Vote for me — I have a kip­pah

The re­li­gious-sec­u­lar di­vide is dom­i­nat­ing the race to be mayor of Jerusalem

The Jewish Chronicle - - Comment & Analysis - AN­SHEL PF­EF­FER

IN THE right cor­ner, we have a politi­cian with decades of ex­pe­ri­ence, not a man with a detailed plan, per­haps, but cer­tainly a proven track record. In the left cor­ner, a rel­a­tive new­comer, but one who ar­rives with all the trap­pings of a me­te­oric suc­cess story. He has a spe­cific vi­sion of how he sees the fu­ture, though it still is un­clear how he plans to de­liver on all his prom­ises. They will con­tinue slug­ging it out un­til the beginning of next month, when the vot­ers will have to de­cide be­tween them. What makes the de­ci­sion es­pe­cially dif­fi­cult is the way the cam­paign is con­stantly veer­ing away from the “real” agenda and into is­sues of re­li­gion and old prej­u­dices.

Sounds a bit like the McCain v Obama show­down? Ac­tu­ally, I am de­scrib­ing the elec­tion cam­paign for the mayor of Jerusalem, which will take place ex­actly a week af­ter the Amer­i­can vote.

It mat­ters very lit­tle to vot­ers in Jerusalem that Meir Porush was a highly ef­fec­tive deputy min­is­ter of hous­ing, twice, and be­fore that spent 13 years in City Hall. Or that Nir Barkat has drawn up a com­pre­hen­sive blue­print, with the top ex­perts, of how the city should look in 2020. The only thing that seems to count for the two front-run­ning candidates (oli­garch Arkady Gay­damak and bo­hemian Dan Biron are both ex­pected to drop out be­fore polling day) is that Porush has a big kip­pah, a long beard and black coat, while Barkat has none of th­ese.

This is the sec­ond Jerusalem elec­tion to turn into a Charedi v chiloni (sec­u­lar) af­fair. How­ever, when Barkat lost to Uri Lupo­lian­ski in 2003, the con­trast was much less poignant. The Lupo­lian­ski cam­paign can­nily did ev­ery­thing to play down his re­li­gious af­fil­i­a­tion and on many of the posters his pic­ture, show­ing kip­pah and beard, did not even ap­pear. Nei­ther did the name of his strictly Or­tho­dox party, United To­rah Ju­daism.

Barkat, for his part, de­cided not to “go neg­a­tive” and did not try to de­monise his op­po­nent as some­one who would paint the city black. But that was then.

This time, things will be a lot less peace­ful. Barkat has made it clear that the gloves are go­ing to be off. This is ev­i­dent in a lot of the rhetoric sur­round­ing the cam­paign, and in the me­dia cov­er­age. Porush has tak­ing the bull by the horns; in­stead of avoid­ing the is­sue, his cam­paign this week put up huge posters with a car­toon of the can­di­date sport­ing an even larger beard than he re­ally has, and the slo­gan “Jerusalem will love Porush — Guar­an­teed”.

Both candidates are walk­ing a dif­fi­cult tightrope. To win, Porush has to make sure that his core, strictly Or­tho­dox con­stituency, a quar­ter of the Jewish vote (East Jerusalem Arabs boy­cott the elec­tions) turn out once again in their masses. But he has to be care­ful how he gal­vanises them. He also needs at least some votes from the non-Charedi sec­tors and to do noth­ing to rouse the sec­u­lar con­stituency, which nor­mally stays at home on lo­cal elec­tions, from its nor­mal ap­a­thetic state.

This is the ap­a­thy that Barkat must break but, in do­ing so, he can­not af­ford to be seen merely as the sec­u­lar cham­pion, for he is des­per­ately woo­ing the city’s na­tional-re­li­gious com­mu­nity whose votes he has to gain to win.

There are real is­sues be­yond the im­ages. Porush might seem threat­en­ing to many, but he might just be the man ca­pa­ble of solv­ing the city’s ma­jor prob­lem, be­dev­illing sec­u­lar and strictly Or­tho­dox alike — the lack of af­ford­able hous­ing for young fam­i­lies.

Barkat ap­peals to many as a high-tech ty­coon and a man of the world, but does he have what it takes to end Jerusalem’s down­ward spi­ral into a metropo­lis di­vided into prime real es­tate for mil­lion­aires only, di­lap­i­dated slum neigh­bour­hoods, and an in­creas­ingly no-go Pales­tinian side of the city? His plan mer­its se­ri­ous dis­cus­sion, as does Porush’s ex­pe­ri­ence.

What­ever they might have, or not, on their heads is im­ma­te­rial.

An­shel Pf­ef­fer is the JC’s spe­cial cor­re­spon­dent

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