16 November, 2008

Jerusalem Votes

Jerusalem held mayoral elections last week. An article from last Saturday in the Financial Times profiles the candidates. One odd thing about the election was that none of Israel's main political parties bothered putting up a candidate for the top job in the country's official capital. This reflects the extent to which the city has moved to the margins of the country's life, something that seems to only have happened over the last decade or so. Teddy Kolleck, Jerusalem's mayor from 1965 to 1993, was a prominent world figure, while Ehud Olmert (still, just about, prime minister of Israel) used the mayoralty as his springboard to the top job. Now, though, the mayoral elections are the province of eccentrics and personality candidates.

The rise of the religious right in Israel may be a factor in the decline in importance of the city. The ultra-orthodox are increasingly prominent in Jerusalem, and their ascendancy has led to many secular or moderately religious Israelis leaving the city. The city has become less and less a place of commerce or intellectual activity, and more and more a devotional centre. Another factor might be the city's relative isolation from the coastal strip that is the effective core of the Israeli state. Such things are relative (you could probably drive from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in an hour), but its physical position might engender a certain detachment from its day to day concerns.

One thing I was struck by in that Financial Times article was how the only candidate who, to me, seemed to talk any kind of sense was Dan Biron, running on the marijuana-legalisation platform. Aside from his cannabis decriminalisation policies, he had some other crazy policies – like having public transport run on the Sabbath. No one voted for him, however, because unlike all the other candidates he did not spend his time shiteing on about how Jerusalem must remain the eternal undivided capital of Israel. That points to another odd feature of Jerusalem – its divided nature. When I visited the city, I was staying just outside the Old City, near the Damascus gate. That part of the city is very Palestinian. Apart from the Israeli soldiers and the occasional ultra-orthodox Jew in the immediate vicinity of the gate, you could be in any middle-eastern city. But if you walked for 25 minutes you would be in the down-town area of West Jerusalem. Apart from the occasional ultra-orthodox Jew, the fact that every second person was carrying a machine gun, and the security checks at the entrances to everything, you could be in any city in Western Europe. The two parts of the city have almost no interaction with each other, apart from the occasional eviction of Palestinians to make way for a new Israeli settlement. However, the fictional unity of the city is a core value in Israeli politics.

Jerusalem's Palestinians largely do not vote in Israeli elections. In fairness to the Israelis, they have extended notional voting rights to the city's Palestinian residents, but most Palestinians refuse to exercise these. The feeling is that to vote in Israeli elections would somehow legitimise Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem. I feel that this is a somewhat quixotic position, and it might well contribute to the general neglect of the Palestinian east by the municipal authorities. Politicians ignore people who don't vote, while a voting Palestinian public might just be able to form alliances with some of the city's Israeli politicians and set its government on a less nakedly sectarian course. As is, the elections largely reflected the divisions within West Jerusalem that pit the ultra-orthodox Jews against their secular and moderately religious fellow citizens.

In the end, Jerusalem's voters chose Nir Barkat as their mayor. He comes from the secular side of Israel's divide, but is uncompromising in his support for Jerusalem remaining under Israeli rule. He promises to expand Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem, presumably evicting more Palestinians in the process.


Profile: Nir Barkat (BBC)

Holy City facing splits and decline (BBC)

Ultra-Orthodox pitted against secular Jews in Jerusalem's mayoral election (Guardian)

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