It’s only been a few weeks since the race for Jerusalem mayor, which was assumed to be a slam dunk for incumbent Nir Barkat, due to the lack of any competition whatsoever, heated up with the entry of a serious contender, Moshe Lion, the former chairman of the Jerusalem Development Authority.
Suddenly ubiquitous billboards showing the new challenger’s smiling face have appeared all over town, and articles about how Lion is being fielded by both Shas’s Aryeh Deri and Likud Beitenu’s Avigdor Liberman as the haredi community’s choice to replace Barkat, have peppered the local media. But up until now, it was unclear what he actually stood for. Lion’s campaign slogan “Jerusalem for all its residents” could mean anything, and proclamations about the need to clean up the city’s dirty streets or build affordable housing are standard re-treads from every campaign going back to the British Mandate (and probably before).
On Friday, though, the Lion spoke, through an editorial published in The Jerusalem Post. Well, more an attack column than an editorial, as it spent the majority of its 900 words describing what the current mayor is doing wrong rather than putting forth any concrete message on what Lion would do instead (unless you consider “improving relations between city hall and government institutions” and “generally looking at ways to ease and improve the lives of residents” to be particularly actionable).
But what bugs me most about Lion’s column is his disingenuous twisting of statistics. He states that since the beginning of Barkat’s term five years ago, “more than 90,000 residents” in total have decided to leave the city. Taken on its own, that sounds pretty bad. But figures from the Central Bureau of Statistics released earlier this year paint a more nuanced picture. Yes, in a single year, 2012, 17,400 people left Jerusalem for other localities in Israel, but 7,300 moved in. Moreover, 22,800 babies were born in the city that year, leading to an overall population increase.
Barkat was interviewed by The Times of Israel’s David Horowitz at around the same time as the CBS numbers were published. Barkat called migration out of the city a natural trend. The city simply “cannot keep all of its residents, because there is such strong natural growth,” Barkat explained. The more important numbers, he added, have to do with what’s happening with education demographics. For the first time in years, the number of students in the state school system was up 2%, and in the state religious system it was more than 4%. Barkat contrasted that with a drop of 7% in those two systems under his predecessor, Uri Lupolianski.
Now, that’s important only if you agree with Barkat’s overall vision of promoting a more pluralistic, modern and Zionist city – one that I certainly subscribe to. So, while there may still be people leaving the city, those who are staying (or moving in) increasingly represent a younger, engaged and – gasp – secular constituency. You only have to look at the endless activities, concerts and parties for students around town, or the unprecedented success of the First Station Complex, which would never have gotten off the ground in a pre-Barkat Jerusalem, and would probably be stymied in a Lion Jerusalem future.
Keeping residents from fleeing the city is closely connected with employment opportunities and here Lion again pulls out some shaky stats. More than 10,000 businesses have closed over the past five years of Barkat’s administration, he writes in his column; a pretty awful figure, unless you actually look at the numbers less cynically. For example, using a single year as a reference point, in 2010, yes, 2,700 businesses closed, according to the annual report published by the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies. But 3,200 businesses opened. That’s a net gain of 500 businesses. Tel Aviv opened more businesses, it’s true (Lion uses Tel Aviv as his control group), but Jerusalem always comes short in comparison with the Big Orange. Haifa might be a better contrast, which posted a net gain of only 300 new businesses.
Lion has plenty more criticisms: he feels Barkat goofed by making changes in the operation of the neighborhood councils (he may be right) and our school test scores are still not where they should be (also true). But then he throws in this zinger that only further calls into question his facile manipulation of numbers. He says that Jerusalemites have been subject to a “silent tax” – a 20 percent rise in the number of parking tickets placed on the windows of cars.
Really? That’s a “tax?” If you park your car legally, as you should, there’s nothing to worry about. Indeed, I welcome any efforts to get Jerusalemites to obey parking laws and leave the sidewalks open for pedestrians, to name just one of a few parking “liberties” taken by city drivers. Complaining about parking tickets is populism at its worst.
The past five years under Barkat’s administration have seen a dramatic improvement in the atmosphere of the city. There is a feeling of hope, pride and excitement in living in Israel’s capital which I hope will continue, regardless of who wins in October. There are certainly issues to be discussed. But don’t confuse the voters with misleading and inaccurate numbers. We’re smarter than that, Moshe Lion.
(Note: I am not on the payroll of the Barkat campaign, just a concerned citizen with opinions I will undoubtedly write more about as the election comes closer.)