Local elections take Jerusalem

On December 22, Jerusalemites are invited to choose their local council representatives in their neighborhoods.

THE LIGHT rail makes a stop in Pisgat Ze’ev. With 45,000 residents, its council is divided into four areas. (photo credit: MIRIAM ALSTER/FLASH90)
THE LIGHT rail makes a stop in Pisgat Ze’ev. With 45,000 residents, its council is divided into four areas.
(photo credit: MIRIAM ALSTER/FLASH90)
Toward the opening of the 2013 school year, Yossi Saidov, then chairman of the Gonenim local council and today a candidate for the local council's board, was fed up. After months of fruitlessly asking the municipality to paint a pedestrian crossing on one of the neighborhood's smallest streets, Saidov gathered some children and together they painted the lines.
“The drivers were angry to be stopped while the enthusiastic children did their part. We gave each a lollipop and an explanation and we completed the task. After that, it took just a few days for the municipality to send a team to draw the crossing lines properly.” Saidov says the episode increased his understanding that very local issues such as these could be meaningless for a huge organization like the municipality, yet vital for residents there.
“My conclusion was clear: a local council is the most adequate and necessary tool we, the residents, need in order to improve our urban quality of life.”
On December 22, Jerusalemites are invited to choose their local council representatives in their neighborhoods. This “pilot” election scheduled in eight local councils by the municipality will be followed by general elections in the remaining 22 local councils across the city.
These elections were not initiated by the municipality, which in fact tried to avoid holding them. However, the district court ruled in favor of Givat Mordechai resident Kobi Eizen, who together with former city councilman Pepe Alalu (Meretz), appealed to the court to compel the municipality to hold the local elections, as more than 10 years had passed since the previous ones. Justice Shlomo Shaham ruled that Safra Square had to launch these elections, so the first eight local councils will hold them this month (the original November 17 date was postponed to December 22 due to the coronavirus). The remaining 22 local councils must hold elections no later than the end of March 2021.
GINOT HA’IR is considered one of the wealthiest and most developed local councils. (Marc Israel Sellem)GINOT HA’IR is considered one of the wealthiest and most developed local councils. (Marc Israel Sellem)
ORIGINALLY, THE local councils were to function as small local municipalities to address the needs of the local residents in a way a sizable organization like a municipality can’t.
In the late 1980s, legendary mayor Teddy Kollek felt this would be the best tool to run the capital's affairs. Jerusalem was already the largest city in Israel, and the idea was to give responsibilities to the residents through their local representatives via a series of neighborhood issues that mattered specifically to them. Kollek understood this would mean renouncing part of his power as mayor, but he believed that self-government at this lower level would be good for the city.
However, to this day, there is no clear line regarding the obligations of both sides. According to Saidov, this is one of the problems preventing the councils from exercising their power.
“But Kollek was replaced by Ehud Olmert, who had a different concept of his position and was not ready to relinquish part of his power,” recounts Saidov. “By then, there was already a Jerusalem Society for Local Councils and Community Centers that had close ties with both the national and municipal levels.” “It was like a buffer between the two sides,” recalls former Jerusalem Society CEO Zvika Chernichovski. “We had to walk a tightrope between opposed interests. It did work for quite a few years. We extended it to several sectors of the city’s residents so everyone had access to a new form of self-management suited to their needs and customs.” Chernichovski says it was a model particularly suited to the human mosaic of Jerusalem, with secular, religious, haredi and Arab residents.
“They have all urban and social needs, but they also have different customs and habits. We had to find a solution that would enable self-organization and yet remain part of the city, and it worked.”
“It’s not only a matter of different customs,” adds Saidov, “it is a matter of common sense. Safra Square is such a large organization, with thousands of employees [11,000 actually] and different administrations and priorities. They see the big picture, but they can’t really drill down to the very local issues that matter to the 10 residents of a little side street. That’s why a local council exists.
"But alas, what was a good tool to promote civil society needs has become an arena of struggle between different powers.”
SAIDOV REFERS to changes in election rules that in his opinion weaken civil participation. There is also the specter of a possible eventual haredi takeover of the boards in some predominately non-haredi neighborhoods, in what he sees as a non-democratic manner.
The boards of every local council consist of 15 members. Nine of them have to be elected by residents and six are representatives appointed by the municipality, one of whom is a representative of the national society for community centers. Recently, Safra Square decided to include at least one haredi representative in each of their delegations, displeasing many neighborhood social activists.
“I can understand why such a decision was taken,” says Deputy Mayor Arieh King, holder of the portfolio of local councils at city council, "but I am not happy about it. I believe democracy should always be respected even when its results could be inconvenient.” The fear is that appointing a haredi representative in each local council may lower the eagerness of residents to show up in substantial numbers to the polls, and eventually change or even disrupt the real balance on the ground between haredim and others.
“I understand, but why do it based on the last results of elections to the city council?” asks Saidov. “Not every neighborhood has the same problems. Why not, for example, use that model to ensure a seat for a woman representative? The rule says if there is no woman among the elected, we have to assign one anyway. Why not use this model?” JERUSALEM’S LOCAL council model provides some of the best solutions to promote civil involvement.
“Take the Mesila Park,” says Saidov. “Civil engagement enabled it to take place – a structure that enabled such a dramatic change. After all, this was originally supposed to be a four-lane highway, and look what has emerged instead.”
