Haredi hegemony

What issue will carry the most weight in bringing residents out to vote in next week’s community council elections?

City Center (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
City Center
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
What brings people to the voting booth? Is a lack of playgrounds for children or afternoon enrichment activities a good enough reason for residents to step out of their daily routine and get involved in a local neighborhood council election, either as a voter or as a candidate? Of course, it’s hard to determine what causes a burst of local activism in one neighborhood and a total lack of such action in another one that may even share some of the same problems. But although the concept of community councils began and continues to exist primarily in Jerusalem (it is much less common in the rest of the country), participation in electing the boards of these councils is far from satisfactory.
In less than two weeks, 281,353 residents of 14 neighborhoods in the capital will have a day to determine how their immediate environment will look, function and affect their lives, for better or for worse.
In these 14 councils across the city, residents will choose a new board that should represent their needs and wishes. In principle, this is a great achievement of democracy and civil self-government. Yet nobody at either of the two bodies that organize and run the elections – the municipality’s Culture, Society and Leisure Department, headed by Yossi Sharabi, and the Jerusalem branch of the Israel Association of Community Councils and Centers (IACC), run by Yuli Ben-Lavi – is certain that this is what will happen.
Fearing an embarrassingly low voter turnout, these two entities have decided that in some councils, instead of opening the elections to all eligible residents, they will implement a clause from the IACC’s rules that say the candidates have to be elected from a list of 50 known activists.
Not surprisingly, this decision has led to much criticism, and in at least one case – the elections for the Lev Ha’ir neighborhood council, which encompasses the Nahlaot, Musrara, Jewish Quarter, downtown and Sha’arei Hessed neighborhoods – the move has been canceled following a request by a group of residents.
The community councils, conceived in Jerusalem during mayor Teddy Kollek’s term, are a combination of community centers and self-managing civilian administrations. The primary idea was to enable residents to define their exact needs regarding nonformal education frameworks, early childhood facilities, senior and youth leisure activities, and tools that aid in the basic functioning of the neighborhood – cleanup efforts, playgrounds, planning and construction, etc.
However, in most of the 31 councils (reduced over the years to 25 due to budget cuts), there have never been any elections, and in some others, the last elections took place 15 to 20 years ago. When he was still the city council opposition leader, Mayor Nir Barkat promised that democratic elections would take place in all community councils when he became mayor.
The upcoming elections, scheduled for November 20, are the third such round of voting, during which the last of the 25 councils will hold elections. By comparison, during former mayor Ehud Olmert’s term, seven councils held elections, and only four did so during his successor Uri Lupolianski’s term.
Barkat has pushed for these elections as part of his policy of transparency and encouraging the implementation of civilian government. But sources inside the municipality, as well as in some of the current councils’ boards, doubt that now is the appropriate time.
“We are close to general elections,” explains a source at Safra Square. “Politicians will use any platform for their own interests, and president of a local council can be a very important position, whether it is held by a resident identified with a political party, or a supporter of a candidate for one of the parties. This is already a very sensitive period; adding these local elections might be too much.”
Indeed, it wasn’t clear until last month whether the announcement of the Knesset elections next January would preclude these local elections. Asked about his decision to hold the elections nonetheless, Barkat explained at a recent press conference that the timing was a choice between the Knesset elections in January and the mayoral and city council elections scheduled for November 2013, and he had chosen the less problematic option. The risk of politicians misusing the neighborhood elections, he reasoned, was greater during city council elections than during elections for the Knesset.
Besides his interest in introducing greater efficiency in the neighborhood boards, Barkat wants to encourage more young residents to get involved in the process. He has never hidden his lack of satisfaction – to put it mildly – with the old boards, which he feels have sometimes acted more in their own interests than in those of their constituencies. In that sense, these elections should complete the move he launched in 2010, along with the liquidation of the IACC’s Jerusalem branch, to establish an efficient local neighborhood management free of political interests – one that is younger, less focused on internal struggles over hegemony and more dedicated to working with him, not against him, to maximize the city’s ability to meet its goals, as he sees them.
