War of the Women Rages in Jerusalem Campaign

With municipal elections six weeks away, two parties headed by women are set to vie for the votes of progressive Jerusalemites.

Ilene Prusher
Ilene Prusher
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You're a certain sub-species of Jerusalemite – or you support this genus from afar: progressive, concerned about women’s rights, tolerance and environmental issues. You favor a pluralistic, tolerant, open city with great services and clean streets.

You will likely have a hard time deciding which party to vote for when municipal elections are held on October 22.

Until earlier this week, most voters who hold the aforementioned values dear were a shoo-in for Yerushalmim, a party headed by Rachel Azaria, who was elected for the first time in the 2008. But on Sunday, Deputy Mayor Naomi Tsur announced that she was running as the head of a new party called Ometz Lev (Braveness of Heart), billing it as the only party in which the majority of candidates are women. (And this it to say nothing for left-leaning voters who will support the Labor-Meretz list, headed by former deputy Mayor Pepe Alalu.)

Both Azaria, 35, and Tsur, 65, are super-articulate and highly accomplished. Before founding Yerushalmim, Azaria was an environmental activist and worked for Mavoi Satum, an organization that aids Jewish women who are unable to obtain a divorce; Tsur is also an environmentalist who made green issues her calling card during her term in office. Both women have strong ties across English-speaking Jerusalem.

Native-born Azaria is the daughter of an American mother and a Tunisian father, while Tsur made aliyah from England. Moreover, both feel that they have Jerusalem’s best interests in mind, so much so that they’re both telling supporters to cast one vote for their respective parties, and the other for Mayor Nir Barkat – a man they’ve both wrestled with on many an issue.

Indeed, what’s interesting about this election is not just the war of the women set to ensue as both vie for votes among the same constituents, but the ways that these seemingly small-town scuffles reflect many of the nation’s issues writ large. Both parties are lending their support to Barkat, largely in an effort to show their opposition to mayoral candidate Moshe Leon. Leon, an ally of Yisrael Beiteinu’s Avigdor Lieberman, comes from Givatayim in greater Tel Aviv and is seen as someone who could potentially scoop up a large number of ultra-Orthodox votes. While the city’s progressives clearly don’t want another Haredi mayor, as they has from 2003-2008 with Uri Lupolianski, more than a few are also not Barkat fans. To boot, Barkat ejected Azaria from his coalition two years ago after she filed complaint with the High Court of Justice protesting the gender separation on Mea She'arim's streets during the Sukkot holiday; A municipality spokesman said “loyalty” to city council policy was the reason.

“After the clashes we had, it’s like taking my ego, folding it up, putting it in my pocket and forgetting about it,” Azaria says with her characteristic candor and a touch of humor, as she folds up an invisible paper and sticks it in her back pocket. Speaking at a parlor meeting on Monday night for English-speakers at PICO Jerusalem in Talpiot, she described what she felt were some of her most outstanding achievements in her five-year tenure.

Namely, her suggestions for free education from age three and a heavily subsidized afternoon program (tsaharon) until 4:00 p.m. were adopted by the Trajhtenberg Committee appointed by Benjamin Netanyahu following the 2011 social protest. In short, many families who don’t necessarily identify with her stance as a modern-Orthodox feminist – either because they are more Orthodox or are totally secular – are thankful for the results.

Banners of Azaria’s image already hang everywhere around the city from balconies and bridges – some satisfaction to her considering that in 2008, she was told by Egged that there were no pictures of women allowed on buses. Tsur’s is less of a household name outside of City Hall corridors, environmental groups and interfaith dialogue fans, such as those who flocked to her Green Pilgrim Jerusalem conference this April.

But she put other professional women in the top spots on her slate: current City Council member Edna Friedman, businesswoman Debbie Ben-Ami, and Ethiopian leader Yaffa Sahalo. Number seven on the list is Masada Porat, the first Haredi woman to ever run for city council. Next on the list are Rabbi Susan Silverman, a Women of the Wall activist whose arrest in February with her teenage daughter made world headlines, followed in the next slot by her husband Yosef Abramowitz, a former activist for Soviet and Ethiopian Jewry who is now a solar-power businessman.

“Ometz Lev is not a party with a women's agenda, it is a women's party which cares for the agenda of the whole city,” Tsur told Haaretz. “We have in our list women - and indeed men - representing communities across Jerusalem, and are committed to a more open and accessible Jerusalem, a cleaner Jerusalem, a healthier Jerusalem, and a Jerusalem with greater participation of women in the decision-making process.”

The Yerushalmim team seems unfazed by the sudden competition, offering that it’s a little late to be jumping in the pool. Yerushalmim also boasts some popular faces in English-speaking Jerusalem: Number 3 on their list is Haaretz Jewish World blogger Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz, an immigrant from Berkeley, California who was the head of Kol Rena, a popular synagogue in Nahlaot, and is now dean of the Sulam Yaakov Beit Midrash, an “Orthodox rabbinic training program with a focus on social awareness.”

“What Yerushalmim represents is the possible tomorrow of Jerusalem,” Liebowitz told the parlor crowd. “We want the city to be diverse. We don’t want the city to turn into an expanded Mea Shearim.”

A Jerusalem man walking past election posters for Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach’s Netzah party.Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen
Rachel Azaria, head of Yerushalmim PartyCredit: Ilene Prusher