Back in the UK where I grew up, municipal elections were a drab affair, typified by campaigns of mind-numbing boredom and rock-bottom voter turnout. But it’s not only by way of that comparison that I’ve come to appreciate the importance of municipal politics here in Israel. Most of the country will be going to the polls on Tuesday and I have a very clear sense of what’s at stake in my city of Jerusalem.
The first question: “Which mayoral candidate to vote for?” would, I hope, take most non-Charedi residents of the city approximately five seconds to answer – presuming that in that time they can determine that they don’t want an extraordinarily unqualified political puppet, with no ties to Jerusalem, running the show. (Though that doesn’t mean Nir Barkat’s re-election is a forgone conclusion. Because most Charedi voters will be voting en masse for Moshe Lion, it is imperative that the rest of us make the effort to go out and vote for the incumbent.)
The second question facing Jerusalemites is much more complicated: “Which of the myriad parties running for the city council to vote for?” The identity of the individuals that fill those 31 seats in City Hall will have a significant say in what will change – or not – in the city over the next five years. There are a number of estimable people running, on a variety of lists (as well as the usual smattering of party hacks and populists), but for me there is one party that stands out for its track record and the quality of its candidates: Rachel Azaria’s Yerushalmim.
Over the past five years Yerushalmim can lay claim to some hugely impressive achievements in the city, but two areas in particular resonate with me.
Firstly, education and child care. Azaria and her allies were behind the introduction of an 11th month of gan (kindergarten) in the summer, meaning that parents now have only one month for which they have to miss work or pay for expensive babysitters, instead of two. They also legislated for free education from age three – later adopted by the Trachtenburg Committee as a recommendation for national education policy. I am a father with a young family, and I accept that this may not speak to everyone as it does to me, but any voter can admire Yerushalmim’s willingness to think big, and its ability to force through major changes. Its platform on education for the next term is a testament to its commitment to excellence and, notably, to the role of education in fostering a more accepting and pluralist spirit in a city that needs it more than most.
Which leads me to the second area of major impact: the fight for freedom of, and freedom from, religion. Jerusalem is not Tel Aviv, and it shouldn’t be trying to emulate its character. Jewish religion and tradition are important to large numbers of Jerusalemites, and many of us (this writer included) live here in part because we feel closer to that tradition here than anywhere else on earth. Rachel Azaria, herself modern Orthodox, understands and values this. But she also realizes that Jerusalem is not supposed to be an Orthodox religious enclave either. It is the capital city of the entire Jewish people, and many of those people want to be able to see a movie, visit a museum, or eat in a nice restaurant over the weekend – that is, on Shabbat. Yerushalmim has very sensibly adopted as its compass for navigating the stormy waters of religion and democracy the Gavison-Meidan Covenant – by far the most serious and compelling attempt at a secular-religious compromise to have emerged in Israel. (Among other things, Israel Prize-winning law Professor Ruth Gavison and prominent national religious Rabbi Yaacov Meidan agreed that while most centers of commercial and industrial life should be closed on Shabbat, places of entertainment and dining should be permitted to stay open if they wish.)
At numbers 2 and 3 respectively on Yerushalmim’s list for Tuesday’s election are Tamr Nir, an educator at a variety of non-Orthodox Jewish institutions, and Orthodox Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz. The latter’s courageous opposition to the Rabbinate’s extortionate monopoly over kashrut certification is absolutely indicative of Yerushalmim’s philosophy: religion yes, coercion no.
Finally – and frankly, enough on its own to merit my vote – there was no one in Jerusalem politics more active in facing down the ‘Taliban’ elements within the city’s Charedi population than Rachel Azaria. It was her Yerushalmim movement that mobilized both public support and the law to end the shameful appeasement of those demanding that no pictures of women appear on billboards or buses. It was Azaria again who petitioned the Supreme Court to ban the forced segregation of women in the streets of Meir Shearim during Sukkot.
Jerusalem is the capital of our Jewish and democratic state and what happens here has repercussions elsewhere in the country and the wider Jewish world. Yerushalmim has demonstrated its awareness of this, and its resolve that the ugly misogyny of a fundamentalist minority should never be seen as acceptable in this city.
I should state at this point that I have no formal connection to, or involvement with, Yerushalmim; and I don’t know Rachel Azaria or anyone else on her list personally. I will be doing what I can however to encourage people to vote for them, and for Nir Barkat as mayor.
Jerusalem is too important to too many people to relinquish to factional politicians and their stooges, or to populists on power-trips.
Vote Barkat and Yerushalmim on October 22nd!