The next haredi candidate?

Some haredim say a secular mayor might be better after all. But Yehoshua Pollack thinks otherwise.

yehoshua pollack 224.88 (photo credit: Sarah Levin)
yehoshua pollack 224.88
(photo credit: Sarah Levin)
The appointment was for 5 p.m. but at 6 Deputy Mayor Yehoshua Pollack, his office door wide open, was still juggling orders to his secretary, meetings with various visitors and successive conversations on three phones. In between, time for the Minha afternoon prayer came, and Pollack, still talking both on the phones and with two guests, sent his assistants to fetch two men to complete the minyan. Throughout it all, two city council members, one from United Torah Judaism and one from Shas, sat in Pollack's office, debating the latest news in the haredi world. When the interview finally began, Pollack apologized and explained that "since it is a very calm and quiet day here, I assumed I would be on time but it seems I was wrong." With less than four months before the next elections for mayor and a new city council, an official haredi candidate has yet to be declared. In the meantime, the same three names have been circling as possibilities: Mayor Uri Lupolianski, UTJ MK Meir Porush and Pollack. While Lupolianski, who until now has been careful not to deny the agreement between the two factions that make up his UTJ list - Degel Hatorah and Agudat Yisrael - that forbids his candidacy, his recent actions in office have indicated he is interested in reelection. Some city council members have said, however, that Lupolianski's enthusiasm for the post is waning. "He is tired of the critics, seeing his name dragged through the dirt and tarnished on the pashkevilim [broadsides] in Mea She'arim if he insists on pursuing this candidacy; it's lowering his drive for the job," says one city councillor. But enthusiasm for the job hasn't completely disappeared from the sixth floor at Kikar Safra, and can easily be found in the deputy chambers of Pollack, whose stock at City Hall has been on the rise. In Jerusalem paid him a visit last week to hear firsthand just how serious his mayoral ambitions are. According to an internal agreement between the two parties that make up UTJ, Lupolianski, a representative of the Degel Hatorah faction, obtained the rabbis' blessing for the 2003 elections on condition that in the next mayoral race it would be Agudat Yisrael's turn. "And that would be MK Meir Porush," says Pollack. "If Porush decides to run, he will win the elections - there's no doubt about it. In case Porush decides to stay in the Knesset, then I, as senior representative of Agudat Yisrael at the city council, will be the candidate, and there is no way Lupolianski can allow himself not to honor a written agreement. "And besides," he adds, "who says that Uri Lupolianski is haredi? Only the secular sector, which cannot tell the difference," continues Pollack. "I'm telling you, for us, the real haredim, Uri Lupolianski is not one of us. People from the haredi sector don't really trust him and that's why he is criticized all the time. "All his decisions, the way he handled some delicate cases - like the gay pride parade - you can see that he has no real backing and is therefore very limited in his moves. But I, for example, come from inside. I am a real part of the haredi world, nobody can threaten me. I know the ways, I know the rules, and therefore I can allow myself to make decisions that are unpopular." When asked for examples of such decisions, Pollack says: "[There are] lots of examples. But take the most recent one: I gave an interview to Channel 2, which was recorded on a weekday, but broadcast on Shabbat. In that interview I said openly and even bluntly, that if Jerusalem becomes a city without secular residents, then it's not a real city and will not survive. Believe me, this is very unpopular in the haredi sector, but still, there was no criticism in the haredi press." While the haredi print media didn't make too much noise about the incident, a quick glance at haredi Web sites shows otherwise. Shofar News wrote last week that "Rabbi Pollack didn't hesitate to trample like a bull in a china shop the sanctity of Shabbat in order to appear on TV and for what? To say that without secular residents Jerusalem cannot survive? How far will these so-called 'our people' go?" Apparently, news of this report didn't make it to Pollack. "I stand behind what I said. Because I come from the core of the haredi world, I can say such things openly," he says. "I am not afraid of anybody." POLLACK, 60, is a father of eight. He was born in Romania and made aliya with his family in 1961. He spent 22 years in haredi educational institutions, where he obtained rabbinical ordination. "All my life has been inside the haredi world. I was married through a shidduch [match], and all my children, thank God, married also through shidduchim," he says. After the 2003 elections, Pollack was appointed deputy mayor and awarded the planning portfolio. In addition to these roles, he is a member of the Cemeteries Council in