Orthodox Votes Secular, Secular Votes Palestinian: In Jerusalem Elections, the Walls Between the Blocs Are Cracking

The split in the ultra-Orthodox camp and the natural variety of Jerusalemites has created a situation whereby thousands of residents are expected to vote outside their supposed camp

A poster for Jerusalem mayoral candidate Moshe Leon
Emil Salman

Looking at the Jerusalem elections from the outside, the contest seems to be between blocs – ultra-Orthodox, Orthodox, secular and Palestinian. And those in the know add more sub-groups: ultra-Orthodox nationalists, Orthodox nationalists, traditional and formerly Orthodox.

But the reality is even more complex. In these elections more than ever, it seems that the walls between the blocs have been cracked. The split in the ultra-Orthodox camp, the large number of candidates, and, most importantly, the natural variety of Jerusalemites has created a situation whereby thousands of residents are expected to vote outside their supposed camp – some ultra-Orthodox will vote for a secular candidate, secular voters will support an ultra-Orthodox candidate, Jews will vote for a Palestinian, etc. Most of the campaigns believe this is a significant aspect of this election.

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Dr. Ofir Lang, head of the neighborhood council Lev Ha’ir in the city center, is a secular resident of that area. He has announced his support for the ultra-Orthodox candidate of the Agudat Yisrael party – Yossi Daitch. “It’s very simple for me – recognizing what’s good. Daitch helped us a lot for five years, and always listened. I’m less interested in whether he has a kippa and a beard.”

Dr. Ofir Lang
Olivier Fitoussi

Avigail Heilbron-Karlinsky is an ultra-Orthodox resident of the religious neighborhood of Kiryat Moshe, but she’s also active in the secular Awakening movement, whose candidate is Ofer Berkovitch. She is one of dozens of ultra-Orthodox people who identify themselves as “modern Haredim [ultra-Orthodox],” or “working Haredim,” who openly support Berkovitch. No. 8 on the Awakening roster for city council is Avishay Cohen, who is a working ultra-Orthodox Jerusalemite.

“Berkovitch is the only one who doesn’t owe all kinds of political wheeler-dealers and he will give us what we need,” Heilbron-Karlinsky says.

How the Haredim will cast their vote in Tuesday’s municipal elections in Jerusalem is a mystery. For the first time, they are split between three candidates: Degel Hatorah and Shas supporters are for Moshe Leon, Agudat Yisrael is for Yossi Daitch and the Lithuanian branch of ultra-Orthodoxy supports Zeev Elkin. This split enables the new-style Haredim to declare their independence and vote for a fourth alternative – Berkovitch.

Avigail Heilbron-Karlinsky
Olivier Fitoussi

Two important issues in Haredi-secular relations will occupy the next mayor: the character of the Sabbath in the city and the attitude toward mixed Orthodox-secular neighborhoods. With regard to the Sabbath, Heilbron-Karlinsky says: “There’s been a status quo for decades, and all the candidates are obligated to it and nothing will change. All the rest is slogans."

As for the nixed neighborhoods, where many of the working Haredim live, Heilbron-Karlinsky says: “What will Daitch give us? Another heder [Haredi elementary school]? That’s excellent, but not what we need. We need a Haredi school that teaches English,” she says.

“If Daitch’s admor [rabbinic leader] tells him not to have a core curriculum including English and math taught in the school, he won’t,” Heilbron-Karlinsky says. “Berkovitch doesn’t have anyone telling him what to do. Berkovitch also comes from a movement and he doesn’t make decisions in a vacuum like the others. There are activists in the movement, they are watching and will continue to do so after the elections as well.”

“A constellation has been created here that for the first time can allow the new Haredim to break out,” says Neta Katz, who is also an ultra-Orthodox supporter of Awakening. “On Wednesday something new can happen and our political power will manifest itself,” he says.

Campaign posters for Ofer Berkovich in Jerusalem, September 2018
Emil Salman

According to Katz, his support for Berkovitch at first was seen as strange but by now many of his friends and neighbors have joined him. He lives in a large apartment house on the seam between two Haredi neighborhoods in north Jerusalem. “I estimate that out of 68 families, at least 20 will be voting for Berkovitch,” he says of his neighbors.

Once a campaign activist for Agudat Yisrael, Katz says that the differences between that movement and Berkovitch’s say something about Haredi and secular politics. In Berkovitch’s camp, “they work with people, not with blocs. ...The idea of live and let live is trickling down to us. I have no interest in closing Ha’Tachana,” Katz says, referring to a popular area of restaurants in Jerusalem’s historic former train station. “It’s not on my agenda.”

Even the very secular Meretz party is, surprisingly, enjoying widespread religious support. “In all the issues of West Jerusalem, which is what’s important, Laura [Wharton, chairwoman of Meretz in Jerusalem] is doing sacred work and pays attention to everyone, whether they wear a kippa or not,” says K., an Orthodox Jew and member of Habayit Hayehudi’s Jerusalem chapter who will be voting Meretz on Tuesday, but prefers that his name not be used.

Like many other young voters who are going outside their camp, what is important to K. is not how many businesses are open on the Sabbath, but local issues like the environment and quality of life. K. says he believes that anything cultural in nature can be open on Shabbat and commercial premises should be closed, except for essential exceptions, citing a recommendation for religious-secular coexistence that was written in 2004 but not implemented.

Wharton fought with them to maintain Jerusalem’s Deer Valley and to assess the environmental impact of a new road in Jerusalem, Route 16, while “a Haredi association got an allocation for a neighborhood and that’s what was important.”

Eran Tzidkiyahu, a Jewish tour guide who is an expert on East Jerusalem, says he’s going to vote for the Palestinian candidate, Ramadan Dabash. The candidate could become the first Palestinian member of the Jerusalem City Council since Israel conquered the city’s eastern part in 1967, and this could be due to the votes of Israeli Jews from the western part of the city.

“To me the deciding factor is the eastern part of the city and I’m prepared to pay a price because I assume that Dabash’s roster won’t have liberal opinions like I do about municipal issues and internal Jewish issues, like for example the Gay Pride Parade or the status of women.” [Dabash has four wives.]

Tzidkiyahu is not alone; over the past few days more Jerusalemites from the western part of town have stated on social media that they’ll be voting for Dabash. Meretz, which traditionally takes up the municipal causes of East Jerusalem, will lose votes over this.

Eran Tzidkiyahu
Emil Salman

“I know that Meretz represents my positions, but I feel that it has ended its historic role in Jerusalem. Other parties are wearing the pluralistic hat now and East Jerusalem is represented better by Dabash,” Tzidkiyahu says.

“There are leftists who have trouble voting for Dabash because he supports the religious status quo," says the tour guide, "but the very fact that Palestinians are joining the city council is breaking the existing situation and a shock that can produce results.” (Dabash has said he doesn’t intend to deal with national political issues and even accepts Israeli rule in East Jerusalem.)

According to Yair Assaf-Shapira, a researcher at the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, the phenomenon of Jerusalemites voting outside their identity group is not a marginal one, although its extent is hard to assess.

“I see the efforts that Daitch, for example, is making in the non-Haredi sector, and I don’t know whether this will be a game changer, but it will be significant,” says Assaf-Shapira. “And if we ignore the politics and what everyone thinks he wants to happen, then there’s something encouraging here.”