A premature party?

There is no denying the glee by some city council members after the stripping of religious Zionist city councillor Rachel Azaria of her portfolios by Mayor Nir Barkat.

Rachel Azaria 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Rachel Azaria 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
In politics, quite often it’s not the facts themselves that matter but the intentions behind the actions and to what extent they achieve their aim. Last week, this principle was evident at Safra Square, though the final outcome of the situation is not yet known.
Following her petition to the High Court against gender separation in Mea She’arim during Succot, city council member Rachel Azaria (Yerushalmim) received a letter from Mayor Nir Barkat announcing his decision to revoke all her portfolios on the city council.
This move will have to be ratified at the city council meeting, which takes place after press time. Within less than 24 hours, a petition supporting Azaria and protesting Barkat’s decision appeared on the Web and garnered hundreds of signatures.
So far, it is not clear what will come out of this petition, but the mayor’s closest assistant says that since there is no disagreement between the two regarding gender separation in the city, a letter of apology from Azaria would be enough to settle the matter.
But let’s first take a closer look at the facts that preceded the letter of dismissal.
On Sunday, October 16, Azaria submitted a petition to the High Court of Justice requesting that there should be no gender segregation of any kind in Mea She’arim during Succot.
What precipitated that request was that on the previous Thursday Azaria discovered that the main street in Mea She’arim had been divided by a barrier, and she and all the other women walking on the street were told by guards from a private security company to move to the women’s side.
The following day, this reporter went to Mea She’arim but found no separation barriers along the street, except for a short corridor from Shivtei Yisrael Street to the women’s section of the Toldot Aharon Synagogue.
What happened in between? The police forbade all the fences and allowed only the segregated entrance to Toldot Aharon.
In court, Jerusalem Police Chief Nisso Shaham explained that following talks with leaders of the Mea She’arim community, the segregation was canceled and except for the entrance to Toldot Aharon, there would be no gender segregation this year. In response to Shaham’s explanation, Justice Dorit Beinisch ruled that Azaria should withdraw her request.
But in her petition to the court, Azaria included the municipality – for reasons of formality, she explained – as one of the local authorities that should forbid segregation barriers.
Needless to day, Barkat did not like seeing his municipality taken to court by a member of the coalition. Besides the fact that it is very strange to see someone dragging to court the organization she works for, Azaria says that the city’s chief of staff, Michal Shalem, called her several times and asked her not to go to court or at least not to involve the municipality.
Azaria says she was warned by Shalem that if she persisted she would be stripped of all her duties. But she explained that she was convinced she was doing the right thing and therefore refused to reconsider her actions.
And the rest is history.
Or is it? It seems that beyond the harsh firing of an elected official who has the trust and the support of thousands of residents, some sources at Safra Square are beginning to wonder whether the mayor’s anger over Azaria’s move was the only reason behind his severe reaction.
One thing is certain – the overt rejoicing by the haredi members of the city council included a congratulatory letter to the mayor, indicating that there are at least some who have benefited from this unfortunate affair.
While there is no proof that Barkat was cynical enough to offer Azaria’s head to her fierce opponents (who can be found both on and off the haredi benches), there was at least one haredi city council member who didn’t hold back on expressing his opinion. “It is no secret that Rachel Azaria is a thorn in our side. By firing her, the mayor has shown that he respects us, and when the next election comes around, it will be a good point to remember.”