Opinion

Secular Residents Have Already Lost the Battle for Jerusalem

How Jerusalem's mayor is deepening ultra-Orthodox and secular division in the city

An ultra-Orthodox boy in Jerusalem.
Ilan Assayag

The word in Jerusalem is that Mayor Nir Barkat has divided the city. The slogan “Peres will divide Jerusalem” was an effective means of scaring off voters in the 1996 election campaign from then-candidate Shimon Peres, which helped Benjamin Netanyahu become our eternal prime minister. But the commercials used during that campaign referred to a different sort of division: They were out to frighten “the people” about the possibility that Peres would make peace with the Palestinians, heaven forbid, after agreeing to compromises related to Jerusalem.

Today when residents say Barkat has divided Jerusalem, they mean that he has recently divided it into neighborhoods based on the identity of their residents: He has declared some of the neighborhoods Haredi, that is, ultra-Orthodox, and others pluralistic – meaning they’re intended for secular Jewish folk and adherents of religious Zionism.

Not that Barkat has forbidden secular people to live in Bayit Vegan or Ramot. He is simply allocating school buildings in those neighborhoods that until now had been part of the state-religious education system to the Haredim, and transferring students from national-religious families to schools in neighborhoods that under his plan are slated to remain “pluralistic,” where secular and national-religious citizens live in harmony. Because members of the secular and national-religious communities are capable of living together, whereas living with Haredim is a different matter.

For Haredim, coexistence actually means forcing the other side to adopt their way of life. It’s never a case of ultra-Orthodox allowing people who aren’t part of their community to go on pursuing their life as usual. The few secular people who still live in the Ramat Eshkol neighborhood (which on Barkat’s map is intended to be Haredi, although when it was built, after 1967, was anticipated to be a totally secular area) have already become habituated to shutting off their radios and televisions on Shabbat, and getting around on foot and not by car. Their behavior isn’t motivated by consideration for beliefs they don’t hold. The motivation is fear. Because spitting, cursing and stone throwing are not considered desecration of the Sabbath.

The heart aches for Jerusalem, that beautiful city, where there do live good and idealistic people.

Barkat was a very successful, affluent high-tech entrepreneur; it’s clear that economic ambitions were not what led him to retire from the world of business and run for mayor of Jerusalem. His party, Jerusalem Will Succeed, won six council seats in the municipal election of 2003. But a Haredi, Uri Lupolianaski, was elected mayor. Barkat, who became leader of the opposition, was involved in many local economic and educational initiatives. He did much for young people and students, whom he saw as the city’s hope. New Spirit, an organization he set up, and in which secular and national-religious individuals cooperate, is very active in combating Haredi coercion in Jerusalem.

In November 2008, when Barkat was first elected, he seemed to be the city’s great white hope, so to speak. The mainstream secular political parties had all already despaired of the city and didn’t think it was worth their while to contest the mayoralty. Never again would girls have to dance in burqas on the Calatrava bridge at the entrance to the city, people hoped after Barkat’s election. He brought young idealists with him to City Hall. People who, unlike me, refused to lose heart in the face of Jerusalem’s demographic development and who launched a plethora of local cultural and educational initiatives without Haredi participation.

For example, 33-year-old Deputy Mayor Ofer Berkovitch, who is secular, is doing wonders in the cultural realm. He’s from the Hitorerut (Wake-Up Jerusalem) movement, whose aim was to cater to the Zionist – that is, the non-Haredi – public. Rachel Azaria, today an MK from Kulanu, served as deputy mayor on behalf of Yerushalmim (Jerusalemites), whose primary goal was to encourage cooperation between secular and religious people without any form of religious coercion. Azaria and two members of her party were religiously observant, but nevertheless the party fought for movie theaters to be permitted to remain open and public transportation to operate on Shabbat.

It wasn’t for nothing that optimistic winds began to blow in the city. It was clear that Barkat, in contrast to his predecessors, would never stick his hand into public coffers, that he wasn’t looking to profit financially from his job as mayor. He and the excellent young people who joined him were like a deus ex machina, or like the miracle of “talitha kumi” in the New Testament, when Jesus encountered a dying girl and said to her, “Little girl, arise,” and she came back to life.

Even I was swept up by the optimism. A few years ago, I wrote a long article about all the new initiatives in Jerusalem. I did so in order to refute the rumor, which I myself spread 11 years ago, when, after 31 years of living in the city, I decided to move to Tel Aviv and declared that Jerusalem was “finished,” thereby marking myself, to my eternal disgrace, as an enemy of the capital city.

That’s because in the eyes of Jerusalem’s patriots, you don’t leave the city; you defect from it. Just as it’s not enough to vote for Netanyahu but you have to pledge eternal allegiance to him and his family. Well, in the case of Jerusalem, too – which is in a constant state of a war of existence and is the focal point of all the world’s troubles – you have to swear everlasting allegiance, or at least go on calling yourself a Jerusalemite – as the singer Yehoram Gaon does – even if you haven’t lived there for decades.

What’s my point, then? It’s that Barkat is not the one who divided Jerusalem. As a mayor who was elected to a second term partly with the aid of wheeling and dealing with part of the Haredi group community, he’s obliged to provide classrooms for the Haredi pupils, whose number is multiplying rapidly, at a far higher rate than that of secular schoolchildren. The problem isn’t Barkat, the problem is that when ultra-Orthodox move into Zionist neighborhoods, they set out to transform their character.

It’s not that Barkat lost. It’s that the Haredim won.