An estimated 1,500 English speakers came to hear the Jerusalem mayoral debate last Saturday night at the Great Synagogue in Jerusalem. The elections for mayor and city council will be held on November 11th. The four candidates, Nir Barkat, Rabbi Meir Porush, Arkadi Gaydamak and Dan Birron all expressed their love for the city and their determination to improve it.
Nir Barkat and Meir Porush were clearly received by the audience more favorably than the other candidates. The issues each candidate spoke about encapsulated the day-to-day struggles that residents of modern Jerusalem must deal with and in some ways each one represented a cross-section of Israel's capital and largest city.
The overflowing audience packed the downstairs hall of the Great Synagogue. People sat on the steps and stood in the aisles, and late arrivers found the doors closed as the audience reached the hall's full capacity. The crowd was mostly older and religious and almost all those present were born in English-speaking countries, predominantly the United States.
The event was sponsored by the Jerusalem Post. Its editor-in-chief, David Horovitz introduced each candidate and spoke briefly about the importance of voting and the large voter turnout by American-Israelis. It was co-sponsored by the Association for Americans and Canadians in Israel.
Nir Barkat, running as an independent, impressed the audience with his proposed solutions for housing and job problems and his understanding of the inner workings of city hall. Young-looking, secular and clean shaven, Barkat wore a white knitted kippah to the debate. His mention of "a sustainable private sector" that could "help synchronize the city's long term vision" worked well with the crowd. Barkat was born in Jerusalem and has enjoyed a successful career as a high tech businessman.
He has been on the city council for the past five years as an outspoken critic of its shortcomings. He spoke about his desire to see Jerusalem attract more tourists, stating that other cities such as Paris and New York bring in between 40 to 60 million tourists a year, while Jerusalem attracts only 1 to 2 million a year. He estimated, however, that over 3 billion people worldwide would love to visit Jerusalem. He also stated that tourists are in general not interested in seeing a movie or a show but want to see an aspect of the culture unique to the city they are visiting. He mentioned the City of David as a successful example and proposed more cultural centers that emphasize "our roots and our history."
As for the light rail project which has the main street of Jaffa closed down to one lane due to construction, Barkat called the whole idea “stupid.” He talked about his exasperation in dealing with city hall on the issue and noted that the transportation committee has not even met once in the past five years.
Tourists are not interested in seeing a movie, but want to see an aspect of the culture unique to the city.
He proposed the creation of neighborhood councils which would meet and discuss issues that affect specific areas of Jerusalem, as well as making city council meetings and decisions more open to the public. He also suggested creating a greater Jerusalem council that would connect surrounding cities such as Maale Adumim, Betar, the Gush Etzion areas and other communities "beyond the Green line."
Regarding the housing crisis, he proposed a new law which would mandate that home owners who live abroad don't keep their apartments empty but rather rent them out to residents, as well as a law that would ensure new buildings have an adequate amount of lower-priced apartments available.
The next candidate, Rabbi Meir Porush (United Torah Judaism Party), emphasized his "experience, experience, experience." Porush served as a Knesset member for the past 12 years including time in the housing ministry, and previous to that, he was on the Jerusalem city council for 13 years. With his long payos (sidelocks) tucked neatly under his black kippah, long black coat and long white beard, Porush noted that his family has lived in Jerusalem for seven generations. He is the father of 12 children.
He promised to uphold the rights of the hareidi-religious community, which has often felt discriminated against. Emphasizing his desire to reach out to the religious-Zionist community especially in the area of education, Porush said he wanted to create more opportunities for hesder yeshiva students - who combine Torah study with military service - and women's Torah learning centers.
A small to moderately sized apartment can rent for 1,000 US dollars a month or sell for more then a million dollars.
Porush recounted years of experience he had in the area of housing as a member of the Knesset. He noted that he helped build Har Homa, one of Jerusalem's newest neighborhoods located on its southern limits. He also addressed the issue of the drain of young people, both religious and secular, who leave the city due to the high housing prices. Currently, a small-to-moderately sized apartment can rent for 1,000 US dollars a month and sell for more then a million dollars. The number of empty apartments owned by foreigners is growing as is the number of luxury apartments being built in central areas. Porush's campaign banners promise that "10,000 will return to Jerusalem."
Porush’s campaign advertisments depicts a cartoon version of himself, and promise that "Jerusalem will love Porush."
Porush frequently quoted from Jewish sages and the Torah in his speech. He stated that cultural activities should be increased, but they should celebrate the rich Jewish heritage rather then ignore it. In response to a question from the audience, Porush stated that he wants to ease the cost of higher education for secular institutions such as Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
Dan Birron, standing about six feet tall with long curly gray hair and no kippah, stated he had hesitated to come to the Great Synagogue for the debate because he believes in total separation of religion and state. The 68-year-old was born in Jerusalem and is an army veteran. He is a recently retired TV director from Channel 1 and currently the owner of a live music bar which is open every night of the week including Shabbat.
Birron said he decided to run for mayor only two weeks before when he heard on the radio that Nir Barkat, his previous choice for mayor, was getting close with Aryeh Deri, the former leader of the religious Shas party. Barkat later said was not true.
