Convinced of victory, Meir Porush had a rude awakening on Wednesday morning.
By PEGGY CIDORPublished: NOVEMBER 13, 2008 10:47Advertisement
It was supposed to last until late afternoon. It ultimately turned out to be a whole day and ended up, the following morning, in an atmosphere totally opposite from the one that had previously prevailed.
Meir Porush, who was almost crowned king of Jerusalem, seen as "one of us" by haredi residents, the man who seemed so confident in his victory that he even declined to answer the hypothetical question "What will you do if you lose?" lost the city to the young hi-tech millionaire for whom his assistants and supporters showed so much disdain.
But let's go back to the more glorious hours of Tuesday morning, when promises still sounded so realistic. At 11 a.m., Porush arrived at his voting location, a haredi school on Rehov Rishon Lezion in Romema. Young Talmud Torah students stood behind the barrier and chanted, "Meir Porush, the next mayor." It seems that in the haredi education system, elections are not a sufficient reason to cancel classes, so the students whose classrooms had been used for voting were crammed into the other rooms. Dozens of photographers and journalists (including a large contingent from the foreign press) swamped the place and upon Porush's entrance, illuminated the hall with their flashes.
Porush, his thin, somewhat ironic smile larger than usual, showed great respect for the media's needs and was prepared to hold his ballot envelopes for long minutes before dropping them into the ballot box, to allow the maximum photo ops.
Surrounded by some haredim of all stripes, he gently answered all the questions, such as "Will you close pubs on Friday nights?" Answer: "I will respect the status quo."
The crowd was getting larger and the singing louder, and then the rumor spread - "[Shas leader] Eli Yishai is here!" The two men embraced in front of the cameras, and words about unity and strong friendship were tossed around.
Once his ballot was cast, Porush embarked on a long visit of the various voting centers in the city. He began in Rehov Shlomzion Hamalka, at one of his headquarters that targeted Arab voters. He went straight to the people in the street and shook hands with many of the men. Inside the Arab headquarters, he received some explanations regarding the strategy there, and the expectations (officially: high; in reality: "We can't know. Some of the contractors we work with are relatives of Gaydamak's."
Then Porush entered the media minivan. He sat in the front seat and talked on two mobile telephones and answered questions. Besides the candidate and his spokesman, Moshe Friedman, there were a bunch of young haredim, who were reporters from the haredi media. The atmosphere was one of certain victory. "Be'ezrat Hashem [God willing], I will be the mayor and I will bring success to the city." And once installed in City Hall? "I will invite all the parties to join my coalition, including Nir Barkat" - a burst of laughter from the haredi press.
In Katamon, at a center of haredi kindergartens, Porush was acclaimed by the staff and young supporters who joined in, holding banners in praise of the gentle Santa Claus representing the strong man of the hassidic circles. After a short visit and brief conversations with representatives of the religious Zionists supporting him, Porush was back in the van.
By then, secular journalists had joined the minivan and the questions became sharper. Friedman took charge and answered, loud and clear, that the status quo would be scrupulously respected, that the city would "jump" into prosperity, and he dispelled rumors regarding eventual problems caused by internal fights between them and the Gur hassidim.
Porush toured the haredi neighborhoods, then invited the press to his headquarters in Har Hotzvim, where hundreds of young haredim were on the phones and computers and engaged in heated discussions about the outcome of the election. The Gur treachery was the talk of the day. Strangely enough, there was no sign of discomfort at the fact that a few female journalists (in trousers and heads uncovered) walked freely about. In fact, they spoke to them in Hebrew, using modern slang and dropping names of highly rated TV shows.
The headquarters was divided into secular and haredi voters, the two headed by the strategic department, directed by deputy mayor Yehoshua Pollack, Meir Panim soup kitchens founder and director Dudi Zilbershlag and Zaka (Disaster Victims Identification) founder Yehuda Meshi-Zahav. In the haredi section, yeshiva students were on the phone all day, urging residents to vote. In some rooms, maps on the wall indicated the exact time such and such male resident was to vote and where, while another list itemized the same details for their wives.
All day long, until the first newscast came on (around 2 a.m.), the atmosphere in the headquarters was very joyous - jokes, mostly focused on Gur hassidim and on the secular candidate. Later on, daily life in haredi circles turned the small packed room into a kind of stand-up comedy club.
Shortly afterwards, some disturbing news began to stream in. Slowly but surely, despite Zilbershlag's unshakable faith in victory, the smiles were replaced by anxiety. Someone came in and asked, "What should we do about the yeshiva students outside who are in a "shiva" state of mind?" Zilbershlag encouraged them not to pay attention to negative thoughts and to "Put your faith above all." But soon after, even that was not enough anymore.
When, at 3 a.m. Porush, accompanied by his aged father, came to meet his supporters, there were some tears here and there, but it was mostly anger, and the slogans "War upon Gur" and "Revenge now!" began to inundate the front of the building. At 3:30 a.m., thousands of haredim stood around their leader, refusing to admit defeat, while others warned the journalists that "In any case, Barkat the radical leftist will need us for his coalition, and then we'll make him pay."
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