrade and integrate the capital's Arab neighborhoods with the rest of the city, even those deep in its center, and virtually guarantee over time a division of the capital that will be both political and physical.
These are the stakes involved in keeping Jerusalem a city of all its residents. Doing so will be a long and complex process, involving efforts by both the national and local governments working together with the private sector, to craft effective housing, educational and economic development policies.
Before all that, the capital is going to need proper leadership in city hall. And the Jerusalem mayoral election scheduled to be held on November 11 is likely to be the most crucial local ballot ever held in the modern history of the capital.
THIS COLUMN is not intended to be an endorsement of Nir Barkat, who is somewhat misleadingly described as the "secular candidate" in the mayoral race even though some of his top aides belong to the modern Orthodox camp and he has made a strong pitch for that community's support.
Certainly Barkat's background is attractive enough - a non-partisan independent who earlier in life succeeded in the hi-tech business and only entered local politics after experiencing his own frustrations with the municipality over education issues.
I've also had the chance to see him up close in a meeting that dealt with some traffic problems in my neighborhood, and emerged impressed with his intelligent and sympathetic demeanor.
Whether that will make him an effective mayor is another matter. The point here though is simply that all Jerusalemites must at least understand what is at stake in this race.
The city's haredi political structure has certainly made no bones about how it views this campaign. Despite incumbent Mayor Uri Lupoliansky's proven ability to attract at least some secular support, the United Torah Judaism and Degel Hatorah parties shunted him aside in favor of UTJ Knesset member Meir Porush, whose entire career has been based solely on advancing haredi sectarian interests.
Nor, other than absurd bus advertisements that laughably try to depict Porush as some kind of haredi Santa Claus, has his campaign barely tried to disguise the fact that his mission is to go even further than Lupoliansky in speeding a process that will turn the capital into an ultra-Orthodox haven.
Statistically, Jerusalem's haredi population still comprises a minority of the city's Jewish population, estimated at about 35 percent. In the last election, though, voter apathy and political divisions among the non-haredi population gave Lupoliansky a victory over Barkat.
Polls now show Barkat with a substantial lead over Porush. But the recent court ruling that prevented Aryeh Deri from joining the race removed the threat of competition for Porush within his own camp, while Barkat might still have to contend with the prospect of Israeli-Russian businessman Arkadi Gaydamak, and a possible challenge from Meretz city councilor Pepe Alalu, diluting his own constituency.
More worrying is surely that come election day, Barkat's lead over Porush will evaporate simply because of a failure by non-haredi voters to make it to the polls in significant numbers, as has been the case in the past.
Well, in a democracy choosing not to vote is a right every bit as much as going out to cast a ballot. Barkat might certainly not be to every voter's taste among Jerusalem's non-haredi electorate, and Porush will certainly deserve the victory if his constituency remains as united and motivated as in the past.
This election, though, will surely prove a turning point, in both symbolic and practical terms, for Jerusalem's character and fortunes for years to come. And my own ability to continue defending to other Israelis my commitment to remain in the capital - as well as justifying that decision to myself - will depend in large part on who ends up sitting in the mayor's office after November 11.
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