Babyfaced but Bold: Jerusalem's Up-and-coming Party Wins Big

Jerusalem's elections went largely as anticipated - except for one refreshing surprise.

The one big surprise of last week’s municipal elections in the capital was the formidable showing of the Hitorerut party, whose chairman is only 30.

Jerusalem voted last week, and everything went largely as predicted: a popular incumbent mayor was elected, and an unfamiliar challenger from greater Tel Aviv was sent home.

But one party staged a surprising success, quadrupling its representation on the 31-seat city council from one seat to four: Hitorerut B’Yerushalayim – literally, Awakening in Jerusalem, sometimes translated as “Wake Up Jerusalem.” No other party can claim such a substantial gain, particularly notable as it only entered the political stage in the 2008 elections, in partnership with Rachel Azaria’s Yerushalmim party, from which it later split.

At the time, Hitorerut founder Ofer Berkovitch was only 26, and he managed to attract young secular Jerusalemites – among them many students – who were fed up with a city that seemed to be growing less and less livable to anyone who wasn’t Orthodox and affluent. Now, at 30, he has managed to broaden his base of support well beyond the young and secular, connecting to moderate religious circles, people in the business community, and many average Jerusalemites who have been impressed with the activism for which they’ve become famous.

Hitorerut’s No. 2, Hanan Rubin, is a 31-year-old kippah-wearing father of four children; his American immigrant wife is pregnant with their fifth. Rubin will be the oldest member of Hitorerut on the city council – Einat Bar is 26 and Elad Malka is 28. Berkovitch says its likely he’s going to city’s youngest deputy mayor – he’s on good terms with Mayor Nir Barkat and signed a vote sharing agreement with him, stipulating that if one had extra votes that didn’t quite lead to another seat on the council, they would give them to the other – a standard in Israel politics when parties are ideologically close to each other.

Berkovitch and Rubin sat down to talk about what they think went right at the café of their choice, Café de Paris in Rehavia. At one table sat haredim, at others sat the stylish secular denizens of the neighborhood who used to frequent the same café when it was Restobar until earlier this year, and Moment before that. The scene in the café, and the successful partnership that started just over five years ago when a mutual friend introduced Berkovitch and Rubin, seemed to turn on its head the doomsaying that occurred when Restobar closed in March after the building's owners refused to renew the lease unless the establishment began observing Shabbat. (Hitorerut organized a protest at the time, demanding that Jerusalem remain pluralist and that some restaurants and other entertainment venues be allowed to stay open on the Sabbath.)

“It’s kind of a myth that we’re a student movement,” says Berkovitch, who toughens up what would be a baby-faced visage by leaving himself a three-day-old scruffy beard. “We have a lot of businessmen supporting us, and a lot of older people. When we’re trying to control the price of apartments, that’s not just for young people. When we’re fighting for the image of Jerusalem as a pluralistic place, such as asking for Cinema City to open on Shabbat so secular people will stay in the city, that’s for everyone.”

Rubin, a more clean-cut looking redhead, outlines all of the neighborhoods where Hitorerut did well – many of them largely secular or mixed ones. “If you look at who’s voting for us, it’s not just the young or secular. The fact that we’re young – we don’t use it as a goal, we use it as a path.”

Hitorerut gained increasing popularity during the social protests of 2011, which focused, among other things, on the astronomical cost of housing – the highest per-square-meter real estate in the country.

“We succeeded in getting the city to double the taxes on empty houses in order to encourage owners to rent them,” Berkovitch begins. “We also got groups of young people together and put demands on developers to decrease prices of certain new apartments by 15 percent – not an insignificant amount. We located 1,500 abandoned buildings where the owners of the property are not paying Arnona (Municipal tax) and are now making them sell the property or develop it… to ensure that they will pay Arnona within two years.” The party also has a plan called “shtachim humim” – brown grounds – to get the city to authorize the building of reasonably priced rental apartments over one or two-story public buildings such as community centers which take up a huge amount of space in a city with not much room to expand.

Some of their other programs include: (1) an incentives program to encourage founders of small start-ups to open in Jerusalem rather than Tel Aviv, (2) assisting small business in getting off the ground, and (3) bringing back 3,000 government jobs that should be in Jerusalem by law, but are in Tel Aviv or elsewhere in the country.

For the latter, Berkovitch points to the Ministry of Negev and Galilee, currently run by Silvan Shalom, which is housed in one of the highest-rent buildings in Tel Aviv.

“We’re not only focused on what decisions can be made by the municipality, but also on decisions that are made at the national level,” says Berkovitch.

Part of the party’s success comes from the fact that they’ve been cultivating ties in the business community. Hitorerut worked on even the smallest issues, such as getting permission for them to put out more café tables in places where they weren’t previously allowed. One of their backers is Adi Talmor, the owner of the aforementioned café as well as more than a dozen other Jerusalem eateries. One seller of tickets for performances, for example, attached Hitorerut postcards to every ticket sold in the past month.

Hitorerut’s strong showing turns on its head the image of the young, apathetic voter. But the real success comes from the fact that they also managed to appeal to some voters who were old enough to be their parents.

“I considered voting for Azaria, but it seemed that the main thing she was talking was education, while Hitorerut focused on a much wider range issues, like helping small business and helping the poor. I’ve seen how they’ve helped fight for the merchants here at the shuk, even if they didn’t always win,” says Yael Robin, 54, an artist who lives next to Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market, where the party has many supporters. “They’re young and they seem full of energy, like they take a mission and they go for it. I felt that there was a buzz about them, and even though it troubled me that Meretz would get less votes because of it, I thought that supporting them was the right thing to do.”

Debora Siegel, a veteran teacher at the 'Leyada' high school, said she voted for the party because some of her best and brightest students had gone on to become Hitorerut activists. “I see which kind of people get involved – young people who want to make a positive impact on the city and are willing to work hard to achieve their aims. They’re the kind of voices you want to see in politics.”

Emil Salman