Vote for me — I have a kippah

The religious-secular divide is dominating the race to be mayor of Jerusalem.

By Anshel Pfeffer, October 17, 2008

In the right corner, we have a politician with decades of experience, not a man with a detailed plan, perhaps, but certainly a proven track record. In the left corner, a relative newcomer, but one who arrives with all the trappings of a meteoric success story. He has a specific vision of how he sees the future, though it still is unclear how he plans to deliver on all his promises. They will continue slugging it out until the beginning of next month, when the voters will have to decide between them. What makes the decision especially difficult is the way the campaign is constantly veering away from the "real" agenda and into issues of religion and old prejudices.

Sounds a bit like the McCain v Obama showdown? Actually, I am describing the election campaign for the mayor of Jerusalem, which will take place exactly a week after the American vote.

It matters very little to voters in Jerusalem that Meir Porush was a highly effective deputy minister of housing, twice, and before that spent 13 years in City Hall. Or that Nir Barkat has drawn up a comprehensive blueprint, with the top experts, of how the city should look in 2020. The only thing that seems to count for the two front-running candidates (oligarch Arkady Gaydamak and bohemian Dan Biron are both expected to drop out before polling day) is that Porush has a big kippah, a long beard and black coat, while Barkat has none of these.

This is the second Jerusalem election to turn into a Charedi v chiloni (secular) affair. However, when Barkat lost to Uri Lupolianski in 2003, the contrast was much less poignant. The Lupolianski campaign cannily did everything to play down his religious affiliation and on many of the posters his picture, showing kippah and beard, did not even appear. Neither did the name of his strictly Orthodox party, United Torah Judaism.

Barkat, for his part, decided not to "go negative" and did not try to demonise his opponent as someone who would paint the city black. But that was then.

This time, things will be a lot less peaceful. Barkat has made it clear that the gloves are going to be off.

This is evident in a lot of the rhetoric surrounding the campaign, and in the media coverage. Porush has taking the bull by the horns; instead of avoiding the issue, his campaign this week put up huge posters with a cartoon of the candidate sporting an even larger beard than he really has, and the slogan "Jerusalem will love Porush - Guaranteed".

Both candidates are walking a difficult tightrope. To win, Porush has to make sure that his core, strictly Orthodox constituency, a quarter of the Jewish vote (East Jerusalem Arabs boycott the elections) turn out once again in their masses. But he has to be careful how he galvanises them. He also needs at least some votes from the non-Charedi sectors and to do nothing to rouse the secular constituency, which normally stays at home on local elections, from its normal apathetic state.

This is the apathy that Barkat must break but, in doing so, he cannot afford to be seen merely as the secular champion, for he is desperately wooing the city's national-religious community whose votes he has to gain to win.

There are real issues beyond the images. Porush might seem threatening to many, but he might just be the man capable of solving the city's major problem, bedevilling secular and strictly Orthodox alike - the lack of affordable housing for young families.

Barkat appeals to many as a high-tech tycoon and a man of the world, but does he have what it takes to end Jerusalem's downward spiral into a metropolis divided into prime real estate for millionaires only, dilapidated slum neighbourhoods, and an increasingly no-go Palestinian side of the city? His plan merits serious discussion, as does Porush's experience.

Whatever they might have, or not, on their heads is immaterial.

Anshel Pfeffer is the JC's special correspondent

Last updated: 12:27pm, October 16 2008