My Word: One city, one vote, one world

Local elections take place all over the world, but most of them are just that: local; in J'lem, on the other hand, votes can have a global impact.

Voters Jerusalem elections 2013 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Voters Jerusalem elections 2013 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Local elections take place all over the world, but most of them are just that: local. The votes in Jerusalem, on the other hand, can have a global impact.
Mark Sofer, a former ambassador in India and now head of the Jerusalem Foundation, likes to recall an incident involving a violent protest in Kashmir some years ago following an item in a newspaper there concerning Jewish construction in east Jerusalem. The news story wasn’t even true, but the rumor evidently snowballed as it traveled around the globe, and was enough to cause the rioting.
“It only goes to show that the repercussions of events in Jerusalem can be felt thousands of miles away,” he says. “News from cities like London, that wouldn’t even make it to the inner pages of a paper anywhere else, can have an impact when it’s about Jerusalem.”
Such is the power of the city. And – since I first heard him tell the story at the launch of the Jerusalem Press Club earlier this year – I might add: Such is the power of the press.
Jewish tradition speaks of two Jerusalems: The spiritual Yerushalayim shel ma’ala, the heavenly “Jerusalem of Above,” and the earthly Yerushalayim shel mata, “Jerusalem of Below.”
The two Jerusalems were in the minds of those of us who bothered to vote. (The turnout was a pathetically low 35 percent.) The voting itself also had Jerusalem’s special style.
As my father noted, there aren’t many cities where a policeman tasked with keeping order outside the polling station would take a break to muster a quorum for Jewish evening prayers.
There is something uplifting about such spontaneous gatherings, uniting as they do people from different parties, of different ages and different walks of life. Everybody wants the best for the city. And most are willing to look to both the mayor and a far Higher Authority to help.
When I left the polling station, however, I was struck by a far less appealing sight: Holyland.
The monstrous tower block doesn’t so much scrape the sky as make the heavens weep, it is so out of place in Jerusalem’s landscape.
One journalist calls it the “building that is its own indictment.”
The prayers showed one aspect of what concerns us in Jerusalem, the character of the Holy City; Holyland is a symbol of another issue on everyone’s mind: what physical shape Jerusalem should take.
Even before former mayor Ehud Olmert was indicted for possible corruption in the Holyland case, a case that is still dragging out in court, the Holyland complex served to remind us that what you build today can continue to haunt you tomorrow.
Holyland adds insult to aesthetic injury by not even providing a solution to the desperately important need for affordable housing.
For that, too, is on our list of earthly concerns, along with issues like garbage collection, the quality of roads and transport, the state of the city’s schools and the size of classes.
True to the peculiar style of local elections, Jerusalem’s two main candidates, incumbent mayor Nir Barkat and newcomer Moshe Lion, naturally drew up very similar lists of issues they would tackle.
Well, what candidate for city hall is going to say: “I don’t want more affordable homes, better employment opportunities, smaller classes, or improved welfare and community services. And I definitely don’t want clean streets.”
Incidentally, when it comes to the state of Jerusalem’s sidewalks – a reminder that cleanliness and Godliness do not always go hand-in-hand – I don’t blame the mayor. I blame the people who litter.
The day after the election, as Barkat and his supporters let out a sigh of relief and Lion and his men licked their wounded pride, the greatest amount of litter was the piles of discarded paper ballot slips and campaign material that lay strewn on the ground.
LION, WHO only made the move to the capital in recent months, despite having worked here for years, brought a new dimension to a campaign in which previously Barkat was considered the only real candidate.
He reminded me, in a way, of Russian-born billionaire Arkadi Gaydamak, who ran against successful hi-tech entrepreneur Barkat in the 2008 elections and in an effort to be elected spent a great deal of his already dwindling fortune buying debt-ridden Bikur Cholim Hospital and Beitar Football Club (both of which he was forced to part from afterwards).
“You can’t buy votes. Jerusalem is not for sale,” even the die-hard Beitar fans who dominate my neighborhood said at the time. And the sight of Lion wrapped in the club’s yellow-and-black scarf at this week’s match against arch rivals Hapoel Tel Aviv didn’t make the long-standing resident of Givatayim any less of an outsider in many Jerusalemites’ eyes.
It was no secret that Lion was backed by Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman and Shas politician Arye Deri (the former facing ongoing charges of corruption and the latter making a political comeback after serving a prison sentence).
Together they made strange bedfellows: A large component of Liberman’s constituents are stridently secular Russianspeaking immigrants; Deri’s following is among the Sephardi, ultra-Orthodox and poor, while Lion is modern Orthodox.
They were motivated, it seems, by an attempt to use the Jerusalem race to alter the balance in national coalition politics.
Some commentators saw the race in Jerusalem as running along “ethnic” lines, with Lion making an effort to reach out to the poorer neighborhoods. But the fact that Deri, Liberman and Lion joined forces in the first place belies this divide (as does the changing demographic composition of the streets where they campaigned, for that matter).
The major difference this year was the change in voting patterns among the ultra- Orthodox. Unlike previous elections, there was no mass support of one candidate over another by haredim following the instructions of their rabbi leaders.
It’s possible that Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox see the modern Orthodox, including Lion, as more of a threat to their communities than the secular, given how hard it is to explain to their youth that there are religious Jews who overwhelmingly serve in the army, participate in the workforce and still find time for Torah study.
Part of Lion’s campaign, absurdly, tried to paint Barkat as a rabid left-winger who would divide Jerusalem. Arab residents, however, continued to vote with their feet, as in the past, largely staying away from the polls. Many are upset by Barkat’s plans for a tourism park in the Silwan neighborhood – plans that have been widely reported in the world press and that could cost some hapless Kashmiri his life.
Among Lion’s electioneering that most missed the mark, however, were the posters stating that Barkat “would turn Jerusalem into Paris, New York or London.” One man’s threat is another man’s promise, it seems.
The intention was to draw attention to Barkat’s bombastic sporting and cultural events – including the Formula One show and the Jerusalem Marathon – and present them as a danger to Jerusalem’s spiritual side.
Barkat, indeed, cannot afford to be complacent following his reelection.
Late, legendary mayor Teddy Kollek once told me that no job was harder or more rewarding than his.
Barkat now has another chance to leave his mark on the city and far beyond. That he succeeds in building something more lasting, more positive and more unifying than “a Holyland” or “a Disneyland” should be in all our prayers. Even those said in New York, London and Paris – not to mention Kashmir.
The writer is the editor of The International Jerusalem Post.
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