Jerusalem Hasidic leaders refrain from endorsing mayor, in boost to Berkovitch
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Jerusalem votes for its mayor on Tuesday

Jerusalem Hasidic leaders refrain from endorsing mayor, in boost to Berkovitch

Agudath Yisrael decision, as race tightens, places secular candidate neck-and-neck with front-runner Moshe Lion

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

An ultra-Orthodox man stands outside the Haredi campaign headquarters for the Jerusalem mayoral candidate Ofer Berkovitch in Jerusalem, on November 8, 2018, ahead of the second round municipal elections that will take place on November 13. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
An ultra-Orthodox man stands outside the Haredi campaign headquarters for the Jerusalem mayoral candidate Ofer Berkovitch in Jerusalem, on November 8, 2018, ahead of the second round municipal elections that will take place on November 13. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Hasidic religious leaders in Jerusalem on Monday ordered their followers to refrain from voting in Tuesday’s mayoral runoff, splitting the ultra-Orthodox vote in a maneuver seen as buoying candidate Ofer Berkovitch and placing him neck-and-neck with front-runner Moshe Lion.

Lion has the backing of much of the ultra-Orthodox community in the capital and the endorsements of both the Haredi Shas and Degel HaTorah factions. Berkovitch, meanwhile, has led the vanguard of the secularist flank of the city with his Hitorerut party.  In the first round of voting on October 30, which sent the pair of candidates to a second contest, Lion received 33 percent of the vote, followed by Berkovitch with 29%.

Despite Lion’s broad Haredi support, brewing animosity between the Lithuanian non-Hasidic Degel HaTorah and largely Hasidic Agudath Yisrael prompted the latter’s rabbinical council to decide, a day before the vote, that it would stay home on election day and not back Lion, in what some saw as tacit support for Berkovitch’s candidacy.

Agudath Yisrael broke ranks with the other ultra-Orthodox groups in the first round of the vote, tapping its own candidate — Deputy Mayor Yossi Deitch — rather than support Lion. The Hasidic sects were also rumored to be a decisive factor in incumbent Nir Barkat’s narrow victory over Lion in 2013.

Supporters celebrate as Jerusalem mayoral candidate Moshe Lion arrives at his campaign headquarters, on October 30, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Agudath Yisrael accounts for some 25,000 votes, according to the tally of support for the party’s council list in the October 30 polls, while 40,000 backed Degel HaTorah and 33,000 supported Shas (voters pick a mayor and council list separately). The broader ultra-Orthodox community represents some 37% of Jerusalem’s Jewish population (the city’s Arab population traditionally boycotts the municipal elections) and traditionally has high turnout rates.

Jerusalemites on Tuesday, from 1 p.m. to 10 p.m., will go to a second round of voting to determine its next mayor. The runoff between the two contenders is being held after none of the five candidates in the first round — Lion, Berkovitch, Jerusalem Affairs Minister Ze’ev Elkin, Deitch, and little-known Avi Salman — successfully garnered 40% of the vote.

The tightened race also came after Lion, formerly seen as a shoo-in, received several high-profile endorsements. He was backed by incumbent Barkat, the local chapters of the Likud and Jewish Home parties, and several Likud ministers.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has yet to announce whether he supports Lion, the former director-general of his bureau, or Berkovitch.

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