Heading Jerusalem opposition, Berkovitch vows to maintain ‘Shabbat status quo’

Heading Jerusalem opposition, Berkovitch vows to maintain ‘Shabbat status quo’

After narrowly losing second-round mayoral election, former deputy mayor Ofer Berkovitch said he still plans to fight for the city he loves

Ofer Berkovitch, Jerusalem mayoral candidate and head of the Hitorerut (Awakening) movement, seen at the opening of Hitorerut's election campaign in Jerusalem on September 2, 2018.  (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Ofer Berkovitch, Jerusalem mayoral candidate and head of the Hitorerut (Awakening) movement, seen at the opening of Hitorerut's election campaign in Jerusalem on September 2, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Ofer Berkovitch, the former deputy mayor who in November lost a close second round race to be Jerusalem’s mayor, has a new view of City Hall: from the outside. After five years of serving as deputy mayor under Nir Barkat, Berkovitch now finds himself in new territory, as head of the opposition in the Jerusalem Municipality.

The move is not just conceptual, but also physical. Berkovitch’s office moved across the plaza, from the fifth floor inside City Hall to another building entirely.

Berkovitch is the head of the Hitorerut (Awakening) party, which is now the city council’s largest faction with seven of the body’s 31 seats. After his second-round loss to Moshe Lion in November, Berkovitch had hoped to continue his work from within the coalition, with his eye on the city’s building and planning portfolio in order to create more affordable housing. But negotiations collapsed due to disagreements over maintaining the “Shabbat status quo,” or ensuring there are no “changes or negative impact” to the current city policies concerning the Jewish day of rest, Berkovitch said.

Berkovitch said he wants to make sure the city can still hold activities and events on Shabbat, allow local community centers to continue to be open on Shabbat, and ensure that restaurants, cafes, and places of entertainment continue to open, where the law permits, on Shabbat.

“He wasn’t ready to agree not to enforce changes,” Berkovitch said of Mayor Lion. “He signed agreements with [Orthodox parties] Degel Hatorah and Shas that it will be possible to cancel cultural events if they ‘negatively impact public sentiments.’” This could mean that women might not be invited to sing at public city events for the next five years of his tenure, for example, because of Haredi sensitivities toward women performing in public, Berkovitch charged.

A spokeswoman for Lion denied Berkovitch’s statements. “All accusations of failing to maintain the status quo are nothing more than the same cheap manipulation that Ofer uses frequently,” she said.

Copies of draft coalition agreements obtained by The Times of Israel show Lion’s team rejected sections Hitorerut had proposed about maintaining various aspects of the “Shabbat status quo.”

“There will be no change in the status quo in the enforcement of leisure businesses open on Shabbat,” read one clause of the coalition agreement suggested by Hitorerut, which Lion’s team did not allow in the final draft. The phrase referred to an incident last year, when the Jerusalem municipality, at the request of Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, compiled a report on restaurants open on the Sabbath and sought to target those businesses — whose operations were entirely legal — with heavy fines on other matters.

“There will be no changes in the status quo on the subject of Shabbat and events in the public space without the agreement of the entire coalition,” read another clause that Lion’s team removed from the draft.

In late December, after weeks of negotiations, Berkovitch announced that his Hitorerut party would not join Lion’s coalition. Instead, Berkovitch is gearing up to fight from the opposition for his party’s issues, especially the Shabbat status quo. Agudat Yisrael, a Haredi party that campaigned against Lion, will also sit on the opposition.

“The DNA of Hitorerut is constructive work, from within the coalition, in order to make the city better,” Berkovitch said from his new office. “Of course our first choice was to be part of the coalition, but unfortunately, you need two to tango and the mayor did not cooperate.”

Lion’s spokeswoman said the negotiations failed because Berkovitch was courting multiple national parties in an attempt to join the Knesset, and “only returned to the city when that failed.” She added that the coalition agreement draft was still on the table, “whenever he wants to sign it.”

Berkovitch said that while many parties courted him from across the political spectrum, he ultimately elected to stay in Jerusalem to serve the half of the city who voted for him.

After serving as deputy mayor under Barkat, Berkovitch now does not have a portfolio, or a salary. Like other city councilors without portfolios, Berkovitch will serve city hall as a volunteer, and he will soon be forced to start looking for a part-time job rather than devoting all his energies to the city, he said.

Under Nir Barkat, who served as mayor from 2008 to 2018, the city tried to create more cultural offerings for a diverse array of residents. While the city has never openly encouraged businesses to open on Shabbat, in recent years a number of new restaurants have done so, most notably in the First Station compound. Berkovitch was among the entrepreneurs that spearheaded the First Station renovation from an abandoned parking lot to a bustling commercial center.