Jerusalem and represents the Israel Rabbinate in the National Emergency Committee, where he serves as a casualty victims identifier. Before he became a city councillor, Pollack held various positions on the Jerusalem Religious Council, including director, treasurer and head of the Kashrut Department. His 20 years on the council, however, were controversial. For the haredi public, his time there earned him the title "shpitz," a term reserved for the exceptionally smart, and those who can easily juggle figures and negotiate legal issues. For the non-haredi public, his years there drew charges of mismanagement. Although he has never been brought to court, Pollack was suspected, investigated and accused by secular members of the city council, especially Meretz members, of misusing public funds and property. For example, eight years ago, late Meretz city councillor Ornan Yekutieli charged that Pollack had misused official vehicles of the Religious Council and was conducting "a very lousy managing of the budgets of the Religious Council." Pollack served also as a member of the city council of Modi'in Illit, appointed by the Interior Ministry for four years. And for the past six years, he has served as treasurer of the local council of Betar Illit. To accept his post at the Jerusalem Municipality, however, he had to renounce his income from his position on the Betar Illit council. As deputy mayor, he receives a monthly income of NIS 38,000. A portly man, Pollack is known for his sharp sense of humor and is considered - by both his supporters and his opponents at city council - as a kind of "bulldozer," someone who works hard and doesn't waste time on small talk or ceremonial considerations. "He is a really hard worker. The agenda of the [planning and construction] committee meeting is always debated until the last point, even if it means we have to stay late," says committee member and city councillor Pepe Alalu (Meretz). "He doesn't cancel meetings. If a meeting is scheduled on a fast day, he will immediately reschedule, unlike other municipal committee heads." In addition, "he is the only haredi at city council who understands that haredim moving into secular neighborhoods is bad for everyone," continues Alalu. "Therefore he promoted the construction of housing for haredim in haredi neighborhoods, like in Romema, otherwise the result is always secular residents leaving their former neighborhoods and, ultimately, leaving the city. Pollack understands that haredim cannot afford a massive exodus of secular residents from the city." Earlier this week, Lupolianski received a letter from Ra'anan Dinur, the director-general of the Prime Minister's Office, urging him to promote development plans on natural woodlands and forests west of Jerusalem - in other words, to revive the infamous Safdie Plan. According to Lupolianski's staff, he was shocked by the request and has no intention of changing his stance opposing the plan, which was rejected by the National Planning Council in February 2007. But the running joke at Kikar Safra is that Dinur's letter was in fact conceived by Pollack. Pollack, of course, had nothing to do with Dinur's letter, which apparently originated in the Interior Ministry. But the rumors, nonetheless, offer insight into the different strategies of the two. "I am not trying to please any group and decide against what I believe to be the best for Jerusalem," says Pollack. "If we do not build enough residences for young couples, they will continue leaving and what will happen to the city? I know that today being green is cool, and believe me, I also care for nature, but I also have my responsibilities. "I was the first person to say that if we do not offer affordable housing for young families in Jerusalem, they will all - haredim and secular - leave the city. And then what? We'll be left with a city inhabited by elderly haredim and Arabs?" says Pollack. "Therefore I was, and still am, absolutely for the Safdie Plan. I think it was a mistake to cancel it. Meanwhile, I'm trying to pass a decision that every contractor who agrees to build affordable housing for young local families, will obtain additional building rights as a means of encouragement." For Naomi Tsur, director of urban communities for the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, such sentiments sound an alarm. "I have nothing to say regarding Rabbi Pollack's right to be or not to be a candidate. That is for the residents of Jerusalem to decide. But as far as the goals of [the environmental coalition] Sustainable Jerusalem are concerned, then, of course, a candidate who supports the Safdie Plan and considers its return on the city's agenda is a candidate we will fiercely oppose." Sustainable Jerusalem's plan for the environmental preservation of the city was sent to all mayoral candidates this week, she adds. "We are sending it [the plan] to Rabbi Pollack as well, and since his positions on these issues are publicly known, we, of course, will not encourage our supporters to vote for him," she says. "WE ALL live in a big