In first, ultra-Orthodox parties win majority on Jerusalem city council

‘We don’t want to turn Jerusalem into Bnei Brak,’ says Deputy Mayor Eliezer Rauchberger, adding ‘we’re here to demand our share’ in an equitable manner

Sam Sokol is the Times of Israel's political correspondent. He was previously a reporter for the Jerusalem Post, Jewish Telegraphic Agency and Haaretz. He is the author of "Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews"

Shas chairman Aryeh Deri speaks during an event of the Shas party ahead of the municipal elections in Jerusalem, February 19, 2024. (Arie Leib Abrams/Flash90)
Shas chairman Aryeh Deri speaks during an event of the Shas party ahead of the municipal elections in Jerusalem, February 19, 2024. (Arie Leib Abrams/Flash90)

Tuesday’s nationwide municipal elections saw an unprecedented ultra-Orthodox takeover of the city council, with Haredi parties winning just over half the seats in the 31-seat legislative body.

While only interim results have been published on the Interior Ministry’s online election portal, a final summary of the results tallied by the Jerusalem Regional Elections Committee obtained by The Times of Israel showed the various ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, parties holding 16 of the council’s 31 seats, with additional seats held by religious nationalist factions.

The Sephardic Shas party won six seats, the Hasidic Agudat Yisrael party three, the non-Hasidic ultra-Orthodox Degel Hatorah party six, and Bnei Torah, affiliated with the extremist Jerusalem Faction group, one.

In addition, Likud and the anti-LGBT Noam party each received a single seat while Mafdal-Religious Zionism and ultra-nationalist Deputy Mayor Arieh King’s United party each got two seats on the council — bringing the Haredi and nationalist right’s overall majority to 22.

The right’s sweep came as Mayor Moshe Lion romped to victory, picking up 81.5% of the vote to secular challenger Yossi Havilio’s 18.5%.

Havilio’s Jerusalem Union list — which brought together several liberal factions, including Meretz, Yesh Atid, Labor and the anti-Netanyahu protest movement-aligned New Contract — won four council seats.

Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion speaks to the media after winning a second term in office, Jerusalem, early on February 28, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Hitorerut (Awakening), a liberal party of national-religious and secular Jerusalemites, garnered three seats while Lion’s One Jerusalem received two.

This unprecedented showing for the ultra-Orthodox may have less to do with changing demographics in the capital than with the low voter turnout among mainstream voters this year, according to Jerusalem City Councilor Laura Wharton of the Meretz party.

Only 31.5% of eligible voters in Jerusalem cast ballots on Tuesday.

“The major issue here was and is voting patterns and it’s always been known that the Haredim vote en masse and other groups do not,” she said.

Jerusalem City Councilor Laura Wharton of the Meretz party at the Jerusalem Municipality building, May 16, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

A Haredi majority on the council means that the community has control of the planning and construction, finance, and education committees, among others. Some pundits have expressed concern that this may encourage a further exodus of the city’s secular residents, many of whom have felt out of place for a while.

Addressing such concerns, Deputy Mayor Eliezer Rauchberger said, “We don’t want to turn Jerusalem into Bnei Brak,” referring to the ultra-Orthodox majority central Israeli city.

Speaking with The Times of Israel on Wednesday, Rauchberger, who leads the local branch of the Degel Hatorah party, said the unprecedented Haredi victory was significant because it enables the community to “preserve Jerusalem’s traditional, religious character regarding everything in the public domain.”

“We are in favor of every community having a place, obviously the Haredi and religious but also the secular,” he said, calling for mutual respect and unity and asserting that he and his allies want Jerusalem to be “a city for everybody.”

Rather than implement major policy changes, Rauchberger said he had a more conservative agenda focused on maintaining the city’s religious status quo and ensuring budgetary equality.

Eliezer Rauchberger, the deputy mayor of Jerusalem and chairman of the Degel Hatorah party branch in the capital, at the opening of Degel HaTorah’s municipal election campaign offices in Jerusalem on October 10, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“There is no reason in the world” why the Haredim should be different from anybody else in terms of “activities” or budgets, and “we’re here to demand our share” in an equitable manner, he said.

With the support of their national-religious allies, the ultra-Orthodox held an effective majority even before the recent election, Wharton noted, adding that the liberal camp’s ability to counter the Haredim depends on “on how the mayor manages to maneuver.”

“It will be tough and given the situation in the country, including… the growing fury over things like the military draft bill, I think the other members of the council will be united and on guard about what they’re trying to do,” she said — noting that it has sometimes been possible in the past to play the various ultra-Orthodox factions against each other.

“Policy in Jerusalem for decades was to live and let live: ultra-Orthodox in their neighborhoods, secular and religious in theirs, Palestinians in theirs. Sadly, in recent years, there has been a shift to a rather aggressive policy by which the ultra-Orthodox and the ultra-right have been building and overtaking free spaces indiscriminately to build, often exclusively, for their own populations,” Wharton argued.

“In Kiryat Yovel, a secular and liberal religious neighborhood, an outstanding school that served the local population was evicted by the municipality and given to a strict ultra-Orthodox school for girls,” she said. This, she said, was just one of “endless examples whereby the local building committee uses its power in a way that often results in the displacement and disruption of communities in favor of services and buildings for the representatives in power.”

Shalom Yerushalmi contributed to this report.

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