ANOTHER OF the mayor’s aims is to quietly dismantle the socalled “haredi hegemony” in some neighborhoods. In response to haredi (ultra-Orthodox) residents’ known capacity to organize their entire communities quickly to participate in elections and thereby achieve majority representation on the local boards, Barkat has led a move to prevent such a situation, though many have criticized it as undemocratic. In Kiryat Hayovel and Ramot, which have mixed populations of haredim and non-haredim (and high tensions between the two groups), Barkat has requested and obtained separate neighborhood councils, despite strong protests from the haredi camp in the city council. As a result, the Yuvalim council (for the greater Kiryat Hayovel area) has been split in two – one for Kiryat Hayovel itself, and one for the haredi Bayit Vagan neighborhood – essentially “pulling the carpet out from under the haredim,” according to the source at Safra Square. The same method was implemented in Ramot during the last round of elections in December 2011, splitting the community into two separate neighborhood councils – one haredi and one for the rest of the residents.
While the mayor emphasizes the need to improve Jerusalem residents’ self-government, the struggle between a haredi and a diverse character in the capital’s neighborhoods plays a major role in the elections.
“In a way, these elections are a kind of dress rehearsal for the real thing – the city council and mayoral elections due to take place exactly one year from now,” says Marik Shtern, deputy director of the Jerusalem Movement, which aims to maintain a pluralistic atmosphere in the capital.
Shtern, who has just finished running a candidate-training workshop that his movement planned, says the battle for hegemony is definitely the major issue, though he does not deny that various local problems raise concern among the potential candidates as well.
Still, he says, “a lack of playgrounds in the neighborhoods and [similar] issues wouldn’t be enough to drag residents to run or to vote, while the fear of haredi hegemony in a neighborhood does that,” he says.
ON NOVEMBER 20, 281,353 residents will have the right to represent the 458,027 residents of their respective neighborhoods.
While no one can forecast what the voter turnout will be, the list of topics that need the attention of the soonto- be-elected representatives is long and well-known.
Besides the haredi issue, the two most important matters are construction and planning projects – including traffic and parking concerns – and the lack of affordable activities at community centers.
According to Katamonim resident Yossi Saidov, who was elected president of the Jerusalem South council (the Katamonim and Rassco neighborhoods) during the December 2011 elections, the populations of most of the neighborhoods have undergone a major change.
“Lots of young families, young, educated and working people...
are coming back to the neighborhoods where they grew up, and want to be part of the shaping of its structure and future,” he says. “They are eager to fight for these things; they are dedicated, full of energy. They will not relinquish their rights to live in the conditions they believe they and their children deserve.”
Saidov, who has become an unofficial consultant for many of the new young candidates, adds that though many issues are at stake, there is no doubt about the primary topic on the agenda of the elections.
“The need to put a limit on the haredi expansion across the city is on top – there is no question about that, whether it is a last-minute action or still in time to make a difference, [depending on] the different neighborhoods’ current situations,” he asserts. “The major fight will be, in my opinion, in the Lev Ha’ir council because of its strategic location, on the seam between the northern neighborhoods, where haredi hegemony is almost an established fact, and the rest of the city, where things are still not decided.”
The Lev Ha’ir neighborhood council, one of the 14 councils participating in the November 20 elections, is much more than a local neighborhood council. Firstly, it covers the Nahlaot and Mahaneh Yehuda areas (including the market), the city center, Musrara and part of the Beit David Community Center (in the Old City) and has 25,000 residents, of whom 16,562 are eligible to vote.
For years, Lev Ha’ir has been the flagship project of the neighborhood council, especially through its legendary director, Uri Amedi. He has spearheaded several innovative projects, such as the Barbur Gallery in Nahlaot near Mahaneh Yehuda.
He later opened the Place for Poetry project there – a group of local poets who use the authentic flavors and atmosphere of the market to inspire their work and has become one of the most famous poetry groups in the country.
He also had a guiding hand in the renovation of the market, which within a few years was transformed from a dirty, neglected place that served only the less privileged and elderly residents of Nahlaot into an attractive leisure and cultural locale for residents and tourists alike. And he organized the merchants of the market into an association whereby they have learned to represent their own interests.
And there is much more to be done. But according to many of the people in the neighborhood, Amedi was too much involved in large and prestigious projects and neglected the interests of the residents.
“The residents here have no community center, no activities, no programs for children or teenagers. Compared to other neighborhoods, we have nothing,” says Aharon Leibowitz, a resident and rabbi, spiritual leader of a large group of young Anglo families that have settled in the neighborhood over the past 10 years.
Leibowitz, who is running for the board of Lev Ha’ir, explains that the lack of facilities and programs for the residents forced him to make the decision. “We have no playgrounds, even though we have so many children here, whom we have to drive to Baka or Rehavia for activities that we don’t have, and so on – this couldn’t go on,” he says. But he is careful not to bash Amedi, pointing out that “We simply have different agendas. He thinks big, but we just want to obtain the facilities that any other community center in any other neighborhood has.”
