Jerusalem Mayor's Choice of Woman Deputy Could Mean Clash With Orthodox Coalition

Mayor Barkat says he would fire any deputy mayor who votes against appointing the female deputy mayor; Haredim have threatened to dismantle the municipal coalition.

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat is facing a crisis with his Haredi (ultra-Orthodox ) coalition partners because he wants to appoint a female deputy mayor from the secular camp.

Over the last few days, the threats and counter-threats being hurled by both sides have been escalating. According to city council members, Barkat said he would fire any existing deputy mayor who votes against the appointment. The Haredim, for their part, have threatened to dismantle the municipal coalition.

Nir Barkat
Tess Scheflan

At the heart of the storm is Rachel Azaria, a representative of the Wake Up Jerusalem movement, which comprises both secular and religious activists.

To make the situation even more absurd, she herself is a religious, Sabbath-observant Jew. But sources in the municipality said this fact has actually exacerbated Haredi anger.

After the Knesset passed the requisite enabling legislation three months ago, Barkat appointed an additional ultra-Orthodox deputy mayor, Yosef Doytsch of United Torah Judaism. But the law allows him to appoint another deputy as well.

So to maintain balance in the city's government, Barkat promised that the new appointment would be made from the ranks of his secular coalition partners.

In recent months, Azaria's supporters have waged an extensive public campaign for her appointment, involving both journalists and writers like Zeruya Shalev and Eyal Megged.

Azaria is considered the obvious representative of a particular segment of Jerusalem's religious Zionist and traditional populations: those who generally follow Orthodox praxis, but see themselves as closer to the secular public on many other issues. Over the last two years, they have been involved in various public battles that were perceived as anti-Haredi.

UTJ disseminated a document last week demanding another deputy mayor position for itself on the grounds that it is the largest coalition faction. That same week, Barkat announced his decision on the matter to the coalition, and the waters have been troubled ever since.

The National Religious Party's city council members, who were considered the deciding votes, have sided with the Haredim. Thus according to a source in the municipality, the threat of being fired now also hangs over the head of David Hadari, an NRP deputy mayor who is completely opposed to Azaria's appointment. Shas and UTJ have also refused to submit to coalition discipline and plan to oppose the appointment.

Yet parts of the secular camp are also not backing Barkat and Azaria on this issue. Meretz, which quit the coalition after the King's Garden building project in East Jerusalem's Silwan neighborhood was approved, is not expected to support Azaria. "This crisis isn't actually about Azaria; it exists because Barkat understood that he had to create a crisis with the ultra-Orthodox in order to improve his image among the secular public," charged Meir Margalit, a Meretz city councilman.

But sources in the municipality countercharged that opposition to the appointment stems entirely from electoral concerns. "Meretz is paying a price for leaving the coalition and is afraid of Azaria as a young, promising, 'secular' city councilwoman," said one. "The NRP fears that Azaria will steal their moderate religious Zionist supporters, while the ultra-Orthodox are exploiting the situation in order to weaken the Zionist camp."

The sources added that Barkat is determined to make Azaria a deputy mayor. Barkat's office declined to comment.