Jerusalem's crazy mayoral elections.

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
Sept. 24 2008 11:18 AM

Saving Jerusalem

The city has almost as many mayoral candidates as it has problems to solve.

Aryeh Deri. Click image to expand.
Aryeh Deri 

It was 5:27 on a Monday morning, and someone was knocking on the door. Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, at 98 the spiritual leader of hundreds of thousands, was preparing to leave for the synagogue. But urgent business had to be addressed first. The guest was ushered into the house for a brief meeting. Is it advisable for me to run for mayor of Jerusalem? the visitor asked. In one form or another—nobody knows exactly what was said—Elyashiv gave his blessing. The guest, Aryeh Deri, former Knesset member, former minister of the interior, former leader of the Shas Party—and a convicted felon—was therefore free to decide: If the courts allow it, he is going to run.

Overused, overquoted, and overanalyzed, Yehuda Amichai's poem "Mayor" has become a familiar cliché in Israel: "It's sad,/ To be the Mayor of Jerusalem./ It is terrible,/ How can any man be the mayor of a city like that?" Overused—but evidently not intimidating enough. As sad and terrible as the job may be, the list of men who want to be the city's new mayor come Nov. 11 is growing by the day.

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There's Meir Porush, a Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) who hopes to repeat the success of the current mayor, the first Haredi to hold the office. There's Nir Barkat, a secular high-tech millionaire entrepreneur. There's Arcady Gaydamak, a flamboyant Russian-born populist billionaire. And now, there's Deri—a Sephardic Haredi—a political meteor of the 1990s, investigated and convicted for bribery in one of the most controversial trials the country ever saw, well-known for his reformist spirit and brilliance. Deri will be able to run only if the court decides that he is eligible.

All the candidates share one goal: to save Jerusalem. But they don't agree about what they're saving it from. Barkat wants to "save" Jerusalem from Haredi expansion. Porush would like to save it from a return to secular rule. Deri wants to save the Haredi community from Porush, who is perceived as "too Haredi" to be electable. The Russian billionaire's motivations aren't exactly clear, and he might quit the race, but for the moment his main cause seems to be saving Jerusalem's sports teams.

And, of course, they all want to save Jerusalem from the Arab Palestinians—about one-third of Jerusalem's population—who traditionally don't vote in elections because they don't recognize Israel's sovereignty. This year, however, they may reconsider this Palestinian tradition: For the first time, a Palestinian Jerusalemite has announced that he is definitely going to run. (Previous potential Arab candidates didn't make it to the polls under pressure from the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank.)

Jerusalem is a city in perpetual crisis. Israelis overwhelmingly say they oppose its division; Palestinians overwhelmingly demand that it be the capital of their future state. In May 2007, the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute published a "strategic plan for the strengthening of Jerusalem as the civilizational capital of the Jewish people." This worthy goal is fraught by difficulties: "Jerusalem is a poor city"; "conflicts hinder Jerusalem from being seen as non-controversial center"; it is "not seen as a safe city"—as was proved earlier this week by yet another terror attack; it is "hostile to diversity"; and so on and so forth.

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