Leibowitz’s first step was to convince Mayor Nir Barkat to abandon the primary idea to impose Paragraph 5.8 in the Lev Ha’ir elections.
The paragraph is usually implemented when there is serious concern that the aims of the elections will not or cannot be achieved through elections (such as lack of participation or concern that unfriendly parties might misuse the elections). At Lev Ha’ir, the original plan was to choose, out of 50 actively committed residents, the eight required representatives to the new board.
“Within less than three days, a petition we ran via the social media brought us more than 120 signatures, which we handed to the mayor and thus succeeded in reversing the decision,” says Leibowitz. “And we are sure that we will obtain at least three or four seats for our party, which offers solutions to the residents’ needs, whether they are newcomers or veterans, religious or secular, Ashkenazi or Mizrahi. We intend to change the priorities of the present board.”
Asked if, in that case, Amedi would be asked to resign, Leibowitz replies, “I’m not sure, but he will have to decide whether he will join us and our plans.”WHO VOTES?
Some 281,000 residents have the right to decide – in some neighborhoods for the first time – which men and women will represent them on their local councils.
The decisions made by these councils vary from planning playgrounds and imposing new traffic laws to adding parking lots and enriching the activities for all ages in the neighborhood’s community center.
These voters represent 458,027 residents in 14 neighborhoods, from the north of the city (French Hill, Neveh Ya’acov, Romema, Ramat Shlomo and Pisgat Ze’ev) to the southwest side (Kiryat Menahem, Kiryat Hayovel, Beit Hakerem, Har Nof), through the city center – Lev Ha’ir and the southwest side, in East Talpiot and Givat Masua, as well as two councils in east Jerusalem – Wadi Joz and A-Tur.
For some neighborhoods, such as French Hill, Beit Hakerem, Kiryat Hayovel, Romema, Ramat Shlomo and Wadi Joz, these will be their first election. Some 40% of the candidates are under the age of 50, and there is an increase in the number of women running.
As of the end of October, women constituted 30% of the candidates registered.
The last thing the young, secular activists who live in French Hill want to hear about their neighborhood is that it is struggling against a haredi invasion – both because this might encourage the haredi community to fight for the neighborhood and because it is simply not true. Most of the young residents engaged in the campaign to raise the level of interest in the elections are focused on what they point out as the failure of the current council to serve the needs of the residents. Of the 11,700 residents of the northern neighborhood, 7,105 are eligible to vote, among them many students. However, they admit that the issue of haredim versus non-haredim and the tensions it brings is part of the problems they want to solve.
“There are many former residents of French Hill who have decided to return to the neighborhood in which they lived for years,” says Yossi Saidov, president of the South Jerusalem community council, who is helping some of the candidates in the French Hill elections. “They came back from other neighborhoods where they didn’t feel at home or even from outside the city, and they are finding that many things have changed – and not for the better. So they got together in a group and are running for the council board. That’s the best thing to do.”
Tamar Brody, who is in her 40s and lives in French Hill, is running for the local council with eight other residents of various ages. She says that their primary focus is the (low and unsatisfying) quality of life the current council board is providing them. But she acknowledges that the haredi residents, whether living in the neighborhood or planning to move there, are also an issue that she and her friends want to deal with, “not because it is a problem specific to French Hill or because we hate haredim – we don’t,” she emphasizes, “but because living together in the same neighborhoods has to be intelligently planned, and right now it is a major issue in all parts of this city.”
One aspect of the issue that is specific to French Hill is the Haredi Education Campus planned – and backed by Mayor Nir Barkat – despite strong opposition of the non-haredi residents. It is to be built in the nearby Ramat Eshkol neighborhood.
According to Brody and her friends, the most disturbing aspect of this project is that it will serve students who do not even live in the neighborhood.
“Obviously, it will put a heavy burden on traffic to and from the neighborhood, and it might attract haredi residents from nearby neighborhoods to move in, something that will impose an undesired change in the character of our neighborhood,” she says.
However, Brody says that she and her friends have refused to use Paragraph 5.8 of the election rules, which could avoid some risks in open elections.
“That is not the way to deal with any problem of the neighborhood, including the potential problem of more haredim moving in,” she insists. “We believe in a healthy civil society, in democracy. It seems ridiculous to try to block the democratic procedure, whether here or anywhere else, including in the Arab sector. They use the paragraph for fear that Islamists might take over the board. That is not the way. We believe in... preserving freedom.”