Jerusalem mayor and tensions with ultra-Orthodox Jews

December 8, 2009
Jerusalem on a cloudy day. October 30, 2009. REUTERS/Darren Whiteside

Photo: Jerusalem on a cloudy day, 30 Oct 2009/Darren Whiteside

I had a rare opportunity to talk with Israel’s mayor of Jerusalem Nir Barkat on Sunday about how he spent most of his first year in office trying to find a political homeostasis in the city holy to Jews, Christians and Muslims. The main news that came out of it was his call for the European Union on Monday to reject any future division of the city (read that story here).

We sat together for about an hour in his office on the top floor of the city hall. He has a large balcony that overlooks the modern part of the city from one side, where cranes and crews are hard at work building and developing. The other side overlooks the walled Old City, a view that has highlighted the hilly Jerusalem landscape for centuries.

Nir Barkat walks through a Jerusalem market while he was running for mayor last year. REUTERS/Baz Ratner (JERUSALEM)

Nir Barkat campaigning for mayor last year in a Jerusalem market, 6 Nov 2009/Baz Ratner

Much of our discussion focused on the city’s ultra-Orthodox community, which has been volatile since the secular Barkat took office a year ago.  He was elected in a political battle between the city’s secular and ultra-Orthodox Jews. The Orthodox have protested, often violently, against issues and policies they see challenging their way of life — ranging from the opening of an Intel electric plant and parking lot on the Sabbath, and even a medical case involving police and the mother of a young boy.

Barkat surprised me by shrugging off the religious uproar as “noise.” Looking ahead, he told he will need two to three terms (each four years) to achieve his vision. That vision, by the way, includes attracting 10 million tourists to visit the city each year — that’s about five times more than today.

Here are some excerpts from the interview:

Why did you make such a broad coalition in the city government, which includes religious parties?

“The reality is that for the city of Jerusalem and for the vision I have put on the table, I believe having a wide coalition, hearing people out, being very transparent and open with the strategy, is the right thing for the city of Jerusalem. And it works. If you look at other places, the (national) government does not have such a wide coalition. It works because sometimes it means you delay a little bit more in the decision process, but the decisions we make are well thought out and I believe are wiser and smarter for our city.”

Are some of the ultra-Orthodox flexing their muscles for a secular mayor?

“It’s true that there is about two percent of the population in the city, six or seven percent of the ultra-Orthodox community, that is more violent than it was in the past. It’s a very small minority. Indeed I think that you will find that in spite of the fact that there were riots, it did not change any of the decisions I made or anybody else made. On the one hand, there is a more extreme part of the population that was violent — and stopped, by the way, because violence got them nothing and violence will not achieve anything under my leadership.”

Are you worried that events like the religious  protest at the Intel plant will deter foreign companies and investors in the city?

“I spent 15 years in the high-tech sector, and through all of the ups and downs on politics in the city of Jerusalem and the country in general, Israeli companies have never lost a day of delivery … I wouldn’t get moved by some noise here and there … We know how to overcome noise here and there that happens. And the proof is in the fact that indeed those investments are going up.”

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