Athough Lion himself is not Haredi, a large portion of his supporters and city council coalition are ultra-Orthodox, and they are expected to wield a large influence in the coming term.

Berkovitch himself got a surprise, last-minute boost from some Hasidic leaders, especially those from the Agudat Yisrael faction, which failed to endorse Lion in the runoff election on November 13, a move interpreted as tacit support for Berkovitch. “The Haredim are a part of us, we love everyone, but we want Jerusalem to stay relevant for all of the populations,” Berkovitch said.

The ultra-Orthodox represent some 37 percent of the Jewish population of Jerusalem, according to recent CBS data. Because the city’s Arab residents generally boycott the municipal elections, the voter impact of the ultra-Orthodox, who often vote as a bloc, is even higher.

Hitorerut activists demonstrate outside the new Cinema City theater in Jerusalem on February 25, 2014, calling for it to be open on Saturdays (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Jerusalem has long been the stage for secular-religious battles over the Sabbath opening of stores or places of entertainment in non-Orthodox neighborhoods. In 2015, the ultra-Orthodox community tried unsuccessfully to stop Friday night and Saturday screenings at the new YES Planet cinema complex south of the city center. In 2013, the community failed to shut down The First Station — the renovated train-station complex a five-minute walk away from the cinema, which has a number of businesses open on Shabbat.

However, Barkat did order the city to fine mini-markets open on Shabbat in accordance with national laws, an effort by Interior Minister Arye Deri to impose a blanket Shabbat closure on all businesses in the heart of mainly secular Tel Aviv.

Still, Barkat’s tenure was seen as an improvement for secular Jerusalemites looking to have Saturday morning brunch in a cafe, or find family-friendly cultural events on Shabbat.

A Berela event on a recent Shabbat afternoon in Jerusalem, drawing secular residents and offering them family-friendly Shabbat activities (Courtesy Rachel Azaria Facebook page)

Berkovitch said despite losing the race for mayor, he still plans to focus on day-to-day quality of life issues in Jerusalem, like ensuring that jobs with the Postal Service remain in Jerusalem and improving parking enforcement. As the quality of life improves, educated young professionals will stay in the city after their university studies or choose to move to the city, he believes.

These are the small things that make a big difference to people who live day to day in the city, he said. Big picture politics are important, but the details are what keep professionals in Jerusalem and encourage new ones to come: how long they have to wait for the bus, how much they need to pay for rent, how much it costs to send their kids to nursery school, where they can park, where and when they can buy a cup of coffee, where they can spread out a picnic lunch on a Friday afternoon at a park near their house, or if they are surrounded by broken sidewalks strewn with trash.

“That’s why you need to invest in employment and economy and quality of life, parks and affordable housing for young people,” Berkovitch said. “When we work together and put pressure in the right places and build things together, we have a better chance to build this city.”

Supporters of Jerusalem mayoral candidate Ofer Berkovitch react as the preliminary results of the mayoral race are announced, on November 13, 2018. (Noam Revkin Fenton/FLASH90)

Berkovitch said he learned a lot about the city during the months of intensive campaigning. One of his favorite moments from the campaign came at 2 am during Slihot, late night prayers that lead up to the autumn High Holidays, while visiting a synagogue that was a stronghold for the ultra-Orthodox Shas party.

The cantor, Rabbi Ofer Levy, was trying to get Berkovitch to commit to certain Jewish observances. It was an awkward moment: Berkovitch didn’t want to offend the cantor, but he also didn’t want to announce in public that he would start observing Shabbat.

“The Shas guys rescued me; it was funny to see the Shas guys working against Ofer Levy to minimize religious coercion,” Berkovitch said. “That was a really nice moment. I’m a traditional person, I’m connected to my faith, but in my own way.”

A captivating projection on the Hurva Synagogue, in the 2018 Jerusalem Light Festival (Courtesy David Saad)

“I believe in Jerusalem. I believe that Jerusalem grows strong people,” Berkovitch said. “I think there is a basket of unique values in this city that you cannot get anywhere else. It’s not a city that is suitable for everyone. It’s clear that we need to make this city more friendly, more fun, more interesting, more alive. There are movements that are doing this. It’s not just Hitorerut in politics, it’s in the cultural initiatives and the economy and transportation. There are people here who are active and working, more than anywhere else.”

“If someone wants it to be easy and comfortable, that’s not here in Jerusalem,” Berkovitch continued. “But someone who wants more meaning, to meet interesting people, to experience culture, to experience this connection between East and West and the religious spectrum, that’s here. Here, there is something that is deeper and stronger than other places, and that’s what drives me and other people to fight for this city.”

“Politically, it’s a difficult moment,” said Berkovitch. “But we are continuing to work, for another chance in five years. We are going to create this city and push her forward.”

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