Vocal minority

Nir Barkat addresses the concerns of young, secular Jerusalemites.

On a recent cool night in Talpiot, about 40 young Jerusalemites gathered in an upscale apartment to talk about the future of their city with opposition leader Nir Barkat, who is gearing up for another mayoral run in November. Barkat, a self-made businessman who ran as an independent in the last mayoral elections, sought feedback from his base: young, professional Jerusalemites, the majority of whom are secular. Though those in attendance represented Barkat's target demographic group, they didn't let their potential candidate off lightly. One participant raised the issue of Barkat's electability in a city whose haredi population growth has outnumbered that of any other demographic group in recent years. "We're all here because we agree with you," the young man said. "You don't have to convince us that Jerusalem needs to get on a new track. But how do you expect to get others to vote for you?" Although many secular Jerusalemites feel marginalized in a city that has become increasingly haredi, Barkat must also secure at least some of the religious vote to win the election in the fall. He answered the question by addressing a public misconception of him. "For some reason, people think I'm left-wing," said Barkat, who sponsored an advertising campaign against dividing Jerusalem in the lead-up to last year's Annapolis conference. "Maybe it's because I'm successful, secular and Ashkenazi. But in reality I'm right-of-center. After the last mayoral elections, Likudnikim began to see and realize this. But I understand that it's an issue, and I want to swing people." When asked if his right-wing stance on Jerusalem might alienate his base, the secular Left, he answered, "The two sides don't interfere with one another. My plan to keep Jerusalem united speaks to the secular left-wing as well, because I believe that the plans I have laid forth for the city will not be possible if Jerusalem is divided." During the evening, Barkat also addressed many issues that concern young people in the capital. "People in Jerusalem feel as though they don't have much to do here," Barkat said. "They love the city and want to stay here, but find it hard socially, they find it hard to get a job and to find an apartment." Barkat spoke in particular about the attendees' housing concerns. "The city hasn't been managed correctly," Barkat said. "In the last five years, it has become a status thing for Jews from all over the world to buy apartments in Jerusalem, which I'm not against - I'm all for. But it's made it harder for students and young people to find reasonably priced apartments." Barkat outlined his plans to deal with the problem, including new building projects that cater to students and young Jerusalemites, along with apartment-sharing ideas that involve absentee owners. Many in the young crowd also expressed their frustration at watching their hometown slowly transform into a place where they no longer felt comfortable. "I remember the way Jerusalem used to be," said one young woman. "There were places to go out, things to do. Now I have to go to Tel Aviv. There's nowhere for young secular people to go anymore. You're talking about changes over the coming years, and I'm not sure I see myself here in one." "I think the next elections are our last chance," Barkat replied. "We don't have an alternative."