The Tribes of Jerusalem

Election showed the ultra-Orthodox in disarray, Zionist Israelis splintered and Arabs indifferent; the capital's voters are more fractious than ever.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

I spent most of the local election campaign away from my hometown, but from dozens of conversations with friends, family and colleagues in Jerusalem, I know that neither of the leading candidates for Jerusalem mayor were capable of addressing the mundane daily issues facing ordinary people living in Israel's capital.

Last year in London, I saw the candidates in the city's mayoral race get into the minutiae of bus routes and housing prices with voters; no such thing back in Zion. While incumbent Nir Barkat preferred at meetings to talk of his grand designs without descending into too much detail, challenger Moshe Leon couldn't even do that and was reduced to spouting a few random irrelevant statistics and promising he would do better. From what I gather, voters rarely demanded much more of them in their encounters.

"That's Jerusalem" is the excuse I invariably hear, "no-one is going to get elected for their plans."

And as much as I wish it was different and that I could just go online and learn exactly how the candidates plan to balance the city budget, finance new infrastructure and improve the school system - as one easily can from those vying to be New York's next mayor - I am forced to accept that in Jerusalem elections are not about manifestos and programs, they are about tribalism.

Newly-reelected Barkat may fix a few things in the city's management during his second term and we will never know whether the accountant from Givatayim who narrowly lost on Tuesday would have done any better - the contest isn't about who can run the city better but about tribal loyalties. And that's the only thing we can really learn from this election - how the tribes are doing.

One tribe, of course, insists that the identity of the mayor has no relevance for them. Since 1967, the Palestinian citizens of East Jerusalem have boycotted Israeli elections, and this week was no exception. Besides the national principle of not recognizing the occupation, it's hard to see what difference it would have made for them either way, as both Barkat and Leon are staunch supporters of Jewish settlement across the Green Line and would probably do little more than pay lip service to investing in municipal services in the Arab neighborhoods, as did the mayors before them. The empty polling stations in Shoafat and Silwan are a useful reminder of how hollow the "United Jerusalem Forever" slogan is when it comes to the tribe that represents a third of the united city's inhabitants.

As regards the other tribes, the local election provided us plenty of new information.

While the Haredi voters proved once again that they turn out for elections in droves, their leadership was unable to reach an agreement on their candidate for mayor. The hard-core "Lithuanian" tribe is split without precedent between two venerable rabbis, pitting brothers and spouses against each other (rabbis issued rulings allowing wives to vote differently to their husbands) – one of them, Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach fielding his own no-hope candidate for mayor and an independent party. The leaders of the city's two largest Hassidic courts, Ger and Belz, also refused to toe the line and allowed their followers to vote for whichever candidate they preferred. And while the fourth Haredi party, Tov, failed to poll even one percent of votes, the very existence of an ultra-Orthodox party which believes that Haredim should be working for their living rather than living off government grants and handouts has major implications for the future.

Auerbach is 82, and his rival Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman is 99. The Sephardim have just lost Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. With no clear successors on the horizon, it is hard to see how the Haredim will reunite. With no consensual leadership and a bunch of politicians squabbling to preserve their fiefdoms, the Haredi tribe is splintering into a series of warring clans, none of them with a coherent plan for confronting the financial, cultural and theological challenges of the 21st century. The next few years will be a fascinating period of ultra-Orthodox ferment and reinvention as more groups break away from the hard-line consensus and open up to the rest of the city.

The election also reflected disunity within the other large religious group in Jerusalem, the Dati-Leumi (national religious) tribe. Its main party, Habayit Hayehudi, failed dismally, gaining only one council seat, while the openly racist United Jerusalem party fared better and will have two council members.

Pluralistic fight-back

But the shift toward the extreme right is only half the story. Yerushalmim, the party headed by religious feminist Rachel Azaria and espousing a proudly pluralistic agenda, received almost as many votes as both the religious-right parties together, proving that the automatic identification between Orthodox and nationalist is no longer valid, at least not in Jerusalem.

But the religious tribes are not the only ones that are changing. The reelection of secular mayor Barkat, who saw off a vigorous campaign mounted by the two most seasoned and cynical political operators Avigdor Lieberman and Aryeh Deri, who teamed up to field out-of-towner Leon, proves that the apocalyptic visions of a Haredi takeover of the capital were greatly exaggerated. However, the secular fightback failed to manifest itself in a turnout for the only party that ran an overtly anti-Haredi campaign, the joint Meretz-Labor list, which has been reduced to a single council member; Hitorerut (awakening), another pluralist party fielding a list of young secular and religious candidates, received over the twice the number of votes.

This reflects not only growing cooperation between religious and secular Jerusalemites, but the rise of a diverse nonaffiliated group of people who refuse to be tagged by the old dichotomic labels. The two pluralist parties, along with Likud-Beiteinu and Barkat's party which also fielded both secular and religious candidates on their lists, now control over a third of the city council, a profound non-tribal result for such a tribal city.

Jerusalem remains for most purposes three cities: an Arab-Palestinian city, a Haredi city and a non-Haredi or Zionist city. While the fate of its Palestinian side will be determined ultimately one day through diplomatic negotiations, this week's election indicates that in the two Jewish cities of Jerusalem, the tribal lines are becoming blurred and losing their relevancy. Perhaps the day when Jerusalem mayors will be elected for their public transportation plans rather than their tribal loyalty is not so far away.

Moshe Leon and Nir Barkat.Credit: Ilya Melnikov, Emil Salman

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