At 8:15 p.m. on October 22, 2013, one hour and 45 minutes before the local election polls closed in Jerusalem, a cacophony of text message alert tones pinged throughout the city, ostensibly originating from supporters of incumbent Nir Barkat’s campaign.
Go out and vote because “the Haredim are voting en masse,” it said, in an eerie foreshadowing of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s infamous last-ditch and widely condemned exhortation to voters that warned of the Arab turnout in the national elections two years later.
“This is the last chance to stop the kombina [backdoor dealing],” the message cautioned, a reference to the Moshe Lion candidacy and his mystifying alliance with both Aryeh Deri’s ultra-Orthodox Shas and Avigdor Liberman’s secularist Yisrael Beytenu political parties.
In just a few hours, the alarmism (much as in the 2015 election) would prove unfounded, with Barkat reelected mayor with 51 percent of the vote, compared to Lion’s 45% share.
Fast forward five years and the local vote again looms, at the end of October.
Barkat, who won the 2013 race, will not seek reelection and hopes to enter the governing Likud party in the next Knesset election. Council member Lion, a former bureau chief for Netanyahu, is again seeking to become the city’s mayor but faces a formidable challenge from Jerusalem Affairs Minister Ze’ev Elkin of Likud, with both clamoring to woo the Haredim and secure an endorsement from the prime minister for the job in the strongly Likud-leaning capital. (Elkin, a senior cabinet minister, appears far better positioned to secure the Netanyahu nod; in the 2013 local elections, the prime minister reportedly sent letters of support to 43 of 44 Likud candidates running for office. The exception was Lion).
But both of the leading candidates have been called out for, well, not being Jerusalemites. Lion is an accountant by trade who relocated to the capital a few years ago from the Tel Aviv suburb of Givatayim to run for mayor, while Elkin, a resident of the West Bank settlement of Kfar Eldad, is rumored to be scrutinizing Jerusalem real estate ahead of a move to the capital.
Meanwhile, the playing field of candidates appealing to the secular (some 21% of the Jewish population of Jerusalem, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics) and liberal religious vote in Jerusalem is growing increasingly crowded — potentially spreading the votes of those populations thin.
These include 34-year-old Ofer Berkovich of the social-media-friendly Hitorerut party, seen as a possible dark horse in the race; Yossi Havilio, a former municipal legal adviser turned Barkat critic; little-known Avi Salman; and Zionist Union MK Nachman Shai (a resident of Mevasseret Zion, outside of Jerusalem). They will also be vying for the attention of the city’s traditional (11%) and national religious (20%) voters, as will Elkin and Lion, both of whom are Orthodox.
And with the Arab residents of East Jerusalem giving no sign they plan to drop their longstanding boycott of the elections, the Jewish voter share swells considerably.
Enter the ultra-Orthodox community.
Representing some 37% of the Jewish population of Jerusalem, according to recent CBS data, the ultra-Orthodox again appear to hold the key to the city.
With the remainder of the vote likely split between Elkin, Lion, and perhaps Berkovich, the question of whether the Haredim will opt to field their own candidate(s), agree on a unified endorsement for one of those in the running, or splinter their support could tilt the election.
With the polls four months away, the main contenders to emerge as a possible Haredi candidate are Deputy Mayor Yossi Deitch of the United Torah Judaism faction and fellow party member Yitzhak Pindrus, also a deputy mayor.
A second ultra-Orthodox mayor?
A Haredi candidate or endorsement alone, past elections have shown, are not sufficient to sweep the election.
In 2008, United Torah Judaism’s Meir Porush, now deputy education minister, lost to the secular Nir Barkat with just 43% of the vote to Barkat’s 52%, with overall turnout at 43%.
And Lion’s wide support from the ultra-Orthodox in 2013 (when there was no separate endorsed Haredi candidate, other than maverick ultra-Orthodox candidate Haim Epstein, who won 3%) was not enough to catapult him to victory that year, when the overall voter turnout plummeted to just 36%.
