November 4, 2008 was exactly 13 years from the day Yigal Amir killed then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, out of fear for the latter’s intention to conclude a peace with the Palestinians and give up part of what the Orthodox Jews perceive as the God-given land of greater Israel. The murder (finally) opened the eyes of the western world that Israel is to a large extent a religious state, which since its inception in 1948 has grown ever more so.
This religousity was illustrated by the country’s municipal elections on November 12, especially by those in Jerusalem. The main candidates for the Holy City’s top job were colorful, to say the least, and as such a good reflection of the complex make-up of Israeli society.
In the race were the eventual winner, Nir Barkat, a sharply-dressed former paratrooper and software tycoon, Meir Porush, an ultra-orthodox Rabbi portrayed on election posters as a Papa Smurf look-alike, and Arkadi Gaydamak, a Russian immigrant billionaire who hardly speaks a word of Hebrew and is wanted by Interpol for his role in an arms smuggling scandal between France and Angola.
Barkat won with 52% of the vote, closely followed by Porush with 43%, while Gaydamak came in as a disappointing third with 3.6%. In total, only 41% of the electorate went to the polling stations, which should not come as a surprise as Arab Jerusalemites did not bother to leave their homes. After all, who should they have voted for? Without exception, all three candidates stressed that the Jewish capital would never be divided and even the so- called “moderate” Barkat has called for an increase in settlements in occupied East Jerusalem.
Thus, Arabs and their situation in Jerusalem did not factor in as the main issue between the two main candidates.
Barkat’s campaign slogan was to “save the city,” but not from Arab hands and international good intentions, but from the rapidly growing influence of Jewish fundamentalists represented by Porush. “In another 15 years there will not be a secular mayor in any city in Israel, [except for] perhaps in some far-flung village,” claimed Porush, a 54-year-old rabbi, during an election rally.
His remark, in Yiddish, had been made to an all-Orthodox audience and was not meant for general consumption. It only became public knowledge once it was broadcast through a mobile phone news service. Porush, a father of 12, noted that the religious community’s size and influence has been growing, primarily thanks to its high birthrate.
To what extent religion has become a dominant factor in Jerusalem’s politics and daily life was felt by Rachel Azaria, head of the tiny Wake Up Jerusalemites party and the city’s fourth candidate running for mayor. Like the other candidates, she had intended to run with the help of a poster campaign portraying her and two fellow party members. The election posters were to be shown on busses, among others.
The ad agency in charge however, only agreed to run the election campaign as long as the poster did not portray any women. Even though only Azaria’s face was to be shown, the agency feared the city’s ultra-Orthodox Jews might vandalize the busses if these showed any female images. Although the agency claims that it had offered a number of alternatives, such as covering parts of Azaria’s face, the latter has now gone to court.
Meanwhile, life goes on in Jerusalem, a city that ranked last in a recent poll measuring the quality of life in 15 Israeli towns, as it suffers from congestion, a rapidly increasing population, lack of employment and a severe brain drain, as most young professionals would rather live and work in liberal Tel Aviv than in the increasingly religious climate of the Holy City.
The newly-chosen mayor, Barkat, aims to revive the capital by attracting tourism and transform the city into a high-tech hub. Yet, exactly how he intends to do that remains unclear. According to leading Israeli historian Tom Segev, many Israelis already regard Jerusalem as a lost city.
Segev also claimed that, put together, Barkat and Porush sound a lot like Avigdor Lieberman, the controversial and outspoken leader of the hardline Yisrael Beitenu party, which mainly represents Israel’s more than one million Russian immigrants, who once said that he would like to see all Israeli Arabs expelled.
If the recent municipal elections in Jerusalem are anything to go by, the national elections that are to take place in February 2009 are likely to produce a similar turn to the right. In the recently dissolved Israeli parliament, the nationalist Likud Party combined with Russian and religious votes were good for some 50 out of a total of 120 seats. With the centrist Kadima Party in disarray, as Ariel Sharon lies in a coma, Ehud Olmert faces corruption charges and current leader Tzipi Livni has yet to earn her stripes, there is a fair chance for a right-Russian-religious coalition to gain an absolute majority.
Peter Speetjens is a freelance writer
and analyst based in Beirut.