December 10, 2019

Voting for the Heart

Municipal elections will take place in Israel on Oct. 30. And you probably don’t care much. Why would you? 

Let me give you one possible reason: The mayoralty of Jerusalem is on the line.

Oh, Jerusalem. 

Two years ago, I was part of a team that conducted a comprehensive study on the connection between the Jews and Jerusalem. The results showed that Jews are still very attached to the city. They call it, for good reason, “the center of our history” and “the heart of the Jewish people.”

They also are concerned about where the city is going. Most of them say it’s headed in a negative direction. Those surveyed have two main concerns: First, they want Jerusalem to be a Jewish city and have a Jewish majority, and second, and they’re uncertain if such a majority isn’t in danger. They also have concerns about the “Charedization” of the city. Most Jews surveyed believe that the more frum the city becomes, the less pluralistic it is, and the less economically viable.

There you have it: If Jerusalem is important to you — and how could it not be? — and if you are worried about its direction — which most Jews are — you have a stake in at least one race in Israel’s municipal election. 

This race is interesting, tight, fitful. But battle lines in Jerusalem are almost always the same. The demographics of the city dictate a certain path. 

About one-third of the city’s residents are Arab. They don’t vote in the election although they have the right to. Why? It’s a political statement. They don’t want to recognize Israeli rule over Jerusalem. For 50 years, they have forfeited their ability to have a huge impact on the city’s direction. 

Of Jewish residents, about one-third are Charedis, another third are religious and traditional, and another third secular. More than half of Jerusalemites (53 percent) are observant. So it is no wonder that most of the significant candidates running for mayor are observant. And yet, the current mayor, Nir Barkat, was elected although he is secular. This gives hope to the secular candidate in this race, Ofer Berkowitz, a local activist and politician. 

With a population divided how it is in Jerusalem, there are four basic options: vote for a representative of the Charedi sector, of the religious sector, of the secular sector or for a candidate with the ability to convince the voters that he or she trumps identity politics. But that’s never easy. What usually happens is a complicated dance of deal-making. Candidates attempt to gain the support of the Charedis, who tend to vote as a unified bloc. And when one candidate succeeds in earning this bloc of voters, the ones who don’t have no choice but to run against Charedis “taking over” the city. 

These are the basic dynamics that we see in Jerusalem today. The Charedis toyed, as they almost always do, with the idea of fielding their own candidate. Then they decided, also as they almost always do, against it. It’s easier for them when a non-Charedi candidate is doing their bidding. So they gamble on Lion, a former director-general of the prime minister’s office. Lion failed to unseat Barkat five years ago. Lion is now trying to succeed him. 

The two other main candidates must fight each other for the other two-thirds of Jewish voters. Berkowitz does that by being the only secular in the race — the one candidate who did not even attempt to win the Charedi contest. His main rival, Minister Zeev Elkin of the Likud Party, is a non-Charedi religious Zionist. He will argue that the way to manage Jerusalem is neither by surrendering to Charedi power (that’s Lion’s turf) nor by waging war against Charedi power (that’s Berkowitz’s turf). Elkin wants to be the candidate of the center. 

Complications in this race are many, but the most important is that no candidate is likely to get the 40 percent vote needed to win in the first round. Thus, the current race is all about getting to the second round. Lion probably will be there, having won the most reliable bloc of one-third of the voters. As for the other two, and for the final outcome, all bets are off. Our worrying heart is still waiting for a surgeon.