Editor’s notes: Barkat’s challenge

By David Horovitz August 21, 2009

The mayor’s heart and head are in the right place. But the latest violence, some directed personally at him, is only one aspect of the immense struggle he faces to heal and revive Jerusalem

My wife and I spent a considerable part of last summer traipsing from the offices of the Jerusalem Municipality to the nearby headquarters of the Education Ministry carrying a white plaster sculpture of a group of ballerinas in mid- dance.

Our daughter, the budding sculptress responsible for this elegant piece of work, sometimes accompanied us as we pursued what was made repeatedly clear was an utterly lost cause.

She had just completed sixth grade and our mission was to secure what should have been her unremarkable progression from elementary school to the junior high school of her choice, a Jerusalem arts school with a fine reputation. The school had accepted her, but the city and the ministry had not: A complex quota system was in place, affecting many schools in the city – a bureaucratic nightmare born of a cluster of unjust considerations for which no single body took responsibility. Among these was the fact that, for financial reasons, the city favored applicants to certain schools from outside Jerusalem (a bias circumvented by some parents who applied from false addresses). It also all but insisted that children who had studied at my daughter’s elementary school continue through high school in the same educational framework.

Convinced that our daughter would flourish at the school that she had applied for and that had accepted her, and outraged by the reasons the authorities were advancing to prevent her from taking up her place, we made literally dozens of phone calls, sent numerous letters, met with officials in both bureaucracies, sought the assistance of people in the city’s governing coalition and its opposition, prepared a folder of our pleadings and her paintings which we delivered to the education minister, refused to register her for any other school, and kept her at home for the first few days of the new school year. And despite a series of four increasingly terse official rejection letters, ultimately prevailed – presumably through sheer persistence.

This summer, parents are unlikely to find themselves in a similar predicament. Very soon after he took over as mayor, Nir Barkat, whose office was one of several that did its best to assist us a year ago, canceled the inequitable quota system.

If only all the challenges the city faces were as easily resolved.

THE CAPITAL of Israel – named for peace, and a symbol of elevated aspiration – is in real trouble at ground level.

Its very status has never won international recognition and, following the departures in recent years of El Salvador and Costa Rica, it now has not a single international embassy within its boundaries. At its recent conference in Bethlehem, meanwhile, the mainstream Fatah faction of the PLO appeared to lay claim not merely to Jerusalem territory to which Israel expanded its sovereignty after the 1967 war, but to the entire city.

Its center, once thriving, was battered and bloodied by the onslaught of suicide bombers and subsequently destroyed by the staggering ineptitude of the light rail project – the kind of undertaking that other cities have somehow managed to complete without inflicting endless years of blight upon their residents, but that has proved beyond the capacities of todays builders of Jerusalem. Seven years after the tender was awarded for a project that was always of dubious value, not least because of security considerations, downtown remains a dusty embarrassment, a logistical obstacle course and an economic ruin. The welcome success of the Mamilla shopping mall only underlines how much potential there is for a thriving city center, and how tragic is the self-inflicted damage the light rail has wrought.

The harmonious demographic mosaic so cherished by legendary former mayor Teddy Kollek is shattering. There is hardly any interaction between Jewish and Arab neighborhoods, and precious little sense of genuine coexistence in the few neighborhoods, such as Abu Tor, where day-to-day interaction is unavoidable.
In Jewish Jerusalem, the process of haredization is ongoing – with fewer and fewer neighborhoods now comfortable for secular or even modern-Orthodox residents. And that process is unfortunately currently accompanied by our weekly doses of demonstrable intolerance by a minority of ultra-Orthodox extremists who are dismally sullying the image of the majority. The continuing violent opposition to the Shabbat opening of a parking lot at Jaffa Gate, emphatically outside ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, represents the unacceptable face of attempted religious coercion and is itself a betrayal of Judaism. Throwing stones, on the Sabbath or any other day; injuring policemen; wrecking street signs and garbage bins and other public property – none of this can be reconciled with the precepts of the religion whose values these extremists falsely claim to be defending.

This extremism reached its nadir a few days ago with a vicious attack on Barkat in his car – as the mayor left a meeting in the Ezrat Torah ultra-Orthodox neighborhood, ironically with a Holocaust-surviving hassidic leader who sought city funding for institutions that commendably educate the Orthodox community on the Holocaust. Barkat had to be extracted from a stone-throwing melee by the police. It ‘looked like a lynching,’ an eyewitness told our reporter. ‘A few more minutes and they would have flipped the car over.’

These scenes of confrontations, these demonstrations of fundamental intolerance, of course, make a cumulative impression on law-abiding residents across the city – as, indeed, the extremists intend them to – further encouraging the long-standing non-haredi exodus to surrounding locales like Mevaseret Zion, or more distant refuges like Modi’in and Tel Aviv.

And the outflow of non-haredi wage-earners, forced away also by sky high property prices, in turn plunges the city into ever-deeper economic grief.

BARKAT is to be commended for having served his term as opposition leader when defeated for the mayor’s post by Uri Lupolianski in 2004, rather than packing in local politics and returning to his successful business career, before making his second, successful shot at the mayoralty.

And since taking office, he has taken mainstream positions on the status of the city, lobbies effectively for Jerusalem on trips abroad, and has been trying to find a way out of the light rail nightmare.

His handling of the parking lot dispute, and of the vicious personal attack last week, are also to be commended. Depicted by some activists as having capitulated to ultra-Orthodox pressure over the issue of Shabbat parking at the Old City, Barkat had in fact initially, and properly, sought a compromise formula with the city’s ultra-Orthodox council members, and believed that he had found one. When that arrangement failed, he found an alternative, and has stuck resolutely with it. His public declarations have been firm and measured, designed to encourage tolerance and common sense, not exacerbate tension.

Even his response to having his car attacked was similarly astute. He noted, correctly, that dangerous red lines were being crossed, but still took care to highlight that his condemnations were for the extremists, not the law-abiding mainstream.

What Barkat needs in this area, what Jerusalem needs, is similar firmness from the police and the courts – offenders must be found, and once found must be prosecuted, not simply let go with a mild warning and every incentive to return to violent street protest.

THE MAYOR won his shot at reversing some of Jerusalem’s dire trends in large part because of internal rivalries within the ultra-Orthodox community, which did not turn out in sufficient numbers on local election day, last November, for its own candidate, Meir Porush.

But if he can’t reverse the demographic trend, Barkat’s will likely be a one-term blip before the return of an ultra-Orthodox mayor to City Hall. And if he can’t galvanize the dwindling non-Orthodox populace here – and they did not rally particularly strongly behind him last year – he’ll certainly fail to win reelection.

Mild-mannered and generally understated, our mayor has made a reasonable start to his term at the helm of this intensely contested, complex city – and not only because parents won’t have to follow our trail from City Hall to the Education Ministry and back to get their kids into school this summer. His head and his heart are plainly in the right place. But it’s an uphill struggle to heal and revive Jerusalem. Nir Barkat deserves all the help, the protection and the support he can get.

© The Jerusalem Post