Jerusalem Affairs: Running religiously

The race for the capital's next mayor heats up, with the secular Arkadi Gaydamak wooing haredi constituents by going after gay pride.

Arkadi Gaydamak 88 (photo credit: )
Arkadi Gaydamak 88
(photo credit: )
When a secular candidate in the Jerusalem mayoral race declares that the city's annual gay pride parade will take place "over my dead body," after five years during which the controversial event was held under a haredi mayor, you can tell that the elections are fast approaching. And so it was this week when the Israeli-Russian tycoon Arkadi Gaydamak made such an announcement during a visit to Bikur Holim Hospital, which he owns. Never mind that Mayor Uri Lupolianski, like a not insignificant percentage of the city's largely traditional residents, was always opposed to holding a gay pride parade. Nor that it was the High Court of Justice which has repeatedly authorized such a parade, under the rights bestowed by freedom of speech, even if it is supported only by a small minority of the local population. Nor that Gaydamak tried to mediate between leaders of the city's tiny gay and lesbian community, who organize the event, and the haredi community before the last parade. Gaydamak, who has repeatedly toyed with the idea of entering national politics, is polling at the bottom of the barrel in a three-way race against city council opposition leader Nir Barkat and MK Meir Porush, the successor picked by Lupolianski's United Torah Judaism party. As such, his declaration was seen as a blatant, some say pathetic, attempt to court both traditional, modern-Orthodox and even haredi voters in the November 11 elections - something which Barkat has been feverishly trying to do this past year. BARKAT HAS dissed his association with Kadima to lead a public campaign against the division of Jerusalem; has launched a program for educational improvement, in a city where six out of 10 Jewish pupils already study at haredi schools; has signed up the former Jerusalem head of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel on his party list; and, most recently, has reconciled with a one-time potential political adversary, former Jerusalem police chief Mickey Levy, who has decided not to run. Indeed, attaining the support of the vast majority of secular, traditional and modern Orthodox voters in a city where one-third of the Jewish voters are haredi is a sine qua non for a non-haredi candidate, since the city's demographics automatically propel the haredi candidate into the position of front-runner. Barkat learned this the hard way in the last elections five years ago, when a turnout of only 32 percent of non-haredi voters paved the way for Lupolianski's victory. This time around, the secular and modern-Orthodox turnout is expected to be higher, due in part to a series of recent city hall blunders, including the dress code imposed on a group of teenage girls at the inauguration of the Bridge of Strings at the entrance to the city which infuriated many secular and traditional residents who otherwise might have stayed home again on Election Day. "The numbers show that Porush is the next mayor no matter what," an adviser to the longtime legislator said this month, noting that at any given time thousands of secular residents are abroad. Yet there is uncertainty over whether the haredi public will unanimously rally around Porush the way it did for Lupolianski, who wanted to run again. Still, with Barkat facing off against another secular candidate, his battle against Porush - public opinion polls showing Barkat as the front-runner notwithstanding - remains an uphill one.