In a haze of post-Obamania deflation this week, I turned for a political fix to Jerusalem and the hotly contested mayoral election taking place tomorrow. For a city beset by race wars, poverty and a middle class exodus, it can be a grim business, but not without flashes of color. Today’s Washington Post offers a sober rundown of how the contest reflects the city’s ortho-secular culture wars. But, for more local analysis and also a whiff of fringe politics circa 1973, inhale the latest on Jerusalemite.net.
If London can elect offbeat politicos like “Red Ken” Livingstone and blustering Boris Johnson, why shouldn’t Jerusalem enjoy its rainbow-hued candidates? Jerusalemite offers a Q&A with Dan Birron, long-locked pub owner and Green Leaf Party candidate (you read that right: not “Green,” but “Green Leaf“)—sort of Ralph Nader meets Richard Branson meets Jerry Brown.
Birron’s not the only candidate with noteworthy hair. A front-runner, the extremely bearded Meir Porush, a Knesset member from the Haredi United Torah Judaism party, recently assured followers that it will take only 10 years to eliminate secular candidates from all Israeli mayoral contests, not just Jerusalem’s. When questioned about it afterward, Porush at first denied the remarks, which had been delivered in Yiddish—and secretly taped—at a black-hat rally, reports Jpost. For me, the story evoked flashbacks to Obama’s notoriously riffing about bitter Pennsylvania gun lovers at a private fundraiser in San Francisco. But, when it comes to “clinging” to religion, even the most conservative Pennsylvanians take a back pew to Jerusalemites.
About a third of Jerusalem’s 500,000 Jewish residents are Haredi, or ultra-Orthodox. Another 250,000 residents are Palestinian and have been instructed, as in every municipal poll since 1967, to boycott the balloting. The city’s chief Muslim cleric declared participation haram (which loosely translates as treif), and an Abbas staffer this week went so far this week as to threaten punishment for any Palestinians who vote.
Porush’s main rival is secular Zionist Nir Barkat, a software entrepreneur and city council member with an edge in the polls. Despite Barkat’s obvious appeal to the non-religious, the liberal Ha’aretz newspaper denounced him for backing construction of a new Jewish neighborhood near the Arab village of Anata, below the Jewish French Hill community in the sector many call “Arab East Jerusalem.” The planned “East Gate” neighborhood would tie central Jerusalem that much more closely to the controversial Jewish settlement of Ma’Ale Adumim, while interposing Jewish development on the stretch between Ramallah and Bethlehem.
Barkat’s clearly hoping to peel modern-Orthodox votes from Porush, according to blogger Brian Blum on Isreality; Blum accuses the newspaper of just “giving up on Jerusalem” altogether by endorsing Porush as the logical alternative to Barkat. To Tel Avivians focused only on dual statehood, Blum charges, Jerusalem’s no longer a city but a mere bargaining chip: “The quality of life in Jerusalem can go to hell, Haaretz is saying, as long as the next mayor doesn’t stoop to interfere with the inevitable outcome of Oslo and Annapolis.”
There is a third alternative to Porush and Barkat, beyond the numerous small-party fringe candidates like Birron: Transplanted Russian arms trader Arcadi Gaydamak has turned himself into a household name in Israel by spreading his wealth around in times and places of distress, and making sure the newspapers know about it, as when he erected giant tent cities during the Second Lebanon War of 2006 to house refugees from Katyusha shelling up north. In spring 2007, when Sderot came under intensive Qassam fire from Gaza, the oligarch loaded up dozens of buses to take residents out of the city and put them up in hotels out of the rockets’ reach. Never mind that he’s an obvious p.r. hound, that he barely speaks Hebrew, or that France is trying him in absentia for selling arms to Angola; to many beleaguered Israelis, Gaydamak’s a hero.
Birron photo courtesy of Jerusalemite.net. Porush poster photo by Rahel Sharon.