Beefed Up at City Council, ultra-Orthodox Parties Strive to Change Jerusalem

Ultra-Orthodox politicians are blocking funding for secular activities, but the Likud mayor is expected to strike back

Ultra-Orthodox and secular Jews clash at a demonstration against religious coercion in Jerusalem, 2012.
Olivier Fitoussi

Two and a half months after the largest pluralist party in the Jerusalem City Council quit the mayor’s coalition, the ultra-Orthodox parties are using their majority to try to push through prize programs.

The ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, parties make up more than half the city’s governing coalition and in committees are cutting funding for secular cultural initiatives. In one high-profile case, a rental housing project was rejected because the apartments would not have had balconies with room for kosher sukkahs for the Sukkot holiday in the fall.

“It’s sad and outrageous to see that the Haredim have become drunk with power because they’re now a majority in the city council coalition,” said Yehuda Greenfield-Gilat, a city council member for the pluralist Yerushalmim party. He said the Haredim were trying to take apart every understanding targeting coexistence in Jerusalem.

Sources at city hall say they expect the city council to reverse most of the Haredi efforts when Likud Mayor Nir Barkat imposes coalition discipline, amid a possible worsening of relations in Jerusalem between the ultra-Orthodox and nonreligious in the run-up to Israel’s local elections in October.

The Hitorerut party, comprised of both nonreligious Jews and religious Zionists, quit Barkat’s coalition in November after a long conflict with the mayor. A main cause was an agreement between Barkat and the non-Hasidic Haredi leaders over management of the city’s neighborhoods that are home to both Haredi and secular Jews. As a result, 14 of the 22 members of Barkat’s coalition now come from the ultra-Orthodox parties.

A month ago, the Haredim blocked an attempt by Barkat to expand the coalition by bringing in Yerushalmim. The party was founded in 2008 by Rachel Azaria, now a Knesset member for the center-right Kulanu party.

The Haredi parties objected to a section of the coalition agreement with Yerushalmim that would have allowed the expansion of cultural activities in community centers on Shabbat. Since then a number of decisions have been made in the city council and its committees favoring the ultra-Orthodox.

This week the city council’s finance committee approved hundreds of thousands of shekels for seven cultural events of a Haredi or religious nature, including conferences for religious media outlets. But when city support for a cultural festival at the Jerusalem Theater was discussed, Haredi council members spoke out against the “immodest” performances and refused to approve funds for the event.

A week earlier, the city’s planning committee canceled the rental-housing plan without the balconies for sukkahs. Two weeks ago, the finance committee canceled funding for the Hansen House cultural center after Haredim demanded that the building’s café be closed on Shabbat. Funding for a pluralist Hanukkah candle-lighting ceremony was also held up.

Hitorerut chief Ofer Berkovitch said there was no sense of responsibility or proper management in the coalition and the situation was worsening. “The mayor isn’t focused on the city and doesn’t stop or control it,” he said. “Where is all his commitment to the things Barkat was elected for?”

Eliezer Rochvarger, a city council member for United Torah Judaism, rejected the claims. “We have no interest in harming the nonreligious community and we’re sticking to the status quo,” he said, adding that at the meeting on Hansen House, the committee approved twice the budget for secular matters than for the Haredim.

“As for the event at the [Jerusalem] theater, a female non-Haredi city council member said she felt there were messages offensive to women there. Because Haredi representatives raise their hands in favor of respecting women they attack us?”

The mayor’s office harshly criticized Hitorerut. “The people who betrayed their voters, left the coalition and abandoned Jerusalem for political dealing and public relations now dare to complain,” city hall said.

The mayor’s office said the various examples cited were untrue. It said the city does not fund Hansen House, the plan for rental housing was not canceled but only revised, and the funding for the Jerusalem Theater was not canceled but would be passed in the city council.

It said funding was provided for a pluralist Hanukkah ceremony, adding that the city funds activities for all residents.