Jerusalem Is Already Divided - Into More Than East and West

You know you’ve hit another Jerusalem by the looks of the campaign banners on balconies and billboards.

Ilene Prusher
Ilene Prusher
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Ilene Prusher
Ilene Prusher

Politicians running in the upcoming Jerusalem municipal election never address the fact that this city’s status is being discussed by Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, and when asked, largely toe the party line: Jerusalem should never be redivided.

But looking around during election season in the holy city, it feels in many respects that Jerusalem is not only already “divided” between east and west, but in other ways as well – so much so that it almost seems it would make more sense to speak of Jerusalems.

To visit the center of town, one would hardly know that there’s an election campaign going on. No one bothers to fill billboards and balconies with banners for the various candidates. Rather, one has to go into the neighborhoods. Each of these is a Jerusalem unto itself.

Take where I live, in what locals sometimes refer to as “South Jerusalem” – Baka, the German Colony, Arnona, Talpiot. Here, the Yerushalmim (Jerusalemites) party led by Rachel Azaria has the most visible foothold, followed by Naomi Tsur’s Ometz Lev (Courage) and the occasional appearances of Hitorerut B’Yerushalayim (Wake up Jerusalem!) Here and there one sees posters supporting incumbent Mayor Nir Barkat, who is a shoe-in for support in these progressive parts, often as a vote against the ultra-Orthodox.

But go just south of my south, and you enter another “South Jerusalem” entirely. A ramble through Har Homa reveals an entirely different Jerusalem. Here, there is no sight of Azaria’s bespectacled face epitomizing young and brainy or Barkat’s visage looking business-like but approachable. Instead, arrivals at the entrance to Har Homa see images of Moshe Leon – Barkat’s main rival for the office of mayor – next to posters smearing Barkat as “good for the leftists.”

In this city, where “leftist” is a bad word, the poster’s amusing claim that Barkat is a closet lefty assumes a lot of knowledge on the part of the casual passerby. It notes that Barkat gave Meretz’s Meir Margalit the East Jerusalem portfolio in the last city council. Margalit, a founding member of the Israeli Committee Against Home Demolitions, has been known to speak out against the lack of Palestinian building rights in East Jerusalem – and regularly clashes with Barkat on matters to do with East Jerusalem. An unsigned poster just below the images of Leon also take a swipe at life in Barkat’s Jerusalem: “City tax like Manhattan, services like Damascus!”

Perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that this south Jerusalem looks so different from the one I live in. It’s the equivalent, in U.S. terms, of leaving a blue state and suddenly finding yourself deep in red state country. Israel broke ground on building Har Homa in the late 1990s, during Benjamin Netanyahu’s first term as prime minister, despite vociferous objections of Palestinians (who call it Jabal Abu Ghneim) and the international community. In the worldview of Netanyahu and Ehud Olmert, the then-mayor, it was a legitimate addition to a city bursting at the seams. To critics, it’s the most recently built settlement passing itself off as a neighborhood. Given the controversy by which Har Homa came into the world and the “we’re going to build it anyway” attitude that prevailed, it stands to reason that predominant campaign image popping up in Har Homa would be that of Leon – a Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu candidate who was recruited by Avigdor Lieberman.

Barkat is far from a leftist, but Lieberman has a grudge against him. He brought Leon in from Givatayim, and while that may be just an hour down the hill, this fact makes most Jerusalemites see him as a foreign import. The main threat that Leon poses to Barkat is that Leon is an Orthodox Jew, and his team has therefore been banking on getting both the Haredi vote and the rightists.

But Leon’s uphill battle just got steeper. As reported in Haaretz on Tuesday, a key faction of one of the main ultra-Orthodox parties, the Bnei Torah division of United Torah Judaism, has announced that it would run its own candidate. In yet another Jerusalem, in those neighborhoods where I’m the foreign import and most people live in black-and-white, such a candidate would easily split the Haredi vote.

There are still other Jerusalems in South Jerusalem – the Jersualem of no posters at all. There are my neighbors in Sur Baher, Jabal Mukhaber and Umm Tuba, whose muezzins I hear each day, who put tiles up in our kitchen, who drive all the taxis I catch on the street. What is decided in city hall will affect them as much as anyone else in the city – sometimes more. Historically, the residents in the area of East Jerusalem that Israel wrested control of in 1967 do not vote – respecting a decision of Palestinian leaders not to legitimize Israel’s annexation. But Ometz Lev’s Tsur, the outgoing deputy mayor, says her friends in East Jerusalem tell her that Palestinian women will be “allowed” – socially, that is – to vote this year. And Margalit, that Meretz man that Leon has turned into a campaign bogeyman, recently filed a request with the Central Elections Commission, asking that East Jerusalemites be allowed to vote in West Jerusalem polling stations to avoid uncomfortable pressure from boycott “enforcers” at polling places.

The request, Margalit says, was turned down. The commission said there was no legal justification for coming to vote in Rehavia when you actually live in Ras el Amud. Fearing that you and your family could be intimidated and ostracized – or worse – if you vote is apparently not a good enough reason. In this united city that Nir Barkat regularly says he wants to be “open to everyone” some Jerusalems are more open than others.

The billboards at the entrance to Har Homa, South Jerusalem, supported Moshe Leon, left, and Nir Barkat for mayor. But neither candidate succeeded in uniting the city's fractious tribes.Credit: Ilene Prusher
A poster in Baka, warning that Nir Barkat is 'good for the leftists,' next to a poster for the Yerushalmim party. Credit: Ilene Prusher
Naomi Tsur.Credit: Studio Aviad Tevel

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