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Jerusalem Mayor's Deal With ultra-Orthodox Is Sensible Yet Worrying

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A religious woman walks in Jerusalem. Jerusalem's Mayor Barkat reached a deal with ultra-Orthodox rabbis on managing the religious communities' growth in the city. July 2017
A religious woman walks in Jerusalem. Jerusalem's Mayor Barkat reached a deal with ultra-Orthodox rabbis on managing the religious communities' growth in the city. July 2017Credit: Emil Salman

The agreement reached between Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat and senior ultra-Orthodox rabbis is a necessary, vital development, but also a worrying one.

Among the city’s secular residents, there’s a popular myth that Jerusalem is en route to becoming completely ultra-Orthodox. As far back as the 1980s, angry secular prophets were screaming that Jerusalem was destined to become a poor, closed-off, ultra-Orthodox city with a dwindling and oppressed secular minority. But this prophecy has proven false time after time.

>> Jerusalem mayor makes historic deal with ultra-Orthodox rabbis on dividing city <<

The proportion of the city’s residents who are ultra-Orthodox has risen, but only modestly, due to mass emigration from the city by young ultra-Orthodox couples. A secular mayor has been elected, and powerful new forces have arisen within the city’s secular community that have waged successful battles against closing places of entertainment on Shabbat, excluding women and altering the city’s character.

In the battle over Shabbat, for instance, secular residents have won a clear victory. Unlike in the 1980s and 1990s, there are now dozens of movie theaters, cafes, restaurants and other places of entertainment open on Shabbat.

But on one issue, the most important of all, the secular community has lost – the issue of ultra-Orthodox people moving into secular neighborhoods in numbers that enable them to change the character of the neighborhood’s public spaces, to the point where secular residents no longer feel comfortable. This most sensitive front in the friction between the two communities is what the agreement is meant to address.

If the details of the agreement as stated by Barkat and his people are correct, it isn’t unreasonable. It deals with each neighborhood on a case-by-case basis, depending on how many ultra-Orthodox residents have already moved in and how many secular residents remain.

In neighborhoods with ultra-Orthodox minorities, the city will provide only a minimal level of ultra-Orthodox services. It will open ultra-Orthodox preschools, since busing preschool children is impractical, Barkat’s aides said. But ultra-Orthodox children will have to travel to other neighborhoods for elementary school.

In neighborhoods where the ultra-Orthodox are already a majority, however, a full range of ultra-Orthodox institutions will be allowed to open. Thus for the ultra-Orthodox, the agreement grants formal recognition to ultra-Orthodox communities that have already arisen within secular neighborhoods.

For secular residents, the problem is that the deal contains no guarantee that the ultra-Orthodox won’t continue moving into secular neighborhoods, leading to a new agreement in another few years that will be worse for the secular community. At the moment, market forces and the shortage of housing in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods are working against secular residents.

An ultra-Orthodox man walks past women at a bar in Jerusalem, Israel, May 11, 2017.Credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS

Another problem is that the agreement was forged between Barkat and a small group of Ashkenazi, non-Hasidic rabbis, with no involvement by the various Hasidic sects, the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox, religious Zionists or secular representatives.

Barkat claims that anyone who needed to know the details was informed, and that an agreement couldn’t have been reached any other way, because then the extremists would have set the tone and the entire deal would have blown up. But this explanation is inadequate.

Thus the real motive for the agreement should be sought elsewhere – in politics.

In 2008 and 2013, Barkat won election through an alliance of the city’s secular and religious Zionist residents. Tuesday’s agreement heralds the beginning of a new alliance, between the secular and the ultra-Orthodox.

For Barkat, this is a small step toward a third term. But for Jerusalem’s secular residents, this is a deal that could bolster the ultra-Orthodox, with all the attendant consequences for the character of secular neighborhoods, municipal budget allocations and the character of the city.

Barkat has apparently decided against making the leap into national politics for now, whether because he feels he lacks enough support in the Likud party, because the field for the party’s top slots is already too crowded, or because he still feels he has more to do, and more to gain, in the mayor’s office. Thus despite having planned that leap for a long time, over the past few months, he has visibly been preparing to run for mayor again.

But this time, he wants to reach the finish line without effort, thanks to an alliance with the city’s main ultra-Orthodox party – the Ashkenazi, non-Hasidic Degel Hatorah. And the implications of this alliance for other Jerusalem residents are cause for concern.

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