Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Jerusalem's New Mayor

Nir Barkat, the secular forty-seven year old former major in the paratroops, has been elected mayor of Jerusalem defeating the ultra-orthdox Meir Porush by 52 per cent to 42 percent. The third candidate, Akady Gydamak, garnered only 3 per cent of the vote. Barkat only won 6 seats on the 31 member city council, and will need a coalition that includes the ultra-orthodox, with 13 seats, if he wants to get any bills passed.

Barkat, a life-long Jerusalem resident, is married and the father of three daughters. He lives in Jerusalem's Beit HaKarem neighborhood. According to an article in the Jerusalem Post, Barkat completed his bachelor's degree in computer science from the Hebrew University, and nearly enough course work for his master's degree. He left academic studies to form the BRM computer company, and was responsible for helping develop software that became extremely popular and useful. He served four years as CEO of Checkpoint, the world-renowned firewall company using technology he helped develop.

Barkatis the latest in a long list that dates back to 1882, when a city council was established, in 1863, during the rule of the Ottoman Empire.

According to authoritative sources, Jerusalem was divided into two municipalities between 1948-1967. The Israeli municipality provided services to the western neighborhoods and the Jodanian municipality of “Amanat Al-Quds to the eastern part.

The first modern-era mayor was Abdelrahman al-Dajani who served from 1863-1882. From then on a variety of Arab mayors held the reigns until WW1 when the British established a military governor in 1917.

In 1937, as the world steered a course to yet another war, Daniel Auster became mayor during the British Mandate, was replaced in 1938 by a municipal committee run by Mustafa al-Khalidi, but returned to the mayor’s chair in 1944.

Daniel Auster was also the first mayor of Jerusalem after statehood. short interim period then took place with Jerusalem again under British rule He was a member of the National Assembly for the General Zionists party, and one of the men who signed Israel’s Declaration of Independence.

As far back as 1947 Auster came out against the internationallizion of Jerusalem. He made his opinion known when he addressed the United Nations in 1947.

Gershon Agron, the publisher of the Jerusalem Post, was mayor from 1955-1959. According to Marlin Levin, who worked for Agron at the Jerusalem Post, then went on to be on Time Magazine’s Jerusalem staff for over forty years, said that Agron was part of the pre-state Haganah, and ran a secret radio station from the back of the apartment. Agron was constantly entertaining, even when a group of Haganah soldiers were in the back of the flat trying to decode messages the British were sending to the Arab armies.

The most famous of Jerusalem’s mayors would be the late Teddy Kolleck, who passed away recently at the age of 93. Kolleck took over a divided Jerusalem and undivided it. The Israeli army had defeated the Jordanians, who joined the Arab forces fighting against Israel in 1967 and lost their hold on E. Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Right-wing politicians point out that Jordan only held the West Bank and E. Jerusalem from 1947-1967. Before that Jordan, as country, did not exist.

Teddy Kolleck was a well-liked man who had a homey unpretentious quality about him. He was equally comfortable falling asleep at the feet of Marlene Deitrich (an old archive photo show Kolleck sitting on the floor of a crowded small living room in Jerusalem, dosing, with Deitrich’s famous legs a few inches from his cheek.) as he was speaking to a room filled with dignitaries at the King David Hotel.

Kolleck, born in Vienna, was part of the Zionist pre-state establishment. He was a secretary to David Ben Gurion, and considered one of the pre-state’s leaders. Ben Gurion appointed him as the Mayor in 1965, considering the position as prestigious as that of a Knesset seat, or a Cabinet minister. Kolleck behaved, in fact, as if Jerusalem were part of Israel’s top priorities, up there with defense and security.

Kolleck made the city friendly to foreigners, enticing stars and celebrities to visit, and donate money. He started the Jerusalem Foundation, which was responsible for many of the parks and public sites in Jerusalem. In this way he didn’t have to rely on the government to help develop the city.

According to his autobiography, Kolleck claims that Ben Gurion wanted to repeat something the Mamelukes rulers of Egypt did in 1290 when they defeated the Crusaders after a long bloody war and devastating siege. What Ben Gurion wanted to do was knock down the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem, making it one unified city with no distinctions. Kolleck and a wide chorus of supporters was against the move. Ben Gurion eventually dropped the idea.

