Ofer Berkovitch votes during the second mayoral elections. .
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The cheering and chanting in Ofer Berkovitch’s campaign headquarters on election night this week was not what one would have expected from the losing side.
Yes, they lost by 6,500 votes, with 9,000 votes from soldiers and the disabled still to be counted and an incredible miracle still possible. But that’s not why these activists – most of whom spent the entire Election Day going door to door throughout Jerusalem to bring out the vote – were celebrating. Their excitement and enthusiasm stemmed from the realization that in their loss there was a great victory.
A quick glance at the many different populations represented in that room explains the cause for celebration – young, old; men, women; secular, haredi, religious Zionist, and traditional; Sephardi, Ashkenazi; native Israeli, immigrants from Ethiopia, the former Soviet Union, English-speaking countries.
All had come together and worked hard for a valiant cause. They believed that the traditional political machines – with all their wheeling and dealing and backroom deals – could be defeated. They understood that we are stronger when we focus on what unites us instead of on what divides us, and they worked tirelessly to bring down the walls and barriers that separate Israel’s many population groups.
And even though the old guard managed to win, they did so by a razor-thin margin. In fact, the first few hours of election night looked like they were going to suffer a defeat.
The celebration in Berkovitch headquarters was over the progress that was made by this grassroots movement with zero support from the political establishment, and a recognition that even if they didn’t win this time, they will in five years, or in 10. The success of these elections in Jerusalem demonstrated without a doubt that at some point the cause of unity and clean, fresh politics will defeat the old guard, and Jerusalem will at some point become what it is meant to be – a city in which no tribe has complete control, and a place where all Jews can feel at home.
And that was cause for great celebration, even while having to digest what appeared to be an Election Day loss.
The changes that Berkovitch and his followers are trying to bring to Jerusalem – and almost accomplished via this election cycle – has been a work in progress. More than 80% of Israel wants to see a significant change in the way the various populations in the Jewish state relate to one another. The Israeli political system has been the major obstacle in changing this problem. Almost every prime minister – from the Right or from the Left – has turned to the ultra-Orthodox political parties to form their coalitions, and in return, have given them full control over religious issues. The rabbinate under their control has been a source of major divisiveness in Israel.
And this is where the good news comes in. All the polling data over the last few years indicates that the ultra-Orthodox political power is not increasing along with its huge population growth, and that the opposite is happening – it is actually decreasing. And the reason is the integration of ultra-Orthodox young men into Israeli society.
There are currently more ultra-Orthodox soldiers and officers in the IDF than ever before, more ultra-Orthodox students in universities than ever before, and the highest ultra-Orthodox employment rate in decades. When ultra-Orthodox young men integrate into Israeli society, they become more moderate on issues of religion and state as they meet broader Israel for the first time in their lives – even while remaining religiously observant, with Torah study as their highest value. Daily interaction with Israelis outside the ultra-Orthodox world generates a sensitivity to the wants and needs of others, creating a recognition that coercion and control is detrimental to Judaism.
As a result, the younger generation is not blindly following the orders of the old guard, and tens of thousands are not voting for the ultra-Orthodox parties.
For the last few years I have been arguing that this shift in voting and political power will, at some point, lead to a government constellation in which the ultra-Orthodox parties are no longer the coalition kingmakers. This will allow the passage of legislation that will provide options and choices for religious services in Israel, giving Israelis the ability to coexist with tolerance as the base value.
Based on my involvement in projects helping haredim integrate into Israeli society, I had previously estimated that we were 10 to 20 years away from achieving this political revolution. But the stunning election results in my hometown of Bet Shemesh two weeks ago, and this week’s near revolution in Jerusalem, proves that this shift is happening more rapidly.
The die has been cast. Thanks to the vision and leadership of people like Aliza Bloch and Ofer Berkovitch, alongside the courage and determination of tens of thousands in the ultra-Orthodox community, Israeli society is changing, and the 2018 municipal elections are proof of this reality. The old walls are crumbling, and the old political guard is losing its power and clout.
And win or lose in this election – that is cause for great celebration.
The author served as a member of the 19th Knesset.
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