Lion did not, however, enjoy support from the Gur and Belz Hasidic sects, which together number some 7,000 prospective votes, according to the Haaretz newspaper. In both the 2013 election and in 2008, the Gur Hasidim were given no specific directives from their rabbinical leadership on which candidate to pick, with many rumored to quietly support Barkat.
The only former ultra-Orthodox mayor of the city, Uri Lupolianski, won the vote in 2003, with 52% against then-entrepreneur Barkat, edging him out by some 9%. (Yad Sarah founder Lupolianski would years later be convicted in the so-called Holyland Affair — along with another former Jerusalem mayor, ex-prime minister Ehud Olmert — though his sentence was later reduced to community service due to ill health).
According to reports from the Ynet news website at the time, 70% of the city’s Haredim voted in the Lupolianski election, compared with 50% of secular residents, signaling that a broad Haredi consensus coupled with a demonstrated eagerness to get out the vote could potentially tip the scales.
But Haredi consensus is hard to come by, pitting Ashkenazi against Sephardi, United Torah Judaism against Shas, the Agudath Yisrael party against its Shlomei Emunim faction, Degel HaTorah against the Jerusalem faction, Lithuanian against Hasidic, various Hasidic dynasties against each other, and Haredim who are more engaged with modern life against the staunchly isolationist segments.
These tensions were on display in 2008, when United Torah Judaism leader Yaakov Litzman — and the Gur Hasidic sect — broke ranks to oppose the mayoral candidacy of Porush, of the Agudath Yisrael sub-faction Shlomei Emunim, igniting fury. In one memorable incident in late 2008, political mudslinging devolved into kugel-slinging against Litzman by some yeshiva students from the Slonim sect, who later apologized.
But in an apparent sign of rapprochement, Litzman has also reportedly told Netanyahu he now supports Shlomei Emunim’s Deitch, a Slonim Hasid and protege of Porush, for Jerusalem mayor, according to Haredi reports.
“If it is decided to present a Haredi candidate, we will support him for the leadership of the Jerusalem municipality. If not, we will bring the question before the rabbinical leaders for their decision, no sooner than two months before elections,” a statement from Litzman’s office said in late May, according to the Kikar HaShabat website.
Deitch, who also recently received the distinction of being “kugeled” by his opponents in the Mea Shearim neighborhood, has yet to receive rabbinical backing or officially declare. And even if he is met with approval from some rabbinical leaders, there’s no guarantee that Shas supporters will stray from their longstanding backing for Lion, splitting the city’s Haredi vote.
Meanwhile, Litzman this week appeared to be testing the waters with Elkin and Lion, with a call on them to promise to shutter the nightlife in the Mahane Yehuda market in exchange for the support of his Gur Hasidic sect. Both candidates rejected the demand.
Shas leader Deri, for now, appears to be sticking with Lion.
“Jerusalem needs a mayor who doesn’t come from a certain community but rather someone everyone can unite around,” the ultra-Orthodox Deri was quoted as saying in late May, adding: “Lion is one of the names [that fits this criterion].”
Raising the bar(s)
Jerusalem may have the distinction of being the city where campaigns center not around the prospective changes new leadership will breathe into the city but rather their sacred commitment to the status quo. Of course, what that status quo means, particularly pertaining to religion-state issues and what should be open or closed on Shabbat, is precisely the subject of the debate.
And the religion-state issues that emerge in the coming month, particularly if seen as extending beyond mere campaign rhetoric to actually effecting change, could also affect the turnout.
The issue recently flared with the proposed closure of the First Station entertainment complex on Shabbat, which though it never came close to being shuttered, was nonetheless used for political capital by players on both sides.
But the First Station doesn’t quite capture the hearts of Jerusalemites like the much-loved Mahane Yehuda market and its nightlife.
If Litzman’s warning about the wildly popular market inches toward a credible threat of closure, the bid to shut down its nightlife could backfire, and the varied regular patrons of the bar district — secular, religious, and even modern ultra-Orthodox, hipsters and non-hipsters alike — may find a key issue to bring them to the election booths come October for the usually humdrum local elections.
They might even come out en masse.
Michael Bachner and Times of Israel staff contributed.