The ultra-orthodox had taken over Jerusalem's City Hall in the person of
Uri Lupolianski acting for a cadre of rabbis who gave him permission to
do "this" or denied him permission to do
"that." This was 2003. Formally, it was a
democratically elected government. And it's true that there were
lots of matters about which the holy men did not care a fig.
Lupolianski succeeded Ehud Olmert, a man who dealt with the religious as
any mayor of a demographically intricate modern city has to deal with a
big and dug-in minority. Most Arabs don't vote in Jerusalem
municipal elections because they don't recognize (or pretend out of fear
not to recognize) Israeli sovereignty in the city. Still, they are
maybe one third of the city and Olmert treated them fairly, actually more
fairly that Teddy Kollek who had a better reputation for good relations
with the Arabs. Olmert also deeply enriched the culture of the
city, despite the exodus of secular people towards Tel Aviv and other
places in the middle of the hopelessly tiny country.
Olmert became deputy prime minister to Ariel Sharon (still alive, at this writing) and then succeeded him when the old soldier was felled by a silencing stroke. In the meantime, Lupolianski was in power. The first sign of his ascendancy was that the city suddenly was mired in its own dirt. Quite literally. And not just the Arab parts of the city but all of the Jewish neighborhoods, as well. The mayor's ultra-orthodox ur-constituents didn't seem to mind at all. They are not known for their immaculate habits. And neither are the Arabs. I'll stop here.
Some of the rabbis decided that Lupolianski had done his service. He would go back to doing whatever he did before. After some struggle, the ultra-orthodox rabbis (the non-Zionist ones and for the most part not Hassidic ones either) designated Meir Porush, the scion of a line of rabbis, very strict in their observance of Jewish law and defining themselves as "fearful" of God.
Nir Barkat, a Jerusalem resident and retired high tech entrepreneur, was one of his opponents, and he was the candidate who was the victor in the race last week. He is also a friend of mine, and I have been a financial supporter of his philanthropy "Start-up Jerusalem," a reform effort to bring employment, investment and more tolerance to the holy city. This is an inadequate short-hand for the movement. Barkat was in an elite unit of the Israel Defense Forces, a seriously elite unit. Porush keeps his young men out of the I.D.F. altogether.
Barkat is a social liberal, a free enterprise tactician and an environmentalist. Mostly he is a modernist. Tobias Buck of the FT and a few other journalists deeply antagonistic to Israel have called him a "rightist." Why? Because he does not believe that the Palestinians would keep the peace of Jerusalem. I agree with him. But I come to a different conclusion from him. Let the Arabs in the eastern sections of the city make their lives with Palestine. In the meantime, Israel should build where they can around the city in the race for numbers and for space as the Palestinians have done for decades.
There was another candidate in the election who received 7% of the vote. He is Arkady Gaydamark, a Russian zillionaire, most of whose votes came from the few Arabs who did vote. This is inexplicable. Gaydamark has lost many of his billions during the last few weeks. I suspect this is the end of his political career. Good riddance.
Among the reasons why Rabbi Porush lost was that many Hassidim -looser in style, happier in outlook, actually less doctrinaire in thinking- did not vote for him. He had insulted one of their luminaries, the dynastic rabbi of Gur, the leader of the Gerrer Hassidim, the ones with the brown coats, silk stockings and fur hats. Other Hassidim followed them into opposition. And when I say "followed" I mean followed. The rabbi says, the followers do. Or as a Yiddish folk song has it, "Az der rebbe zingt zingen ale chassidimlach." "As the rabbi sings singing also are all of his chassidim."
The defection of the Hassidim was what made the difference in the polling. The only place place in the American press you read this was the Los Angeles Times. It is represents an important split among the ultra-orthodox. That the Hassidim would vote for a free thinker is a significant event in the Holy City which is also the capital of Israel. Good luck to Nir Barkat.