Earlier this month, Jerusalem’s Mayor Nir Barkat came to the Great Synagogue in the city center for the third in a series of annual conversations since he took office, before a large public audience, with David Horovitz. This is the edited transcript.
David Horovitz: Mayor Barkat, this is our third such conversation (here in the Great Synagogue since your election as mayor). I have to say, you’re looking pretty good for someone who’s running “the most complex city in the world.”
Nir Barkat: Things are really moving. My wife tells me that probably the best thing that happened to me was that I lost the first election for the mayoralty (in 2003), because I had time – five-and-a-half-years – to prepare, sharpen the vision, come up with a business plan. And once I got elected, I knew what I wanted to accomplish in terms of culture, tourism, business, education and other initiatives. So coming well prepared, and working with a very wide coalition and wide acceptance… that makes life reasonably easy to manage.
We seem to be in the midst of a new collection of incidents of ultra-Orthodox extremism. How troubled are you? How extreme is the ultra-orthodox community in Jerusalem. What steps are you taking to grapple with this?
It’s important to understand the big picture. So, first, let me tell you what is happening with the ultra-Orthodox community which I’m really happy with. We held a job fair at the Binyenei Ha’uma (convention center) five months ago, because we see growth in the demand for jobs in the ultra-Orthodox sector. You know how many people showed up? 4,000 people came! Two-thirds women, a third men, applying for the 600 jobs that were open.
There’s growth in the number of ultra-Orthodox people going to the army. There was concern many years ago that if boys go into the army ultra-Orthodox, they come out secular. The track record is long enough now to show that whoever enters the army ultra-Orthodox leaves the army ultra-Orthodox, and that the secular leave secular. The army, the way it’s managed today, does not affect people’s religion. So the fears have decreased.
With respect to gender separation, we have 31 council members. 12 of them are ultra-Orthodox, and none of them supports gender separation, segregation in public areas. Not one.
There was an incident in Mea Shearim last Succot where the Eda Haredit — the ultra-ultra-Orthodox, quite extreme — have a big event in their synagogue. Tens of thousands of people come. Illegally, they tried, at the street level, to manage the separation between men and women going into the synagogue.
There had been (a similar incident) the previous year. The police had told them they’re not allowed to do that, and so they decreased the size. But still they were (segregating) in the public areas. The police explained to them how to solve the problem. Even with them, I prefer that the police and the municipality sit and explain. And they’re playing ball. Hopefully we’ve solved that specific problem.
There is a problem all across the country with bus segregation. It’s illegal and it’s wrong, and we should manage it, by which I mean making sure it doesn’t continue. But if I have to put this in a little wider perspective, believe me there are bigger challenges in the city of Jerusalem. The relationship with the ultra-Orthodox, to my mind, is heading north not south. I’ve gained trust in their leadership; hopefully it’s mutual, so that we can actually do many things together.
That’s a very mild and encouraging response. And yet apart from the incidents you cite, we’ve had cases where there was a community council election and women were thrown out of a polling station in Mea Shearim, incidents with shops that are putting up a separation barrier between men and women…
The Eda Haredit represents two percent of the population of Jerusalem. They don’t vote for the government. They don’t vote in municipal elections. They don’t have any representation. Two percent is 16,000 people. The way to deal with them is through the police and the law. I don’t see the two percent becoming 20 percent or 30 percent. The challenge is to maintain a good relationship with the vast majority of the ultra-Orthodox.
I’m not saying that there are not issues. On the contrary. I think every time we hear something (illegal is going on), we have to condemn it and to make the police or whoever is responsible deal with it directly.
On the segregated sidewalk issue, you kicked out a coalition member, Rachel Azaria, for filing a legal complaint against the city. Wasn’t she highlighting an issue where you should have been on her side of the argument?
I was and I am and I told her so. But I am managing a coalition of 29-30 council members out of 31. Can you imagine a minister in the Israeli government filing a lawsuit against his own government? You can’t do that. It’s against the rules. And God forbid if I’d gone on with life (as though nothing had happened). If you think we did something wrong, tell me and let’s deal with the situation. But you can’t sue your own government.
Is the tension with the ultra-Orthodox rooted in the way the education system works in Israel – that we have an essentially segregated educational system, with different parts of the demographic spectrum going to such different schools?
In Jerusalem you have state secular schools and state religious schools. You have state secular schools that act like state religious schools, and vice-versa. You have such a huge array, and each school creates its own different set of rules. Try to impose an educational philosophy on Jews? It’ll never work. Everyone is sure that their way is the best way. And I am not in a position to tell people what’s right and wrong.