Birron said he felt compelled to fight for the rights of the secular community. Birron said that the secular community of Jerusalem is the majority and “in a democracy, majority rules.” Birron stated, “I am secular. I do it my way. No one will tell me what to do. Don't tell us what to do, what to eat, how to cook.” Birron called for transportation to run “24/7 also on Shabbat. If you don't want it because you are religious, you shouldn't use it, but it should be there.” Birron argued that “every year thousands of pilgrims are coming here, and they need buses to run on Shabbat. Another Jewish guy by the name of Jesus Christ was also born here.” This last statement elicited boos from many audience members.
Birron also called for the preservation of natural resources, making the city cleaner, and raising teachers’ salaries. He is running on the Aleh Yarok (Green Leaf) Party ticket, whose main goal when it was founded was to legalize marijuana in Israel.
All my life I ask my myself, why I am Jew. And Jew, it means to be a part of our Jewish community and express the solidarity.
Arcadi Gaydamak moved to Israel from the Soviet Union as a young man and then left for France where he became a billionaire and philanthropist. He made his initial fortune in a Russian-French translation company and then branched into the weapons trade. He recently returned to Israel and in the past three years has made headlines many times for his philanthropic endeavors including buying the Jerusalem Bikur Holim hospital when it was in danger of bankruptcy. He also helped the rocket-plagued citizens of Sderot and northern Israel. Gaydamak also owns the Betar Jerusalem soccer team.
Gaydamak, a secular, clean shaven man, wore a confident look and a black felt kippah. With his Russian accent, Gaydamak spoke in a forthright manner, in a heavy Russian accent and described his desire to create investments that would help the city economically. "I am coming to politics to work as an admirer of Jerusalem," said Gaydamak, "not because I know something about how to run city hall. But, all my life I ask myself, why I am [a] Jew. And [a] Jew, it means to be a part of our Jewish community and express the solidarity. The Jewish community in Israel is facing hard times. We should do everything to make Israel strong."
Gaydamak seemed out of touch with the opinions of the audience, however, when he turned to his main issue, the Arab-Israeli conflict. "The majority of Arabs also want peace." stated Gaydamak. “They are for sure aggressive, but we have to make peace by giving respect to the residents of eastern Jerusalem, not by neglecting them. By mutual respect, we will bring peace around the world. All the problems of the entire world is coming because of the confrontation in the Middle East. Jerusalem will stay undivided, and economically the most known city in the world, once we create peace. We will ask international agencies to move here, and it will bring workers, hotels and different services. It's my country and no one is allowed to push me out. But they are here in Palestine. It is their land, and we should respect them."
His last statement elcited boos from the audience, to which he responded in an accented English, "So what you want? What will you do with them? They are living here in our city and there should be equal. They also are obliged to pay city tax. We should maintain their areas. If you don't like it, so don't vote for me." After he finished his speech, he asked to be allowed to return to the microphone to clarify the issue due to his English. "Jerusalem should always be under the Jewish administration." he said.
Speaking about the religious hareidi community, Gaydamak said that although some people think they are hard to live with and ask for too much money, "they are maintaining our traditional life. If not for the hareidis, we will forget why we are Jews." In response to an audience member’s question regarding the controversial "International Gay Pride parade" which has been held in Jerusalem for the past several years, Gaydamak said "I don't know what they have to be proud of, but if they want to march they should do it in Tel Aviv or Eilat."
In his debate with Barkat during the question and answer session, Gaydamak frequently answered by saying he didn’t know anything about the issues, but pledged to work to solve them nonetheless.
Outside the synagogue, young campaign activists held banners and passed out literature. Various parties passed out leaflets including Meretz and the National Religious Party, whose outspoken city council member Mina Fenton is retiring. Fenton gained publicity for demonstrating for the freedom of Jonathan Pollard and against such issues as the Gay Pride Parade and Christian missionaries.
The Meretz party passed out leaflets with their slogan, "Stop the haredi takeover of Jerusalem. Keep Jerusalem free [i.e. secular]." The flyer shows the Jerusalem skyline above an old black-and-white photo of a crowd of black hatted Jewish men. The party’s representative in the city hall, Yosef "Pepe" Alalu, is featured in other ads with his long gray pony tail, and his activists wear red t-shirts that sport his face made to resemble that of Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara. The Likud Party is also has representatives running for city council.
Jerusalem's current mayor Uri Lupolianski has chosen not to run for re-election. The hareidi mayor, with his ever present smile and frequent public appearances, has had a relatively scandal-free term in office. Lupolianski has said he will return to working with the Yad Sarah medical center which lends free medical equipment to needy citizens. Lupolianski started Yad Sarah in his home, and it has since grown into a national organization.
Municipal elections are held every five years. City residents vote on two ballots, one for a mayoral candidate and one for a political faction in the city council. Apart from the mayor and his deputies, city council members receive no salaries and work on a voluntary basis. Residents are mailed a card which they must bring to their assigned polling station.
Walter Bingham contributed to this article. Photos by Ben Bresky.
To listen to exclusive audio of the debate on Israel National Radio, click here.
To listen to an interview in English with Nir Barkat on Walter’s World with Walter Bingham, click here.
To listen to an interview in English with Arkadi Gaydamak on the Yishai Fleisher Show click here.