Jerusalem’s pain

We’re living in a city where poverty is spreading like wildfire, but our mayor doesn’t see these destitute souls, nor does he hear them.

We’re midway through Nir Barkat’s term in office as mayor of Jerusalem. What he hasn’t done by now, he won’t be doing in the future, so what you see is what you get. And what do we actually get? What has he done since he took office, and how has he differed from the mayors who preceded him? Well, let’s start with the positive. There have been notable changes in the city center’s street culture.
Growing numbers of festivals and outdoor events have helped Barkat alleviate some of the boredom that enfolded the city in the past few years. Even his detractors can’t take those festivals away from him.
But besides that, well... there were festivals... and festivals...and more festivals. You can seek innovative ideas and processes, glimpses of renewal – but you are not likely to find any. There’s nothing new on the agenda, no fresh ideas, nothing that could get Jerusalem back on track; just more of the same, recycled processes that led Jerusalem to where it is – a failed city, devoid of vision, whose young people are voting with their feet, a city that can’t keep pace with the coastal plain.
Barkat boasts about “generating processes.” He’s generating the processes whose outcomes will be seen sometime down the road. It’s an impressive term, “generating processes,” but a deceptive one because it’s used to conceal stagnation, and treading water. That phrase hides the excuses he and his advisers are preparing for his likely defeat in the upcoming elections.
It’s a perfect excuse for someone whose milieu is crammed with figures, presentations and theoretical formulas. On paper, they’re always impressive, but in the field, they vanish. Though our mayor generates processes in his sixth-floor office on Safra Square, they never make it to the ground-floor because he hasn’t grasped that processes are actually generated from below. True processes aren’t nicely designed in air-conditioned offices with a crew of young assistants – the “mayor’s boys,” as they’re known in City Hall. City Hall isn’t a hi-tech firm, nor is it traded on the TASE. That’s why Barkat has failed to deal with the city’s acute problems.
WE’RE LIVING in a deprived city, where poverty is spreading like wildfire, with many citizens already beneath the poverty line or teetering on its edges.
But the mayor doesn’t sense them, he doesn’t hear them. That’s why Barkat just doesn’t get the chief problem assailing the city he heads. Yes, the mayor understands Jerusalem’s merchants, industrialists and hoteliers, he’s attentive to them, and helpful.
But not to the city’s critical mass – Rehov Stern, Rehov Nurit, Shmuel Hanavi and Neve Ya’acov. This isn’t in his field of vision, not to mention east Jerusalem.
I often think, well okay, so he doesn’t do much to help the poor, but why make their lives more difficult, for heaven’s sake? Take his strategy: “deeper billing.” It’s a smart term, from the Hebrew language-launderette, a codename for gross and violent intrusion into citizens’ pockets. It’s a policy that sees a relentless pursuit of people, using legal threat and action. In a council meeting on Thursday, it was revealed that in 2010 alone, the municipality had liens on more than 90,000 bank accounts! I can personally attest to the humiliation involved in this process generated by Barkat from his sixth-floor office.
Who are the people suffering? The ones who live in the poorest neighborhoods of this city, of course.
Yes, some affluent people evade paying city tax, and they must be dealt with properly. But if the mayor took time to analyze who makes up most of those defaulting on their bills, he would see that they’re the ones who barely make it to the end of the month.
They don’t pay city tax not because they’re delinquents, but because month after month, they wrack their brains to find ways to pay the rent, the mortgage, dental treatment, winter coats for the kids.
They don’t pay because they have nothing to pay with. Did he ever ask himself whose bank accounts are being seized? Could he look them in the eye? At this midpoint of his term, I know the answer – no. In the same way I don’t understand the worldview of the top decile, he can’t understand the lower deciles – most citizens of Jerusalem.
He would have been a great mayor of Herzliya Pituah, Ramat Aviv Gimmel, or Ramat Hasharon. But Jerusalem? The countdown has started toward his replacement by a haredi mayor in the next elections. His name will likely be forgotten, because in the end, he will have left no mark on Jerusalem. When the hubbub of festivals dies away, he'll find that he left no legacy.
Of the promises he made, only buzz and hype remain.
As someone who loves Jerusalem and feels the city’s pain daily, I can only express my sorrow over the missed opportunity.
The writer is a field coordinator for the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD) and a member of the Jerusalem City Council for Meretz.