sack of potatoes," says Pollack. "Haredim, secular, Arabs, rich and poor - we all live in this city and like potatoes in a bag, we have to find the best position for each one of us, that includes reserving a place for each one of us. "We don't have time to fight among ourselves. Ten years from now, if things continue this way, the Arabs will be a majority in this city, perhaps even in the country. We [haredim] are the only ones who stay here. You, the secular residents, leave easily and you don't even bother having children. Our problem is demographic - we shouldn't waste time on internal fights between Jews." Demographic concerns led Pollack to a different conclusion than his predecessors at the head of the planning committee, he says. "I'm telling you, if we don't build for Arabs, they will build without permits - they don't have any choice. But if we give them building permits, they will build decent housing, they will feel more comfortable," he explains. "I truly believe it will also lower the risk of their participation in terror activities because a person who gets decent housing, electricity and water has something to lose and will think twice before he jeopardizes these privileges. "So I am generous regarding building permits in the Arab sector, including cases of residents who seek a permit retroactively - the law allows that, and I am convinced it is much better. The only problem I have is the city attorney [Yossi Havilio] - he is stubborn, he doesn't allow it and the results are disastrous." A HAREDI candidate for mayor immediately raises concerns of religious coercion among non-haredim. When asked about the recent controversial decision to instruct a girls' dance troupe to cover their hair and wear long clothing during the Bridge of Strings inauguration, Pollack jumps at the opportunity to share his opinion on the matter. "I was behind the decision to cover them up, yes, of course, what else could I do?" he says. "But really, I don't understand you guys, the secular sector. Invitations were sent to the haredi public, and what did the producers do? A public rehearsal in an area full of haredim on their way home - even my son called me and asked, horrified, what was going on. "If you invite haredim to a ceremony, you have to respect them," he continues. "And when I said that young girls aged 13 are not innocent, I didn't mean God forbid, anything about their virtue, it's just that girls aged 13 are not little girls anymore and for us it is unacceptable [that they dress immodestly]. "By the way, has anyone bothered to point out who has attended most of the 40th reunification anniversary festivities? Who besides haredim and religious Zionists bothered to come at all? So our feelings have to be taken into account. And anyway, we didn't request that ridiculous kind of outfit, that was a sheer provocation of the secular people in the production. I am not an idiot, you know." Pollack points out that the city council has also taken into account the secular sector. "You tell me which restaurant, bar or coffee house we [the city council] have closed in Jerusalem in the past five years? Everything is open here on Shabbat and we don't say a word. So what's wrong with living here? There is no problem living here; the people who leave the city do it just because they cannot afford an apartment, that's all." But not everybody in the haredi community agrees. "This event at the bridge caused nothing but hatred of the haredim," says a haredi rabbi who asked not to be identified. "Today, our rabbis want calm, tranquility, they want to prevent tension with the secular sector. What's on their mind is the demographic issue, nothing else. So that event was superfluous and it caused harm." When asked about the prospect of Lupolianski once again being chosen as mayoral candidate by the haredi rabbis because of his appeal to the secular sector, the rabbi says: "Who says that Uri [Lupolianski] was [selected as a candidate by] our rabbis? He decided for himself, went to Rabbi [Yosef Shalom] Elyashiv to tell him about it and Rabbi Elyashiv answered: 'Good luck.' There wasn't any previous debate, any decision, nothing." "It is not certain that they [haredi rabbis] want to have another haredi mayor - this experience was not totally conclusive. The ideal would be a candidate like [former Jerusalem mayor Ehud] Olmert, someone who is not haredi but reaches an understanding with the haredi community - that was the best for us," says the rabbi. "Even [former Jerusalem mayor Teddy] Kollek was better for us than the present situation," he adds. "And now this event [Bridge of Strings inauguration] has caused only one thing: secular residents who hadn't even considered voting in the elections are busy getting organized to fight against the election of another haredi mayor, that's all. "And I know that even Porush hasn't yet made up his mind - he is checking the situation, and if he reaches the conclusion that the wind is very much against us, he will probably refuse." According to Porush, he has not yet decided whether he will be a candidate. In a statement, municipal spokesman Gideon Schmerling wrote, "The mayor is busy taking care of the public's needs and is not involved in politics and speculation." Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, head and founder of emergency rescue organization ZAKA, says that the situation is complicated. "We [the haredim] are now in a situation of [turmoil]. According to the written agreement, the candidacy belongs to Porush. But Lupolianski fell in love with the job, and hopes to stand again. He might become a default solution, since we are not going to find a candidate acceptable to all the different groups inside United Torah Judaism," explains Meshi-Zahav. "The 53 members [of the Agudat Yisrael council that chooses a candidate], who by the way have never been elected for the last 50 years, are not, to put it mildly, on good terms. The Boyan hassidim are out of the game - they have been expelled from the council because of their dissident position during the Betar Illit elections. And there is also MK [Ya'acov] Litzman's position: he would rather vote for a secular candidate than for Porush. Besides this, the mayor of Bnei Brak is a hassid, so for balance, we need a Litai [Lithuanian as mayor] for Jerusalem." Meshi-Zahav estimates that if Porush is the chosen candidate, the Gur and Boyan hassidim will leave their ballot slips blank. "They cannot vote for a secular candidate, so this is the least they will do. And Lupolianski is counting exactly on this scenario, which might turn him into the least-bad choice." In that case, says Meshi-Zahav, Pollack will immediately act. "Pollack has developed a great appetite for the job. He is trying to convince Porush's father that it would be a big mistake to take Meir Porush out of the Knesset, and that in that case, he should run for the position. But it is affecting the general atmosphere in haredi society and many rabbis think that maybe it wasn't such a good idea to have a haredi mayor after all. Lupolianski has been in the job almost five years and what has he done for us? Nothing! So maybe it's better to look for someone who, like Olmert back in 1993, made an agreement with us and served us much better than we do ourselves." City councillor M. (UTJ), who wished to remain anonymous, says Porush is highly regarded in the haredi milieu. "He is a genius, in Hebrew we call it an 'illui,' he has a phenomenal memory, he is highly creative, he is so different from Lupolianski," says M. "Pollack never tries to be 'nice,' he doesn't need to be loved by the secular public, he is not against them, but he doesn't forget who he sent by [the rabbis]. Lupolianski got himself into a mess with Havilio, and in fact, he is paralyzed and thus didn't bring us anything valuable. "The way I see it, the haredim will not, this time, gather en masse behind one haredi candidate. I don't think anyone will vote for a secular candidate, but [Jerusalem opposition leader Nir] Barkat, for example, might win by default from this situation. If in the past we said that we, the haredim, won thanks to the folly of the secular residents in this city, who couldn't back one candidate or didn't bother to go to vote, then this time I think that the secular sector might win thanks to our folly." WHEN ASKED who he would prefer as members of his coalition if he were elected mayor, Pollack doesn't hesitate. "Every list is already invited. Jerusalem needs all its strength. I will work for an across-the-board coalition, nothing less." "Pollack is aware of the housing shortages facing the haredi population," says Alalu. "The construction plans for Romema are a good example [of an initiative to address this problem], as is the agreement we recently reached in the committee to allow residential construction in the industrial zone of Talpiot for secular residents and in the industrial zone of Givat Shaul for haredim. "But on the ground, his alleged concern for housing for the Arab sector hasn't produced solutions. The Isawiya plan was [delayed], also because of the city engineer's opposition and all the conservation of the historical buildings in the city. He did very poorly there, there's nothing to be proud of." In response, Pollack says: "We submitted plans for constructing 2,000 units in Beit Hanina and Shuafat and a large chunk of the plans have already been approved. True, inside the Old City we cannot issue permits, there's a serious problem of land registration, including for Jews who want to live there." Pollack is convinced he can easily beat any other candidate, including Barkat. "I am not afraid of him [Barkat] nor of his [financial] means to run a campaign. I can put up a fight. Anyway, the more he talks, the more my chances grow because people realize he is not fit for the job." Pollack adds: "I have the support of 100 of the most important personalities - businessmen, architects, people who appreciate my work here at the committee." When asked who else's vote he could count on, Pollack says, "The Arabs, you'll see, they will come and vote. I'm the only one they trust here."