Kolleck served as mayor of Jerusalem until 1993, when he was defeated by the right-wing Likud party’s candidate Ehud Olmert. Critics of Kolleck claim he could have allowed his Labor party to maintain control of the city had he only appointed a successor while he was still in power. But Kolleck refused, and ran unsuccessfully against Olmert just as the Likud was rising to power in the city.

Olmert, who had been one of the princes of the Likud, even as a cabinet minister under Yitzchak Shamir, served as Jerusalem’s mayor for ten years then went into national politics, leaving the city in the hands of deputy-mayor Uri Lupolianski.

Lupolianski served from 2003 until he was forced to turn over the candidacy to another ultra-orthodox party, because of part of the complicated power sharing arrangements among the ultra-orthodox parties.

Lupolianski, a genial man with a pleasant smile, rose to prominence as the founder, with his modern-orthodox father, of Yad Sarah, a charitable organization that provides, free of charge, materials an out-patient needs when leaving the hospital; anything from a wheel-chair to oxygen tanks, even hospital beds.

But charity and a pleasant smile did not make him a good mayor. Analysts believe he was more an apparatchik, following orders from the Rabbis, than an innovator, or moderator. Recently a poll placed Jerusalem at the bottom of the list of Israeli cities.

Anyone who lived through the previous mayors, all the way back to Kolleck, was disheartened at the decreased city services. This was caused by the increase in the ultra-orthodox population in the city, who considered employment a full day at the yeshiva, paid no taxes, and were in general supported by those Jerusalemites and Israelis paying taxes.

The last election pitted Meir Porush, son of an old-line ultra-Orthodox politician and Jerusalem fixer Menachem Porush, against Nir Barkat, a clean-cut secular high-tech millionaire.

With headlines blaring the brain drain from Jerusalem by the cities young people, the Porush candidacy was viewed by the die-hard secular and modern-orthodox population, who had not yet fled the city for the surrounding suburbs and moshavim, or farther still, to the coast, as just another link in the chain leading the city to a disastrous economy.

The fact that Porush was opposed, not only by Barkat, but also by the Agudat Yisrael ultra-orthodox party, run by the Gerer Rebbe Ya'acov Aryeh Alter's sect, sealed his fate. With only the disaffected in the ultra-orthodox world, like Shas, some modern orthodox, those who opposed ultra-orthodox dictates requiring separate seating of men and women on buses and other increasingly radical behaviors, Porush simply didn’t have the support in the religious community to get elected.

Haaretz reporter Yair Ettinger commented after the election that Porush, was a mavrick, opposing the Ger Rebbe’s rule of ultra-orthodox politics. The Ger Rebbe, according to the report, kept choice teaching and government jobs for its own people, and denied Shas and others a decent income, and even entry to the Agudat Yisrael schools.

Nir Barkat has a lot on his plate. The future of Jerusalem is bleak. The increasing ultra-orthodox population, with their stress on yeshiva learning, will continue to weaken the tax-base. The pressure by a new US administration to divide Jerusalem will begin again as soon as Barak Obama takes office. This according to ex-US President Jimmy Carter, who claimed jump-starting the peace talks between the Arabs and Israelis was high on Obama’s list.

Still, most non-Ultra orthodox Jerusalemites believe Barkat holds the only hope for a revitalization of the city. While pundits agree Teddy Kolleck was one in a million, they put out hope that Nir Barkat can rise above modest expectations and put the city back on track. Keeping it from becoming an ultra-orthodox stronghold that is driving out the secular money-earners,.

Meir Porush mad the mistake of saying that within fifteen years ultra-orthodox mayors will rule all of Israel’s cities. His defeat at the hands of the secular Barkat may well be proof that he and the ultra-orthodox community have reached the pinnacle of their political power, with a leveling off and slow reduction to follow.

Like it or not the ultra-orthodox will now have a secular mayor to deal with, again. The city may reclaim it’s title as a ‘special’ Israeli city, and a wonder of the world’s urban centers.