Struggle over religion fuels Tuesday’s Jerusalem mayoral election


McClatchy Foreign Staff

Residents of Jerusalem, a politically contested city that’s a mosaic of cultural tribes, will select a mayor Tuesday in an election that pits secular Israelis against ultra-Orthodox Jews and rightists against leftists, with Palestinian residents mostly watching from the sidelines

.The vote, part of nationwide municipal elections, resonates with all the political and cultural conflicts that roil Israeli society.

At the heart of the contest is a struggle for re-election by the incumbent, Nir Barkat, a former high-tech entrepreneur who’s pushed an agenda of boosting tourism, creating jobs and promoting an array of cultural activities to stem a flight of young secular residents to other cities as the ultra-Orthodox population grows.

The election reflects a culture clash between strictly Orthodox Jews, about 30 percent of the city’s population, and more liberal Israelis over the character of Jerusalem, which in recent years has seen its population decrease as secular Jews flee.

Ultra-Orthodox voters hope to regain control over crucial levers of power and patronage in city hall.

Palestinians, who make up more than a third of the city’s population, are boycotting the vote, as they have for years. They view the Israeli municipality as part of a foreign occupation of their neighborhoods in East Jerusalem.

Barkat’s tenure in office, following an ultra-Orthodox predecessor, has seen a surge of cultural activities, ranging from street parties with live bands downtown to a marathon and race car rally on the city streets. He’s opened a restaurant-gallery-market complex in the city’s former Ottoman-era train station – the complex is open on Saturdays, the Jewish Sabbath – and he’s created a new jogging and biking path along an abandoned railway line in the south of the city.

Barkat also has supported Jewish settlers who’ve moved into homes in Jerusalem’s Palestinian neighborhoods, counting on their religious nationalist supporters to form a crucial swing vote that could help him overcome the political clout of the ultra-Orthodox. He openly advocates keeping all of Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty, declaring, “Jerusalem can never be divided.”

The challenger, Moshe Leon, an accountant and well-connected political operator who moved to Jerusalem recently, is religious and hails from a suburb of Tel Aviv. He was drafted to challenge Barkat by former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, the blunt-spoken ultra-nationalist leader of a party that represents Russian-speaking immigrants, and by Aryeh Deri, the leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, which represents Jews of Middle Eastern and North African origin.

The two political power brokers hope to leverage electoral support from the ultra-Orthodox along with backing from Russian-speaking voters to recapture city hall.

Recent polls suggest that Barkat, who rode to victory in 2008 on a secular backlash against the policies of predecessor Uri Lupolianski, may win a second term, but he’ll need to turn out the vote among secular residents concerned about increasing religious influence in their city.

The austere beliefs and lifestyles of the ultra-Orthodox have created a unique set of election issues, with some parties that are vying for seats on the city council promising that more theaters and restaurants will be open on Saturdays, that efforts by ultra-Orthodox extremists to ban women’s images from public signs and billboards will fail and that more community activities will be organized in public spaces, particularly on weekends, so that secular residents will find alternatives to the traditional Sabbath strictures that shut down businesses and bus service on Saturdays.

A billboard that the leftist Meretz party put up in the trendy German Colony neighborhood in southern Jerusalem – long considered a liberal bastion in an increasingly rightist, religious city – proclaims that the “secular neighborhood will remain secular.”

Despite his strategic alliance with the religious nationalists, Barkat, who’s secular, represents the hope of many liberal voters to keep the Jewish part of Jerusalem vibrant, tolerant and culturally eclectic despite the religious and ethnic tensions that permeate the city.

Palestinians aren’t expected to turn out in any significant numbers Tuesday, underlining their rejection of the Israeli-run municipality and Barkat’s pro-settlement stance. None serves on the city council.

The crucial question is whether the ultra-Orthodox will vote as a bloc for Leon or split their vote, rewarding Barkat for the financial support he’s given their institutions, said Shahar Ilan, former religious affairs reporter for the newspaper Haaretz.

“If there is a split among the ultra-Orthodox, Barkat’s chances are good,” said Ilan, who’s now vice president of Hiddush, a nonprofit group that advocates religious freedom and equality. “All in all, Barkat has been a quite reasonable mayor and the city has been pretty quiet. He’s no pyromaniac” – meaning he avoids needless provocation – “and he’s running a coalition that includes everyone. He delivers the goods.”

Greenberg is a McClatchy special correspondent.

Read more World Wires stories from the Miami Herald

Tokyo, Japan

    On upcoming trip, Obama will try to pivot to Asia - again

    President Barack Obama will leave Tuesday for a four-nation trip to Asia, looking to recharge a focus on the region, an ambitious initiative that’s been sidetracked by domestic politics and international conflicts elsewhere.

Residents reenact Jesus Christ's crucifixion on a hilltop in the Petare shanty town during Holy Week in Caracas, Venezuela, Friday, April 18, 2014. Holy Week commemorates the last week of the earthly life of Jesus culminating in his crucifixion on Good Friday and his resurrection on Easter Sunday.

    AP Photos: Latam Catholics pay tribute to Christ

    Roman Catholics throughout Latin America and the Caribbean are paying tribute to Jesus Christ in Holy Week traditions that go back centuries and range from religious processions to self-flagellation.

A man talks with a woman after a tree fell on his car at the Narvarte neighborhood after a strong earthquake jolted Mexico City, Friday, April 18, 2014. The powerful magnitude-7.2 earthquake shook central and southern Mexico but there were no early reports of major damage or casualties.

    Magnitude-7.2 earthquake shakes Mexican capital

    A powerful magnitude-7.2 earthquake shook central and southern Mexico on Friday, sending panicked people into the streets. Some walls cracked and fell, but there were no reports of major damage or casualties.

Miami Herald

Join the

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category