The right way to do it is to expand the horizon and enable everyone to be part of the education system. Price your subjects, and let the schools choose what they want. If they choose to take no core curriculum subjects – English, mathematics… — then they get very little money from the government.
Your “pricing” vision sounds like you have to extort some schools to teach core subjects to the kids. Do we not have the authority to impose on the school system that they teach the core subjects that are essential for life…
If you try to force people to learn something, you get the exact opposite effect. My experience is give them the option – enable them to learn — and when they don’t feel threatened by the force of the law, you get much better results.
Lately, I see that both in East Jerusalem and in the ultra-Orthodox schools, they opt to teach a lot of these core subjects, because they understand what’s good for them. So I am not panicking over the fact that the core curriculum is not imposed on the ultra-Orthodox schools. I will give them options and I will help them catch up, big time, if they want to.
Adina Bar-Shalom — the daughter of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef – started her ultra-Orthodox college over a decade ago with a few dozen women. Now she has over 1,000 students – 800 women, 200 men. Suddenly (some in the ultra-Orthodox community) are thinking to themselves, why didn’t we teach some of those subjects? Demand is now growing in the Sephardi schools and the other schools that have the flexibility.
What are the current demographics in Jerusalem, the breakdown?
Let me first give you very interesting statistics on the kids in the education system. (Under the previous mayor), the state secular schools shrunk 12 percent in absolute numbers. The state religious schools shrunk 7 percent. When you look at the numbers from the beginning of my term, state secular schools are up 4 percent and state religious schools are up 3 percent. Now, kids don’t stay on their own. They stay with their families. So that’s a big change.
Jerusalem is becoming more attractive for the Zionist population. We see it in the number of kids, the number of jobs, the number of people coming to enjoy our culture, and we’re starting to look at other parameters. We see the beginning of change.
To stabilize that I need a minimum of another seven years ahead, if not more. I’m here to stay for a long time to make sure this change continues.
There’s no term limit for mayor of Jerusalem? You just go on and on and on?
Two to three terms.
Broadly speaking, if you do a breakdown of the city, how does the 800,000 break down?
Well, we are about 33 percent Muslims in Jerusalem, two percent Christians, and 65 percent Jews out of which 20 percent are ultra-Orthodox and the other 45 percent are Zionists – ones that call themselves Zionist, that serve in the army.
The first thing that has to be done is to create jobs to make Jerusalem a very attractive place for the young Zionist population that has left. We have to create a better education system. Then there’s the price of housing; we are very dependent on the government for that. And finally, the general atmosphere – create a city that people feel for, that they feel they belong to. We’re making good progress in three of those; on the price of housing we’re still struggling because of dependency on (central) government.
If we push ahead on those four, you will see that each one of them separately and all four of them together influence migration. We don’t have to convince the young population of Israel why living in Jerusalem is a good thing. Thank God, there’s 3,000 years of history. Among the young population, even 70 percent of the ones that leave don’t want to leave. We don’t have to convince them why to stay. We have to provide them with the practicalities — how to stay in the city of Jerusalem.
With respect to East Jerusalem, my goal is to improve the quality of life. There’s a direct correlation between an improving economy and low rates of crime and violence. When people have a lot to lose, they play ball.
Give us some specifics on job creation.
The first economic driver is tourism. Jerusalem is a brand that over three and a half billion people in the world would like to come and visit and enjoy at least once in their lifetime. We’re integrating culture and tourism – creating interesting ideas like the marathon. We did it last year and we’re having another one, with hopefully more than 10,000 people, on March 16.
And you’re running…
I am running the half-marathon and you are welcome to join me. Then we have the season of culture. We have a “Light Festival” in the Old City, the “Night Festival” in the Old City, “Balabasta” in Mahane Yehuda, the opera…
We have created the new Mazi Theater building, the Headset building for culture next to the Jerusalem Theater, a big investment to create more culture right next to Gerard Behar, 15,000 square meters (in the city center). We’re investing in expanding Teddy Stadium (in Malcha) to 31,000 seats for the Maccabiah games in the summer of 2013. (Alongside Teddy) we’re building the Heichal Hapayis hall for basketball for 20 times a year, and for other events over 100 times a year. It’s a hall with 11,000 seats and a roof.
All of these events and infrastructure are to enable expansion of business in line with the vision of bringing more and more people to the city of Jerusalem. We’re tripling the investments in culture. This summer, we had triple the amount of events we had three summers ago. And it feeds itself. At the old train station, you’ve heard of Ir Hakerach – the City of Ice? For that we expect another 300,000 people.
