Jerusalem opposition head Ofer Berkovitch to leave city council

Following his resignation, Berkovitch agreed to answer questions about the present situation of the council and his forecast for the coming years in the city and the role of the young generation.

 POLITICAL PAST: Ofer Berkovitch hits the Jerusalem streets with the Hitorerut movement. (photo credit: SHARON GABAI)
POLITICAL PAST: Ofer Berkovitch hits the Jerusalem streets with the Hitorerut movement.
(photo credit: SHARON GABAI)

Last week at the monthly city council meeting, Ofer Berkovitch, founder and president of the Hitorerut movement and list on the council, announced his decision to take a break from leading the movement.

The decision, which was already in the air for the last few weeks, marks a very special period in the political life of the city, but it is possible that it will also allow the renewal of the active presence of the non-Orthodox in Jerusalem, in preparation for the next elections for mayor and the city council a year from now.

Berkovitch, 39, together with Meirav Cohen (who has meanwhile stepped into national politics and is a government minister on Yesh Atid’s list), has been the driving force behind the awakening of the city’s youth, who stood up and organized themselves in order to offer the younger generation something that was sorely lacking in those years – something they called “hope for Jerusalem’s young generation.”

The 3,000 votes that separated Berkovitch from the mayor’s office in the October 2018 elections already marked what is happening now. The bad blood between Mayor Moshe Lion and Berkowitz prevented the establishment of a broad coalition that would represent all sectors of the city’s population, and created a feeling that Jerusalem was passing into the hands of the ultra-Orthodox, who obtained 17 of the 30 seats on the city council.

Lion did not manage to get even one representative of his on the council, while the Hitorerut faction entered with seven representatives – the largest faction ever ion the city council. But since the opposition in the city council is in no way similar to the opposition in the Knesset, over time a sense of paralysis was created, despite the significant and persistent work the Hitorerut faction members invested during the four years since the election.

 BERKOVITCH SUPPORTERS react as preliminary results of the city’s mayoral race are announced, Nov. 2018. (credit: NOAM REVKIN FENTON/FLASH90) BERKOVITCH SUPPORTERS react as preliminary results of the city’s mayoral race are announced, Nov. 2018. (credit: NOAM REVKIN FENTON/FLASH90)

Following his resignation, Berkovitch agreed to answer IJ’s questions about the present situation of the council and his forecast for the coming years in the city and the role of the young generation.

Looking back, what are the main achievements of the Hitorerut movement?

I think the first thing is that we restored hope to the city, [hope] that in 2008 seemed [to have] completely vanished. We created a significant wave of activism in the municipality and in the city. We built a young force that combined people with different world views – right, left, secular and religious – who work together to ensure the Zionist, productive and tolerant future of Jerusalem.

We did a dramatic thing for the city: in the change in priorities, in the cultural revolution, the revolution in the Mahaneh Yehuda market and some of the economic development there. Thanks to our intervention, the Broadcasting Corporation, the Innovation Authority and dozens of governmental units moved from the Center to the city of Jerusalem. [We had achievements] in the renewal of the city center, in education programs such as the August Youth program, and in informal education. [There was] also our involvement in breaking Egged’s monopoly and the introduction of additional public transportation companies... and the struggle to preserve the image of Jerusalem as a pluralistic city.

How do you see the future of the movement?

The Hitorerut movement is the largest Zionist force in Jerusalem. Its role is to continue uniting forces from different sectors and with different world views so that even if the new mayor comes from the ultra-Orthodox sector, it will give enormous weight to decisions about the interests of the Zionist sector.

We will elect a new chairman in a democratic process, as we do every year in our movement. I think that Hitorerut needs to refocus and renew itself, to bring Jerusalemites back inside, to understand the strategic situation that exists in the city and to act for the same interests and the same values that it did in the past.

How about your own plans?

I am currently continuing to serve until the end of the election process on November 15, but I still do not know how I will take part; but through my knowledge, the connections I established, the issue of resource mobilization, I will be able to contribute. It has not been defined yet, but in one capacity or another, I will be happy to help.

We have good people, as I have always been the one to encourage the growth of many leaders, as evidenced by Meirav Cohen, Dan Illouz and many others who have left the movement for significant positions in Jerusalem and in the country.

Will you support the next candidate for mayor?

It is still too early to talk about the issue of the next candidate for mayor. I will definitely consider supporting a candidate for mayor, but Hitorerut could decide to put up such a candidate. In any case, we will continue to be the largest faction and create a strategy that will suit the political situation in the city and the atmosphere in it.

In the opposition, we have been on guard so that the neighborhoods with the Zionist character will not be harmed. It has not always been successful because there is a different government in Jerusalem at the moment, and there are bad things that happened in this term, but I believe that there is a revival of many of the things that the city lacks, and it will always be able to offer those things and directions. We will always need innovative ideas, integration of the young, creativity and, above all, keeping Jerusalem as a city for everyone.

Would you recommend opening the movement to other factions?

We should always be open in politics for collaborations.... I don’t close the door to anyone. We will have elections, there will be a new administration, and they will decide. But I think it is important that new forces enter that may not have been in the arena until now.

I strongly believe in inclusiveness to connect different sectors, and I think that when I return to politics, that is the thing I am most proud of – the ability to connect all sectors together. That is what the people of Israel and the State of Israel need.

There is no doubt that in Jerusalem the situation is more acute, and the ultra-Orthodox factions sometimes run amok, in budgets and planning and construction and, in fact, making the mayor implement their policy, which is not always tolerant. They are not aiming at everyone, as they close cafés and pubs, and entire neighborhoods are undergoing processes of changing character, but one has to be creative. There are often conflicts, even with friends I have in the ultra-Orthodox sector, but I don’t think it’s impossible to find a way to also protect Jerusalem.

Look, if there is no secular and National-Religious public in Jerusalem, the government will no longer be interested in this city. And its economic erosion will first of all harm the ultra-Orthodox public. If I were asked to advise the ultra-Orthodox factions, I would tell them that they should embrace more the general public that chose to continue living in Jerusalem.

There is an important question that has to be asked openly: If they become a majority, how will they behave? Will they allow the general public to live according to its world view?

What has been done so far and what still needs to be done for the city?

A clean city, aesthetics and flowers and gardening – this is very important, but these are not the heaviest challenges of Jerusalem. It is a very special city, but we must strengthen the economic issue in it and develop places of employment and businesses; more can be done. Engines of growth in the city – it doesn’t happen enough. More needs to be done on the issue of integrating haredi men and Arab women into the workforce. This city is funded by the state with a yearly billion shekels; it cannot go on forever.

On the subject of transportation, it is time to incentivize the municipal employees to take public transportation, besides enabling sane urban renewal, infrastructure work management, and more.

And finally, what are your personal plans?

It is important for me to say that I am going to deepen my experience in the business sector at Nofar Energy, a field of renewable energy, from both a values and social point of view, and also to acquire more significant tools in the private sector for management and leadership. I am staying here. ❖