Former Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat talks culture and politics with The Post

Nir Barkat says he loves Jerusalem and Jerusalemites

A distance runner himself, in 2011 Nir Barkat successfully launched the first Jerusalem Marathon. (photo credit: Courtesy)
A distance runner himself, in 2011 Nir Barkat successfully launched the first Jerusalem Marathon.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
‘Jerusalemites understand the challenges of living in this multicultural, multisectoral city,” the former mayor told In Jerusalem. “We all understand that we are a part of history.”
Speaking just days after he passed the torch to new Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion, Barkat, who served the Holy City since 2003 – first as a city councilman and then as mayor since 2008 – said that when he was mayor, he used to pinch himself every morning when he woke up.
“I could not believe I had this opportunity,” he said. “I enjoyed every minute, even when it was challenging.”
Barkat inherited a city that was losing young people fast. Between 2001 and 2008, the number of pupils in grades K-12 shrank from 64,000 to 58,000.
“If that trend had continued, today we would have around 49,000 pupils,” Barkat explained. “God forbid that trend should continue!”
Barkat, a successful start-up entrepreneur before joining the municipality, fought to bring new cultural and economic opportunities to Jerusalem that he believes helped reverse the trend. Though some 7,000 to 8,000 people still leave Jerusalem annually, the number of K-12 pupils now stands at around 66,000.
“My legacy is hope,” Barkat said. “Many people lost hope in our ability to exploit our city’s potential. We’ve made significant progress in many fields, and together, when you aggregate all the changes we made, it translates to people believing in the city’s future. It translates to hope.”
In practical terms, Barkat helped bring the Giro d’Italia, one of cycling’s three grand tours, to Jerusalem this past May.
A distance runner himself, in 2011 Barkat successfully launched the first Jerusalem Marathon. Before then, there had been annual half-marathons. The first full, 42-kilometer Jerusalem marathon open to international runners had just 10,000 participants. In 2017 there were 30,000, from 60 countries.
Barkat was also the catalyst behind renovations of the Mahaneh Yehuda open-air market, which in the last decade has become a vibrant urban hub for Jerusalem nightlife.
“We undertook more than 150 projects to dramatically change the city’s cultural quality,” Barkat said.
However, in recent years, Mahaneh Yehuda also became a point of strife, as residents – mainly ultra-Orthodox – complained about gas-burning chimneys, unbearable noise, parking problems and sidewalks occupied by restaurant and pub owners. Earlier this year, the city passed an ordinance forbidding those who don’t live in the shuk’s Nahlaot neighborhood to park there after certain hours.
There was also much hullabaloo last summer about a plan by ultra-Orthodox city council members to close First Station, the 19th-century railway station that serves as a commercial and entertainment hub on weekdays and on Shabbat, and features kosher and non-kosher restaurants. The plan was nixed by the District Planning and Building Committee at the last moment.
There is concern that Lion might pander to the ultra-Orthodox who ultimately elected him. Some 85% of Lion’s voters were affiliated with Degel Hatorah and Shas.
During the election, Barkat strongly supported Jerusalem Affairs Minister Ze’ev Elkin, who only garnered 19% of the vote. Barkat called Lion “a puppet of Shas leader Arye Deri and Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman.” But in the runoff between Lion and Hitorerut leader Ofer Berkovitch, Barkat supported Lion. Now, he told IJ, he is not worried about the influence that the religious Deri and right wing Liberman might have.
“He’s qualified for the job and knows the city – he was part of my coalition – and he wants to continue the trend that the city is on,” Barkat said of Lion. “He sees the positive changes we promoted and supports them, so I believe he’ll continue the legacy and develop the city similarly to what we were doing before.”
“Naturally, you must have an open ear and find the right balance, such as near the shuk where we must make sure the businesses and residents can thrive,” Barkat continued. “We have not always reached the right balance, but I am optimistic about the future.”
And what does the future hold for Barkat?
Last March, he announced that he would enter national politics. Today, the Likud member said he hopes that is still in the cards.
“I’m going to take my national experience and successes here in Jerusalem, before as a hi-tech entrepreneur and commander in the paratroopers [to embark on the next chapter]. I see myself as a public entrepreneur. I served my city. Now I want to serve my country,” he said.
Will he continue to fight for Jerusalem from the Knesset?
“The city is one and will always be united and undivided,” Barkat said, noting that if he gets into the government, “I’ll be even freer to support and defend Jerusalem. I’ll be a strong, supportive voice for Jerusalem on the national level.”