A Remote ultra-Orthodox City

Jerusalem has become increasingly provincial, zealous and narrow-minded, its leaders apparently focused on promoting the needs of the ultra-Orthodox population.

Two items appeared next to each other in yesterday's newspapers: One announced the decision by Hadash MK Dov Khenin to run against incumbent Ron Huldai for Tel Aviv mayor; the other announced that the Agudat Yisrael secretariat had selected United Torah Judaism MK Meir Porush as its candidate for Jerusalem mayor. The way the papers reported the two developments reflected their weight in public opinion: The Tel Aviv race was given a great deal of space, while the report on the capital got a few lines at the bottom of the page. You don't have to be a Jerusalem patriot to recognize the absurdity in the attitude on the capital's election campaign of the public and media that shapes its agenda. Usually countries devote special attention to their capitals.

The decision to place Porush at the top of the ultra-Orthodox list threatens to give Jerusalem the status and appearance of Beitar Illit. Ostensibly, there is nothing bad about that: Every city determines its image in keeping with its demographic profile and the resulting political balance of power.

Jerusalem has for years been growing increasingly ultra-Orthodox, and its lifestyle and leadership have been formed accordingly. For years everyone entering the city has been welcomed by a large clock marking the beginning and end of the Sabbath. For years the artistic design of the city's streets has recalled sukkah decorations. For years the municipality's glory during the holiday has been along the lines of "we put up the biggest Hanukkah menorah."

For years the Jewish/ultra-Orthodox component in the Jerusalem landscape has been increasingly crowding out the colorful mosaic that characterized it in the past. Not only secular and moderate Orthodox people have become a minority in the city - the multinational and multireligious minorities that once bustled through the city's streets seem to have withdrawn in the face of ultra-Orthodox domination.

Predictions show that in seven years the number of schoolchildren aged six to 14 in ultra-Orthodox educational institutions will be three times the number in state secular and state Orthodox schools.

The state and the wider public treat this trend complacently: They leave it to Jerusalemites to determine their municipal fate. The most productive population in the city has indeed drawn its own conclusions and is leaving in droves - there has been negative migration of about 60,000 over the past five years.

Young secular people and members of the middle class are leaving the city, either because it is fashionable or because there are no jobs to be found in many professions. The movement away from the city has left space to be filled by the ultra-Orthodox community, mainly the poor (though there is a limited stratum of wealthy Jews from abroad buying vacation apartments in the city's luxury neighborhoods). The poor are increasingly dependent on public coffers (one-third of Jerusalem's families live below the poverty line, as opposed to 11 percent in Tel Aviv). These processes, which have been known for years, received precedent-setting political recognition with the election of Mayor Uri Lupolianski five years ago. They are apparently about to be solidified in the upcoming election that is expected to put Porush in the mayor's office.

The hope many secular Jerusalemites had after Lupolianski's election, that he would represent the interests of all residents, was dashed. On his watch, Jerusalem became more ultra-Orthodox, ultra-Orthodox institutions penetrated clearly secular neighborhoods, an ultra-Orthodox perspective influenced the decisions by the city's leaders in matters large (the expansion of Har Homa, for example), and small (the covering-up with robes of the young female dancers at the Chords Bridge dedication). The city is become increasingly provincial, zealous and narrow-minded, its leaders apparently focused on promoting the needs of the ultra-Orthodox population. They are also the ones to express the most volatile positions in moments of controversy with the city's Palestinian residents.

Tel Avivians are to be envied: They will have to choose between a proactive mayor accused of overdevotion to dense construction and a challenger who champions environmental considerations. Such disagreements, which are indeed the most important for developing cities, are considered luxuries in Jerusalem. This city is struggling over the definition of its basic identity when it surrenders to the ultra-Orthodox assault, which is increasingly turning it into Bnei Brak. This result will render unimportant the great controversy with the Palestinians over Jerusalem: As the newspapers proved yesterday, who really cares what is going on in a remote ultra-Orthodox city?