Diana Lipton
A Bible scholar on the streets of Jerusalem

Berkovitch for Mayor: an argument from design

Old City hammam, photo credit: Diana Lipton

top-1400_500-OFER-PlanFaced with challenging questions about the world and their place in it, the rabbis asked a simple question: What is this like? Why, for example, were Jews suffering in exile while their enemies were building great empires? This is like the king who got married and wrote his wife a generous ketubah (marriage contract) …

This coming Tuesday, Jerusalem residents are facing a challenging question with major consequences for us all: who should be the mayor of our city? In the first stage of the election, no candidate received the 40% of the votes required for to be elected. Now we’re choosing between election leader, Moshe Leon, and the runner-up, Ofer Berkovich.

I find it hard to get my head around this, but Leon himself generated only 5000 votes in the first round of the municipal elections, and not one single member of his list won a seat on the city council. The votes that allowed him to stay in the race were secured by deals with Haredi voting blocs. Naturally, this is the sector of Jerusalem’s population to whom Leon will be beholden if he’s elected. Even if you’re Sephardi like Leon, even if you’re religious, even if you’re right-wing, you’ll have little if anything to gain by voting for Leon and a lot to lose. In fact, even the Haredim who control Leon may have a lot to lose (more on that below).

For better and worse, Berkovich is the opposite of Leon. From the outset, his platform is diversity, and the seats won by his list are held by men and women, secular and religious (even Haredi), Ashkenazim and Sephardim, and Left and Right. Born and raised in Jerusalem (unlike Leon, who moved here 5 years ago to be eligible to run in the last municipal elections), Berkovich is young and secular. But he isn’t interested in creating Jerusalem in his own image, or in the image of a voting bloc who’ll give him nominal power. He wants Jerusalem to be the city of all its residents. This means that, by definition, his supporters won’t get everything they personally want. But when it comes to the city of Jerusalem, and perhaps all cities, not getting everything that you want may turn out to be in your best interests.

What is a city? Or, to follow the lead of the rabbis, what is a city like? Julian Beinart, a Professor in the Architecture department at MIT, offers students in his course Theory of City Forms three models for answering that question: city as machine, supernatural city, and city as organism.

I won’t bother to explain why Jerusalem is not like a machine.  If you’ve spent even a few hours here, it will be obvious to you that it doesn’t fit this model as described by Beinart:

The concept of the city as analogous to a machine has a lengthy history. This model emerges often when there is no long-term goal in mind but the settlement must be created hurriedly, with its future growth determined by unforeseen forces. Its form requires a few simple rules in order to continue with urbanization, and the outcome is factual, functional, and without any attachment to the mystery of the universe. Among its attributes are convenience, speed, flexibility, legibility, equality, and speculation.

It’s tempting to place Jerusalem in the supernatural category: it’s holy to three world religions, after all. But Beinart warns his students that it’s essential to see a city as it really is, not as you think it should be, and anyone who lives in Jerusalem will tell you that it emphatically doesn’t fit the supernatural model as Beinart describes it:

In the cosmic model, the assertion is that the form of a permanent settlement should be a magical model of the universe and its gods. Such a crystalline city has all of its parts fused into a perfectly ordered whole and change is allowed to happen only in a rhythmically controlled manner. To achieve such form, specific phenomena are included, such as returning, natural items, celestial measurement, fixing location, centeredness, boundary definition, earth images, land geometry, directionality, place consciousness, and numerology. These are acknowledged in creating the city’s form by devising methods for finding a good site, making boundaries, subdividing land, determining a center, connecting to celestial forms, fixing coordinates, controlling change, determining social structure, codifying rules, coordinating physics and metaphysics, and reinforcing form through ritual.

So that leaves city as organism. At this point I’ll admit that I came across Professor Beinart’s website when I ran a google search for ‘city as organism’. It’s what popped into my head when I asked myself the rabbis’ question, what is it (Jerusalem) like?

Here’s what Beinart has to say about city as organism.

The third great normative model, which claims that the city is analogous a living organism, is more recent and arose from the growth of biology in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries… The theory of the organic city rests on a number of assumptions about the nature of organisms. Among these is the assertion that an organism is an autonomous individual, and that it has a definite boundary and is of a specific size. It does not change merely by adding parts but through reorganization as it reaches limits or thresholds. It contains differentiated parts, but form and function are always linked. The whole organism is homeostatic, self-repairing and regulating toward a dynamic balance. Cycles of life and death are normal to organisms as is rhythmic passage from one state to another. From this flows the notion of the form of the organic city. It is a separate spatial and social unit made up internally of highly connected places and people. A healthy community is heterogeneous and diverse. The micro-unit is the neighborhood, a small residential area, which was defined by Clarence Perry in 1929 as the support area for an elementary school to which children, the most vulnerable of the human species, can safely walk.

The 18th and 19th century biologists Beinart mentions did not have the option of photographing the delicate, complex organisms of whose existence they were becoming aware, so they drew them. Here are some breathtakingly beautiful images of organisms the from German biologist/illustrator Ernst Haeckel‘s 1904 publication Kunstformen der Natur (Artforms of Nature), juxtaposed with street photos I took haphazardly with my iPhone. Jerusalem is a fragile, complex organism. It deserves a mayor who’ll allow it to flourish in its living, breathing entirety, not one who’ll make the fatal mistake of feeding one section and starving another, causing the whole to wither and worse.

For zoomable links of Haeckel’s plates, click here.  


About the Author
Before I moved to Israel in 2011, I was a Fellow of Newnham College, Cambridge (1997-2006), and a Reader in Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies at King's College London (2007-2011). In Israel, I've taught Bible at Hebrew University's International School and, currently, in the Department of Biblical Studies at Tel Aviv University, where I am a Teaching Fellow and chair the Academic Steering Committee of the Orit Guardians MA program for Ethiopian Jews. I give a weekly parsha shiur at Beit Moses home for the elderly in Jerusalem. I serve on the Boards of Jerusalem Culture Unlimited (JCU) and Hassadna Jerusalem Music Conservatory, and I'm a judge for the Sami Rohr Prize. I'm the very proud mother of Jacob and Jonah, and I live in Jerusalem with my husband Chaim Milikowsky. My last book was 'From Forbidden Fruit to Milk and Honey: A Commentary on Food in the Torah'; proceeds go to Leket, Israel's national food bank. The working title of my next book, co-authored with Micha Price, is 'A Biblical Guide to the Climate Crisis'.