There was just a new bid to launch building at the new train station. It’s going to be a place for lots of new restaurants, places of culture, alongside Zappa and an extension of the Khan Theater. We’re building two cinema cities, one at the entrance to the city and one in the southern part, each with 16 cinema theaters. There’s a real critical mass.
I have to thank Prime Minister Netanyahu and the Israeli government: Just last Jerusalem Day, almost a year ago, we received a very nice package of incentives and capital – 350 million shekels to be deployed during the next five to six years.
The vast majority of the Arabs in Jerusalem prefer to be on the Israeli side. They don’t want the city divided.
You spend a fair amount of time in East Jerusalem. What’s your sense of the atmosphere there, the attitudes to you as the mayor from a country that claims sovereignty in part of the city where most people don’t want to be under Israeli sovereignty…
Well, I have news for you. The Washington Institute does independent polls of the Arab residents of East Jerusalem and you see a very nice growth in (levels of) satisfaction. The last poll was done last September. Compared to November, 2010, general satisfaction with the quality of life in Jerusalem grew from 44% to 56% in one year. The vast majority of the Arabs in Jerusalem prefer to be on the Israeli side. They don’t want the city divided.
Dissatisfaction with municipal services went down to 15% from 36%. And you see that they acknowledge and understand that we care for them.
It took us time to figure out how to catch up with building schools and classrooms in east Jerusalem. The shortage is about a thousand classrooms in east Jerusalem and about a thousand classrooms for the ultra-Orthodox community of Jerusalem.
What we decided to do is to take responsibility. I think I shared with you last time I was here that the word “accountability” does not translate to Hebrew. When I asked who’s in charge of building all these classrooms, everyone looked at each other and said “They are.”
The municipality didn’t know how to deal with this and they rolled the challenge to the school principals. But how does a school principal know how to build a school?
So you had decades of schools that were built the wrong way; they did not meet the standards; the municipality was not accountable; and we’re paying the price today.
What I’ve brought is a little bit of accountability to the system. Today we have 300 classrooms in different phases of being built (in East Jerusalem) and approved and funded by the government and the municipality. It took some time – because you have to allocate the land. You have to outsource – because the municipality doesn’t have the tools — to start planning and manage a huge number of new buildings.
Today I feel comfortable not only that we’re pushing these classrooms into the pipeline, but that we’re seeing the results. We’ve given each neighborhood an aerial photo of where we’re building, what we’re building, when we’re building. So those 300 classrooms are in a matrix and we’ve shown this to the public so that we can be accountable for delivering these classrooms on time.
Plus we’re building roads – 50 million shekels worth of roads a year – that’s our plan. Central government is matching funds with the municipality. That’s big numbers. 50 million every year. We got 50 last year, 50 this year and hopefully for the next five years. All in all over the next five years we’ll probably be investing over a half billion shekels just in building roads in East Jerusalem.
As important, we’re building local leadership in east Jerusalem the way we’re building it everywhere else, with community councils. And the community councils of East Jerusalem are starting to gain confidence. People have an address. They understand that when we say we’re going to do something, we deliver. Maintaining that relationship with them is very strategic for maintaining a united city and making sure that they feel that neglect is part of the past.
The neglect we had, it damaged the unity of the city in the eyes of the world. When we claim that the city is united but we don’t demonstrate that we know how to deal with all the residents, it hurts us.
The neglect we had, it damaged the unity of the city in the eyes of the world. When we claim that the city is united but we don’t demonstrate that we know how to deal with all the residents, it hurts us. When we say that this is a united city and fulfill it, and work hard and make sure that we deal with all the residents, we’ll score a lot of points and indeed actually unite the city much more strongly.
There are parts of Jerusalem that are on the other side of the security barrier – such as at Kalandia. (This conversation took place before a Palestinian was killed in a violent clash at Kalandia on February 24.) Do you worry, if the whole unilateral statehood gambit gathers pace again for the Palestinians, about the potential of so-called non-violent protest turning into something really problematic for the city – lots of people marching, challenging the capacity of the authorities to maintain calm?
They say that in the Middle East it’s hard to predict the past. I’m not sure I am willing to predict what can happen.
But the strategy has to be to improve the quality of the life for the residents of Jerusalem, improve their feeling in the city, make sure that they have a lot to lose. As long as that (improving) trend continues, the rationale for any kind of violence within the residents of Jerusalem is not going up, it’s going down.
From the sources I have in the police and the other security forces, this strategy has merit. We do see a decrease in tension. We also see less violence. These things are connected.
Still, whatever can happen from the other side I don’t know. But we should prepare, God forbid, for any kind of thing.
You did tell the “accountability” joke last time – in the context of the light rail. So I have to ask you about the light rail – which actually finally started since we last sat here. (Applause.) But no good thing comes without the negative consequences, including all the buses at a standstill on Agripas Street. It’s ridiculous. What can you do about it, Mr. Mayor?
