A lot of my friends in Jerusalem think that mayoral candidate Nir Barkat will save the city. There are generally two arguments they offer: First, he’s a former high-tech entrepreneur, and the business world produces better managers than the political arena does.
Second, and much more important, Barkat is secular. Among secular, traditional, and modern-leaning Orthodox Jewish residents of Jerusalem there’s a backlash against ultra-Orthodox hegemony at City Hall. There’s a pervading sense that ultra-Orthodox rule is responsible for the city’s economic decline, and for the exodus of young people. The conventional wisdom is that the ultra-Orthodox are on the demographic march toward turning Jerusalem into a giant neo-shtetl, big sister to Bnei Brak. Barkat is supposed to be the solution.
Regarding the argument that Barkat is a real manager because he comes from the free market: In a month when the money managers of the world are desperately begging the politicians to save them, claiming business experience seems a poor strategy. And Barkat’s limited experience at a start-up that happened to ride a high-tech boom doesn’t exactly prove he could manage the relations between Jerusalem’s conflicting communities, negotiate with the national government for funds, or coax money out of philanthropists in the style of the legendary Teddy Kollek.
As for Barkat being secular, I understand the appeal. However, it ignores a lot of facts. For instance, the ultra-Orthodox are actually leaving Jerusalem as well. If they are taking over the city, it’s happening very slowly. As this (Hebrew) article explains, the ultra-Orthodox proportion of Jerusalem’s population has risen from 29% to 32% over 13 years.
More important, the support for Barkat ignores the real causes for Jerusalem’s decline, and the positions and qualifications of the actual candidate. Barkat’s two most striking characteristics are his far-right politics and intellectual capabilities that, at the most polite, can be labeled shallow.
From my new article at The American Prospect, here’s a description of Barkat meeting the press:
Asked if he supported Jewish settlement in Palestinian neighborhoods — a tactic of far-right groups that has dramatically increased tensions in the city — he said, “Definitely yes.” He likewise endorsed the exclusively Jewish account of Jerusalem’s history presented by religious rightists who manage an archeological site at the City of David, inside the Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan. “That’s where I connect to my Jewish roots,” he said.
To reverse the city’s economic decline, Barkat asserted he would bring 10 million tourists a year to Jerusalem (a seven-fold increase over current numbers), and attract high-tech and biotech companies. Why, I asked, would the private sector invest in the city, given the risk factors in a city riven by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
“Because it’s the right thing to do,” he answered. “If we look at vision, and where Jerusalem must be, that is the right thing to do. And I believe that Jerusalem has to be managed with a vision, and I think that the world has to play ball and help us strengthen and build the city of Jerusalem. It’s a very simple answer.” Oh, I thought. Just tell them to do it.
That, I should note, was one of his more coherent answers. Asked how he’d work with the national government, which provides most of the city’s funds, he said:
Working with government is a challenge and, uh, it’s a process. I believe that when you put in motion developing Jerusalem to become a destination site for tourists… and start making those first steps to execute a vision, we’ll be able to convince more and more people about the importance and the ability to execute that vision.
That’s clear, isn’t it?
When another journalist asked Barkat his view of the security fence cutting through the city in various spots, he offered an impassioned defense of the fence as such as such, and determinedly avoided relating to the question about its route. Truly, it seemed that he’d taken lessons from Sarah Palin on how to answer questions.
For more on the mayoral race, check my article at the Prospect, and come back to South Jerusalem to comment.