Unofficial neighborhood education programs, planning, construction, renovations, locations of playgrounds and kindergartens, not to mention social activities like health, sport teams and more – all are part of the central idea of what a local council, which includes a community center, does and provides to residents. Moreover, the local council, unlike a mere community center, encourages residents to be active in neighborhood affairs, and be part of civil society.
“It also means residents have a say in every decision that concerns them taken by the municipality. It demands time and activism, but this is the only way residents can take action in a democratic society. For some, especially high-ranking municipal officials, it also means residents’ wishes have to be taken in account. The time when someone above could just decide what and where to build is over. No wonder not all the mayors fell in love with the concept,” notes Saidov.
“Think of what happened here when the coronavirus hit us,” says Shayke El-Ami, CEO of Ginot Ha'ir Local Council, “all of the benevolent work done in the neighborhoods for seniors, the disabled and special-needs children, the daily contact with all these residents, to listen, to help, to provide assistance. None of this could be done without the extensive civil society network born here in the local councils. I don’t think we could imagine our daily life without the infrastructure provided by the civil society that has developed in the local councils.” THE ORIGINAL idea was that residents could vote for any candidate registered for the local council board. But due to a significant change in procedure, candidates now represent much narrower parts of the neighborhood that can include no more than a few streets.
In the Greater Baka council, for example, there are 11 candidates running for the small Arnona Tzeira area, comprising no more than four streets. The same goes for most of the other councils in the elections. While some sources see this change as a step in the right direction (living in the same tiny area provides a more direct link between the candidates and voters), others feel it makes the candidacy less accessible.
“If you run for an entire neighborhood, more residents have access to the candidate, to what he or she proposes and wants to promote. Running for an area that covers only three or four streets makes it much less acceptable,” says Saidov.
One of the eight local councils included in the elections is in Beit Safafa, a predominantly Arab neighborhood of two parts, one inside the Israeli territory before 1967, the other beyond the Green Line then. Today, Beit Safafa has, besides its original residents, a large contingent that came from the Hebron region and many Israeli Arabs from the Galilee who moved to Jerusalem for various reasons, including studies at the Hebrew University.
Nadia, a married chemist and mother of three who resides there, says she hasn't seen much interest in the elections.
“The feeling is they won’t really change anything here. We have the same leadership in our local council, but unfortunately, it hasn’t done too much for the residents. If I compare this with the local councils in Tzur Baher or Beit Hanina, we are certainly much less advanced. We do not have a swimming pool, we lack accessibility for the disabled – and we have quite a few disabled here, especially children – and we do not enjoy what the municipality has offered us as compensation for the construction of the Route 16, which split the whole village. We were given up to 200 construction permits, but it turns out that just a few residents could afford to build, since the cost turned out to be so high.
"This is where an active local council could help, but it didn’t happen, so I’m afraid very few residents will bother to go vote.”
KING SAYS that despite all the difficulties, his feeling is positive, mostly because the number of candidates is high.
“I didn’t expect many candidates, also taking into consideration the coronavirus restrictions. I thought if we could just have close to 200 candidates it would be a real victory for the elections. But we have 270 candidates. This is an expression of the trust of residents in the local councils.
On the practical side, each local council has its own Facebook page, where residents can find all the information regarding voting procedures, the list of the candidates and the areas of their candidacies.
Elections will take place in:
• Homat Shmuel – 24,500 residents: 658 of them olim; 8,100 students in all grades; 75% of residents live in their own properties. Homat Shmuel, which is considered “pluralist” with a strong national-religious element, has 22 candidates, six of them women.
• Pisgat Ze’ev – 45,000 residents: 913 of them olim, 25% considered young families and 9,600 students, in all grades. Here also about 75% of the residents own their houses. Due to its large size, the local council includes four areas: Southeast (four candidates); Center, (three candidates); North (one candidate); and West (one candidate).
• Greater Baka – 30,000 residents: 2,395 of them olim, mostly Anglos and French; 4,939 students in all grades and about 62% of residents own their housing. There are 27 candidates, 12 of them women, running for the nine local council board seats reserved for the public.
• Gonenim – 23,800 residents: 585 of them olim, 22% young families, 4,616 students in all grades. 64% of residents own their housing. There are 25 candidates (including nine women) running for the nine board seats.
• Ginot Ha'ir – 36,902 residents: 3,043 olim (mostly from the US and France). 13% are young families, 4,793 are students of all grades and 59% own their own housing. This is considered one of the wealthiest and most developed local councils, and includes Rehavia, the German and Italian Colonies, Rasco and Nayot. There are 20 candidates running for the board; five of them are women.
• Bayit Vegan – A religious neighborhood with 21,703 residents. 1,439 of them olim, mostly Anglos and French; 33% young families. There are 6,399 students in all grades and 55% of residents live in their own properties. Of 28 candidates running for the neighborhood board, three are women.
• Eshkolot – 35,068 residents, 769 of them olim. Some 37% are young families, with 10,372 students in all grades, and 56% own their housing. Eshkolot contains a few religious neighborhoods in Jerusalem's north including  Shmuel Hanavi, Ramat Eshkol, Ma’alot Dafna, Arzei Habira, Beit Israel, Sanhedria and Homa Shlishit. Of the 19 candidates running for the board, all are men.
• Beit Safafa – 15,077 residents, about 40% of whom are young families, with 3,354 students in all grades. Some 64% of the residents live in their own properties. Six candidates are running for the board, all men.
To find out who they are eligible to vote for, residents should go to the website of their neighborhood's local council and enter their private address, at which point they will receive a link directing them.