Getting everyone to sit around the table and define milestones, and get accomplishments done, proved itself. It reminds me of a joke. They once came to the (1960s and early 70s) minister of finance in Israel, (Pinchas) Sapir, and they asked him: What do you think of moving to a five-day working week? And he said: Let’s start with one day, then we’ll move to two days, eventually get to five. With the train, they explained to me that if the service is not perfect, let’s not start, because it may have a negative effect on people and then they won’t want to ride the train.
I said that’s the wrong approach. The approach is: Let’s start with one day, get to two days. Let’s start slow. Get people on the train and slowly but gradually converge and stabilize the system. Can you imagine what would have happened in the city if the train was still not taking passengers? Because it’s still not perfect.
So, we started off taking 90 minutes (for the train to travel across the city) from side to side. As of last week we’re down to 48 minutes from side to side. Our intention is to get to 43 minutes.
We’ve had some problems aligning the train with the buses. The delay recovery is not as good as we would like. But it’s getting better from week to week.
This first line is called the red line. We’re now going (on with it) toward Hadassah Hospital. Then comes the green line, which I want to start at the Mt. of Olives, to go through Ramat Eshkol to the Central Bus Station and from there to go to the Israel Museum, the Knesset, Hebrew University and then down to Teddy Stadium and the adjacent new Heichal Hapayis (sports and events) hall. And then the blue line will start in the southern part of the city, in Gilo, connect to the arena at Teddy Stadium, go up Keren Hayesod and eventually connect to Ramot.
We’ve already been approved 230 million shekel to plan those lines. We’re a year into planning. I did not wait to see the results of the red line.
So the plan we have with the Israeli government, with the Minister of Transport Yisrael Katz, is a 7 billion shekel investment in the next five years. They would not have invested these numbers if they did not believe that we could accomplish this plan. With this plan, alongside what I told you earlier about the culture and tourism infrastructure investments we’re making, you will see a very different city 10 years from now.
What, again, of Agripas Street?
Because the main artery on Jaffa Road was blocked, the network of buses had to go to Agripas. I know it’s painful, extremely painful. In the next few months, when we finish the next phase (of the red line) in the northern part of the city, Agripas will return to what it was before.
We’ve aggregated the number of people switching from buses to trains. We are now at 60-70,000 (train) journeys per day. That’s big numbers. We believe when we finalize, we will be up to 100,000 people.
Here are some of the questions the audience has submitted: people are complaining about uneven, treacherous sidewalks; tents in Sacher Park, garbage bins blocking the sidewalks; an illegal bicycle path in French Hill; lack of English when you phone many operators…
Welcome to my office! My office receives 1,200 complaints a month; the municipality receives 750,000 complaints a year
That’s one per person a year!
And the challenge of dealing with all these issues is via a different philosophy of management. I don’t know how it was when Teddy (Kollek) was the mayor, but in the two terms prior to mine, the city was managed similarly to the Israeli government: meaning a mayor, the elected officials, the deputies and the portfolio holders and the organization. It’s the wrong way. The right way to do it is the mayor, the managing director of the municipality and the professional team, where the portfolio holders don’t get involved in the day to day. I don’t expect the elected officials to be managers.
This change created some friction initially because the old elected officials wanted to manage. And I said, No, we’re going to do it through the professional team.
I meet all department heads every quarter. During the third quarter we develop the plans for the next year. During the fourth quarter we finalize the plan and the budget. First quarter we review the last year, and second quarter we think out of the box. And this ritual, where we sit every quarter and check where we are in reaching the goals and the plans that we have, this works very well. The professional team is becoming much more professional.
In the past, when you used to complain to the municipality, you’d get a call back only 10 to 15 percent of the time. Today there’s a 95 percent return call to any of the complaints. I sit deeply on the database of the complaints – really try to better understand how they are sorted out and how the departments react.
Naturally, if it’s a big fix then it goes into the long-term plans. If it’s a small fix, there’s a budget for small fixes. We can’t fix everything in one year, but I’m quite happy with the system that we have now. Now that I’ve said all that, I’ll look into these questions and ask the professionals to look.
This region is very busy with itself. The Syrians, the Egyptians. Only just over a year ago, the (view was) that the problem in Jerusalem, when this will be fixed, then the whole world will be fine. Well, people realize that’s not the case.
You mentioned the problems with housing in the city. When you were here a year ago, we discussed the previous year’s row at the time of Vice President Biden’s visit over building at Ramat Shlomo. Has it become harder to build over the green line since that visit? Is the scrutiny more intense?
