No one, not even Nir Barkat himself, was deluded into thinking that the election of a secular mayor after five and a half years under an ultra-Orthodox one would turn Jerusalem into Tel Aviv or even Haifa. The most optimistic predictions by Barkat's campaign and the excellent young people who joined to shake the secular Jewish majority out of its apathy spoke of stopping "haredization." They spoke of investing in non-religious culture along with opening mikvehs and synagogues, and giving proper expression to urban life for the majority of the city's inhabitants - the non-religious and moderate Orthodox.
The real struggle is over Jerusalem's image and character. It is being waged on one side by those who want the city to have a modern face, even as the rights and lifestyles of ultra-Orthodox groups are strictly observed in their neighborhoods and other agreed-on areas. On the other side are those who want to give Jerusalem a unified ultra-Orthodox appearance. But even such a city can only exist on secular foundations. That is how a modern, spectacular bridge came into being, the most expensive ever seen around here: so that young women from the municipal dance company Mehola could perform on it, covered from head to toe for reasons of modesty.
The Chords Bridge example is not coincidental. The events involving this bridge's inauguration, which highlighted the distortion in secular/ultra-Orthodox coexistence in all its ludicrousness, seem to have played a key role in Barkat's election. Secular Jerusalemites have simply had it. Even quite a few from the national religious camp could not see themselves identifying with the extreme ultra-Orthodoxy of mayoral candidate Meir Porush, so the city rejoiced on election day.
That feeling of euphoria has persisted somewhat since then. In media interviews Barkat says there is a feeling that something good is happening in Jerusalem - as proof he had the girls from Mehola dance in the streets in their actual leotards, without worrying about impurity. He also says former Jerusalemites are asking for help to move back to the city. Secular residents are also reporting winds of hope. The many bars, restaurants and coffee shops around the Safra Square parking garage are open on Saturdays and nights, giving central Jerusalem the feel of a big city.
But this is not a matter of entertainment places opening, or inexpensive housing and new jobs that the mayor promised. It's about the possibility to be optimistic, for which all the secular journalists have come out to fight for the non-religious mayor, even those whose political opinions directly oppose those of the right-wing Barkat.
Feelings are a delicate matter, and the wind could shift quickly if Barkat is not careful. It seems his main weakness is the tendency to shoot first and ask questions later, if we can judge from the way he is handling the Safra parking lot affair. His supporters excuse his decision to give in and close the parking garage for two weeks as a tactical approach, but the Jerusalem mayor has not yet been born who has managed to beat the ultra-Orthodox at tactics.
Meanwhile, Barkat's tactic has caused the city council members from United Torah Judaism to join the struggle; they had been neutral but now fear appearing to care less about the Sabbath than the Eda Haredit. Other parties on the city council might join in and turn this unnecessary fight, which does not even have religious justification, into a real war.
The city's secular public seemed to be spoiling for a fight on Saturday; all they needed was a leader. It will be a pity if too much focus on tactics and catering to those who did not vote for Barkat make him forget he needs to be the strategist for the whole war.
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now