Center Field: Thank you Nir Barkat, for restoring Jerusalem’s glow

A golden glow has returned to a booming Jerusalem, with improving infrastructure, exciting cultural happenings, world-class sports events and happier residents.

The first-ever two-day Jerusalem Formula Peace Road Show (photo credit: Reuters)
The first-ever two-day Jerusalem Formula Peace Road Show
(photo credit: Reuters)
A golden glow has returned to a booming Jerusalem, with improving infrastructure, exciting cultural happenings, world-class sports events and happier residents. We Jerusalemites feel more confidence in the air and see less garbage on the streets. We hear the sounds of construction tools renewing our old-new city, with sketches outside the sites giving a taste of modern wonders to come. We delight in new projects like “The First Station” and the Railway Park, once-embarrassing dumps transformed into choice destinations where religious and non-religious, Jews and Arabs, mix casually, happily, safely.
Unfortunately, the joy in our hearts is competing with nervous butterflies in many stomachs. This Jerusalem renaissance’s spark-plug – and symbol – Mayor Nir Barkat is up for re-election. We desperately want him to win – and fear for our city’s future if he loses.
Regular readers of this column will note my enthusiastic endorsement of Mayor Barkat’s re-election comes despite occasional criticisms. But now, looking around, I am awash in evidence of Mayor Barkat’s success, and regret my earlier impatience. Jerusalem is emerging from the doldrums and starting to soar.
Since Barkat became mayor, true to his first name, which means to plow or cultivate a field, he has made his beloved city flourish. Comparing today to four years ago, the number of new jobs created annually has doubled as the number of business license inquiries jumped by 42 percent. Helping that has been a drop in waits for new licenses from 219 days to 175 days – still too long but a significant boost nevertheless.
Culturally, the number of activities has increased by 300%, thanks to a quadrupling of municipal support for fabulous events such as the Jerusalem light festival, which illuminates different corners of the Old City at night, and Jerusalem’s Season of Culture, a smorgasbord of artistic delights. Such activities help explain the surge in internal tourism, with a jump of 36% in the number of Israelis from outside the city spending nights in Jerusalem hotels.
Mayor Barkat understands that Jerusalem is both an international treasure and a complex city in a dynamic, diverse democracy that must serve its Jewish, Christian and Muslim residents.
His administration has built 174 new classrooms for Arab students, named 86 previously unnamed streets, and started 30 new road projects in the Arab sector.
These advances are part of a broader infrastructure initiative that has seen the roadwork budget increase sevenfold while tripling the sidewalk budget.
In fact, Mayor Barkat’s accomplishments are ruining that great Israeli pastime of grousing about the declining city and its sclerotic bureaucracy.
Yes, more work remains. I still have not secured a crosswalk at the dangerous Emek Refaim-and-Cremieux intersection.
I still believe Jerusalem homeowners should receive a blanket amnesty for all the alterations made to their houses over decades, provided they disclose fully, allowing for safety inspections and paying full arnona, or property tax – because all these improvisations create a legal gray zone undercutting respect for the rule of law.
I still advocate viewing foreign owners of “ghost houses” as friends, not foes, who should be invited to contribute to a special fund that would build up the schools in their local neighborhoods, based on the (usually higher) property taxes in their home cities. And I still think the municipal education system can teach our students better (even as I note the 5.6% growth in national religious and secular students in the past four years after a decade and a half of plummets). But that also explains why Mayor Barkat needs a second term – to build on his successes and expand his agenda.
Jerusalemites can be proud that their mayor is a true Zionist, a smart visionary, a first-class mensch, and that increasingly rare species, an honest politician. His clean cut look reflects his spotless record in an age of too much corruption, while the decent vibe he generates suggests that nice guys can finish first, even in our cynical times.
This October, Jerusalem-lovers who vote for Barkat will not only be voting for this indefatigable mayor who has proved himself these past few years, we will also be voting against the petty provincial politics that demoralized Jerusalem in the years before his election.
We must free Jerusalem from the ultra-Orthodox power brokers who too frequently view the city as theirs exclusively rather than Israel’s capital, the Jewish people’s heart and soul, a center of world religions, and a modern city that must function smoothly.
Let me be clear: my issue is not with “the haredim” en masse but with a clique of political thugs more interested in advancing their own interests than in making Jerusalem bloom.
A vote for Barkat is a vote against such bullying and for Barkat’s bridge building.
It is a vote against using city politics to score points nationally or to milk the municipal coffers and for elevating the city to shine internationally. It is a vote against a politics of demagoguery and division, pitting one sector against another, and for a politics of unity in Barkat’s coalition of decency.
It is a vote against imposing a medieval sensibility on this ancient city and a vote for cultivating a modern sophistication while defending the city’s traditionalism.
It is a vote for all Jerusalemites, religious, secular and haredi; Jewish, Arab and Christian; liberal, centrist, and conservative; young, middle-aged and old.
As a recent oleh, a rookie Jerusalemite, I will proudly cast my first municipal vote for Nir Barkat – whom I have never met – for my sake, for my kids’ sake, for my new city’s sake. I desperately hope we all mobilize to fund his campaign, get out the vote, and re-elect him by the wide victory margin he has earned.
The author is professor of history at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Engaging Israel Research Fellow. His latest book, Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight Against Zionism as Racism, was just published by Oxford University Press.
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