This region is very busy with itself. The Syrians, the Egyptians. Only just over a year ago, the (view was) that the problem in Jerusalem, when this will be fixed, then the whole world will be fine. Well, people realize that’s not the case.
The region has so many challenges that the world has a little bit of a different perspective about what’s happening in our city and our country.
The government has released more (land for construction) bids. We are seeing more and more projects in the pipeline.
There’s also a very clear message I send to the world when I get challenged, on practically a weekly basis. When the world talks about freezing (building) in Jerusalem, I ask them, What do you exactly mean by freezing? We’re building classrooms in East Jerusalem, 300 classrooms. Do you think we should freeze building classrooms for Arab residents in Jerusalem? Or do you think we should freeze everything for Christians and Muslims and Jews – just freeze our city? Or God forbid, does anybody actually request that the mayor of Jerusalem or the Israeli government ask somebody’s religion before you give them a license? That’s against any constitutional law in any reasonable country. And when I put this to them, they usually don’t come back (with more questions) because they understand that they have triple standards. They are requesting something from us that they would never, ever ask from the mayor of, say, Torino, where I was last week.
I am extremely aggressive on this point. If someone wants to build a building in Jerusalem, be they Jewish or Muslim or Christian, if they want to build legally I’ll give them a permit. If they are Jews and they want to live anywhere in the city – in Silwan, anywhere in the city – as long as they want to build legally, they’ll get a permit.
And by the way, when the Israeli government invites bids for land, it also is not allowed to ask the bidders what their religion is. It turns out that the new bids in Ramat Shlomo, I anticipate that they’ll be (taken up) by Jewish entrepreneurs because the people who want to live there are Jews. But the law does not allow the Israeli government or the mayor of Jerusalem to discriminate.
What specifically of the 1,600 homes in Ramat Shlomo that were at the core of the dispute?
It’s in the pipeline. These processes take time — anywhere between five and 10 years because you’re starting from zero.
What’s with Silwan (outside the Old City walls), where your plans involved radical intervention (including the demolition of Arab houses)…?
Silwan is a nice case study. In the upper side of Silwan, there are 657 separate buildings. Do you know how many have a license? Six. Six have a license. Seven are in the process of getting a license. Seventy-two have a (file) with the municipality, which is about 12%. The other 88% are illegal. We don’t have any files on them at the municipality. Of the 72 files, 34 have finished all the court cases and should be taken down by the residents. And guess how many of the 34 have been taken down? Zero.
Now I asked myself when I arrived (as mayor), looking at Silwan, where’s the strategy, what’s going on? Eighty-eight percent of homes have no file; 99% of them are illegal. You’re allowed to build two stories; 50 percent are over two stories.
I had two bad options. The first bad option was to continue being an ostrich – do nothing, complain here, complain there, but strategically not deal with the situation. The second bad option was to take 651 structures to court.
I’ll give you the extrapolation in East Jerusalem; we have over 10,000 apartments that are not registered and over 20,000 with building infractions. So that’s 30-40,000 structures. Do you think it’s wise to bring 30-40,000 cases to court? That’s a bad option.
What I decided to do — for the benefit of the residents, and for the benefit of being sovereign and taking responsibility — was to press the restart button, and start rezoning neighborhood after neighborhood.
We did the rezoning of Silwan. We enabled (buildings of) up to four stories, we overlaid the old log with the reality, and figured out how to create less friction with a new log. And I brought that plan to the municipality.
Now, in our coalition we have Meretz and we have the National Religious Party, and we have the ultra-Orthodox and everything in between. Not one objected to the plan. Some abstained, because they were not sure, but there was not one objection of the municipality.
This is a plan whose mainstream goal is to improve quality of life — to enable registry and permits in 95% of the homes. There are violations. Twenty-two of the houses are over four stories. We will have to deal with them. But generally it is the most reasonable way to become sovereign in Jerusalem, in neighborhoods that have been neglected.
One final question which was mailed in: What are you planning for the 45th anniversary celebrations next year (of Israel’s capture of the Old City and East Jerusalem in 1967)?
We’re open to good ideas. The best celebration we can have is to continue the positive trend in Jerusalem.
I am an optimistic guy. Entrepreneurs are usually very optimistic. But I do see how the city is changing. I do see how the plans that we have laid out are slowly and gradually moving in the right direction. And I’m relying on the young population. There are new communities. There are new teachers and principals. There is a new wave of very patriotic young people coming into the city.
And if we can make them continue to share responsibility and deepen their feeling for our city, we will be able to boost positive change. I’m very optimistic and I’d like to see you here again next year in the Great Synagogue.