Think About It: Some thoughts on tomorrow’s local elections

As a Jerusalemite, since the beginning of the campaign I have been impressed by the pleasant, open personality of the haredi candidate Deitch, and still prefer Ze’ev Elkin to Moshe Leon.

Jerusalem Chords Bridge (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Jerusalem Chords Bridge
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Not long ago, as I was waiting for a doctor’s appointment in one of the haredi neighborhoods in Jerusalem, I started to chat with the receptionist, a 72-year-old hassidic woman with whom I have become friendly over the years, asking her for whom she is going to vote in the municipal elections.
“You know, we are instructed what to vote, and we have been told to vote for Yossi Deitch (the haredi candidate). But even if I could choose who to vote for, I wouldn’t vote for Gabai.” I pointed out that Gabai is the chairman of the Labor Party and is not running in the municipal elections, and that she must be referring to Ofer Berkowitz – the youngest (35 years old) and only secular candidate for mayor in Jerusalem – who has no known political association.
More worrying than the phenomenon of voters who voluntarily forego their right to choose who to vote for, is the phenomenon of voters who have no problem voting in local elections for candidates who are under investigation for criminal offenses, or who in the past were convicted on criminal charges. It was first taken note of in the case of Shmuel Rechtman, an MK from Liberal Party in Gahal (the predecessor of the Likud) and mayor of Rehovot, who in 1959 was sentenced to imprisonment for bribery. Before he was released, someone checked his chances of being reelected as mayor of Rehovot after his release and it was found that he would win by a landslide. Cynics joke that elections for mayor or head of a local council are actually elections for the person who will have a free hand to take bribes in the course of the following five years.
Regarding the elections in the three major cities – Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa – the first phenomenon I mentioned is prevalent in a significant manner, only in the first. Whatever one might think of the various candidates in the three cities, to the best of my knowledge none of them has ever been subject of a criminal investigation.
All three cities are mixed Jewish-Arab cities, and in Haifa and Tel Aviv, Arabs are invariably elected to the city council. In Jerusalem most of the Arab inhabitants with the right to vote choose to stay at home. The vast majority of the Arabs in Jerusalem hold blue identity cards but are not Israeli citizens, and refuse to formally recognize the unification of the city under Israeli sovereignty, which participation in the municipal elections would imply. However, the number of Arabs expected to vote in Jerusalem tomorrow might be somewhat higher than in the past, due to the fact that there is an Arab candidate running for the Council, Ramadan Dabash, from Tsur Baher. If the Arabs, who constitute just under 40% of the population of Jerusalem would all vote, the make-up of the municipality, and the identity of the mayor, would be completely different.
At the beginning of the election campaign, it was believed that in liberal-left Tel Aviv and Haifa the incumbent mayors – Ron Huldai, and Yona Yahav – would be reelected for a fifth and forth term respectively. However, though this might still be the outcome, both face some serious competition - Huldai from his deputy, the 38-year-old Assaf Zamir, and Yahav from the 48-year-old Labor candidate Dr. Einat Kalisch-Rotem. Kalisch-Rotem might prove to be the first woman to be elected mayor in one of the three major cities. In Jerusalem there is no incumbent, since Mayor Nir Barkat has decided to try his luck in national politics – in the hornet’s nest. We are no wiser today as to who might win in Jerusalem than we were several weeks ago.
As a Jerusalemite, since the beginning of the campaign I have been impressed by the pleasant, open personality of the haredi candidate Deitch, and still prefer Ze’ev Elkin to Moshe Leon. However, after Elkin’s election staff admitted that they were responsible for the notices that accused Berkowitch of being an “extreme left-winger” and of being connected to the New Israel Fund – both meant pejoratively – I am no longer sure I shall vote for Elkin.
Anyone who considers left-wingers to be unworthy candidates just because of their political affiliation rather than who they are, is undermining Israel’s democratic system. In a day and age when President Reuven Rivlin is pejoratively accused of being a left-winger just because he insists on remaining a decent right-wing liberal, this trend is extremely dangerous.
As to the New Israel Fund, it is a legal and legitimate organization that financially supports many worthy causes – all of them legal and legitimate – both in the Israeli and Palestinian societies. Some people might not like some of the projects and organizations that the NIF supports; that is okay. I strongly dislike some of the right-wing NGOs that concentrate on demonizing and delegitimizing all left-wingers and all human rights organizations. However, that does not lead me to demonize and delegitimize those who finance them.
I do not know who finances the Forum Haziburi (the Public Forum), established and run by Itai Granek, which these days calls upon the (Jewish) voters not to vote for “candidates recommended by the New Israel Fund” (to the best of my knowledge the Fund does not engage in recommending candidates), which it associates with supporting “a process of detaching the State of Israel from its Jewish identity.” The Public Forum does not publish its financial sources, but Itai Granek, a radical religious activist, was in the past the director general of the Association of Centers for Deepening the Jewish Identity, Zehut, which inter alia operates in secular schools with financing from the Ministry of Education.
It is the Public Forum that is responsible for the video clip running in the social media, which shows an imaginary school named after Yasser Arafat, in the state if Israelstine, established with the financial support of the New Israel Fund. The year is 2048. In the classroom hang pictures of Prime Minister Ahmed Tibi, and President Zahava Gal-On. The teacher, who looks like a Soviet commissar, asks her pupils: “Can anyone tell us what was the previous name of the state and why?” One “brave” pupil answers, “The State of Israel, named after the People of Israel mentioned in the Bible.” The shocked teacher scolds the pupil.
“The Bible? You have this book? You are a criminal! We worked very hard to outlaw this book in order to enable the establishment of the new state.” At the end, a subtitle appears stating: “Without your noticing, the New Israel Fund is involved in the elections in your town, in order to create a new Israel.”
I know, there are also video clips, for which individual secular candidates in the local elections are responsible, which demonize the haredim, and show them as seeking to gain control over the lives of the seculars. Such a clip ran until recently in Ashdod. These clips are as despicable as that created by the Public Forum and should be condemned. However, the one on Israelstine, is much worse, and is the sort of incitement that 23 years ago led to the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
Though Elkin might not have been aware of what his campaign team were up to, the fact that he did not dissociate himself from the comments about Berkowitz and the New Israel Fund after his team admitted being responsible for them, has made me wonder whether, on a matter of principle, I can vote for him as I had planned to do. Probably not.