At 35 years old, Ofer Berkovitch is the youngest candidate vying to be Jerusalem’s next mayor in the upcoming election. The founder of the Hitorerut social movement is also the sole secular candidate (apart from the little-known Avi Salman, a candidate so obscure he doesn’t even have his own Wikipedia page).
Along with an ultra-Orthodox rival — fellow Jerusalem deputy mayor Yossi Deitch — and Salman, Berkovitch is also one of just three longtime Jerusalem residents in the crowded field of six contenders seeking to govern the capital.
Ahead of the first round of voting on October 30, Berkovitch is positioning himself as the only frontrunner who is not a proxy for government politicians — and the only one who will work with his ultra-Orthodox colleagues, but won’t be vulnerable to what he described as “Haredi extortion.”
“I’m not some sort of politician who was parachuted [into the race] from above by the Likud Central Committee, or [Defense Minister Avigdor] Liberman’s man and [Interior Minister Aryeh] Deri’s puppet — like those running against me,” said Berkovitch in a recent interview with The Times of Israel, referring to Jerusalem Affairs Minister Ze’ev Elkin and Jerusalem council member Moshe Lion, respectively.
The Likud party’s Elkin, Deri’s and Liberman’s associate Lion, and Berkovitch are seen as the three leading candidates in the first round (a second round will be held on November 13 if no single candidate garners more than 40 percent of the vote).
“Rather, I’m someone who flourished in the city, and has already worked 10 years [on the city council], six of those years as a council member on a volunteer basis, and four years as a salaried deputy mayor,” he continued.
Wearing what has become his trademark blazer on top of a compact frame, Berkovitch is stocky and well-built, and exudes a buoyant and energetic air. Unlike more seasoned politicians, he speaks with a passion and excitement that might not lend itself to clean soundbites but allows for a full and unconstrained explanation of his motivations and detailed policy proposals.
And yet, as the election looms, Berkovitch is seen to be at a disadvantage to his more well-connected political rivals: Elkin has secured the support of both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and incumbent Nir Barkat (though the local Jerusalem chapter of the Likud party refuses to endorse him), while Lion has been endorsed by leading ultra-Orthodox rabbis, likely giving him the bulk of the Haredi vote in the capital (some 35% of the overall Jewish vote).
Meanwhile, despite a snub by the ultra-Orthodox leaders who he believed would support him, Haredi candidate Deitch has dug his heels in and is expected to garner some of the Haredi vote, as is Haim Epstein, who is representing the hardline Jerusalem Faction.
To top it off, turnout in previous local elections among Berkovitch’s target demographic of secular and liberal Orthodox residents has been famously low, though a new Knesset law giving Israelis the day off to vote is going into effect for the first time this year and could boost the voters’ showing.
But all things considered, Berkovitch projects optimism on his prospects for a win, predicting that modern ultra-Orthodox constituents could vote for him while the hardline ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem Faction will go rogue to back their own candidate (namely Epstein), fragmenting the ultra-Orthodox vote to his benefit.
“If I can secure a high turnout among the secular, traditional and liberal religious, take the 10 percent of modern Haredim, and manage to distance the 10-15 percent of the Jerusalem Faction, this is the scenario for victory,” he said.
Last week, after his interview with The Times of Israel, Berkovitch received a mild boost with the withdrawal from the race of Kulanu MK Rachel Azaria, whose candidacy, like his, targeted pluralistic-minded Jerusalemites. Azaria, however, pledged her support to his rival Elkin, in a twist foreseen by Berkovitch.
“Azaria has a deal with Elkin. I know this from senior sources in Likud. It’s a deal with Elkin, with the aim of taking down Ofer Berkovitch,” he insisted in the third person, also suggesting that Barkat had funded Azaria’s campaign to boost Elkin.
“Elkin tried to draw me into negotiations, he didn’t succeed… and now they’re sending Azaria to hurt Ofer Berkovitch,” he charged.
As his campaign entered its home stretch, Berkovitch vowed to clean up the capital and penalize litterbugs, draw companies and government offices to set up shop in the capital, punish the owners of “ghost apartments,” and tax the city’s long-abandoned architectural eyesores. In East Jerusalem, where the Palestinian residents of the city traditionally boycott the municipal elections, he seeks to boost coexistence initiatives around common interests, such as the city’s cleanliness.
“We have a social perspective on East Jerusalem — equal rights and equal obligations. We want to invest more in the residents, and also to enforce the law more,” he said of his Hitoretut movement’s stance on the long-neglected Arab neighborhoods in the capital.
He also wants to tackle rampant unemployment among East Jerusalem women.
“We cannot continue with the devastating statistic that 16% of Arab women are in the workforce. I will not have it. There needs to be an aggressive target, raise it five percent each year,” he said. “This is worse than Lebanon.”
Building a social movement… from Argentina
Born in Jerusalem’s French Hill, the founder of the Hitorerut movement described himself as a homegrown, “serious local patriot.” He served in the IDF for six years, through the Second Intifada and Second Lebanon War, before his discharge with the rank of captain. It was then, Berkovitch said, that he was galvanized to create the coalition of young activists seeking to better life in Jerusalem.
“In 2008 I was discharged. I understood that Jerusalem was facing a big crisis, young people were leaving, there was a lack of quality places of employment, housing prices were soaring, cultural events that weren’t being funded and so on.
“I decided I was going to fight for the city’s future, the Zionist, tolerant and productive future of Jerusalem,” he said.
But he wasn’t quite ready to give up on an Israeli rite of passage: a lengthy post-army backpacking trip abroad.
“The story is quite funny. I was released from the army in January 2008, I had a flight booked for February for nine months to South America,” he recalled. “I held four meetings in January and understood that there was excitement about establishing Hitorerut. I consulted with my strategist, my friend, and I said, ‘Listen, I can’t start this straight after my army service without doing this trip to South America.”
“I went, against all advice, to South America. I was trekking and eating steak but when I opened my computer I was in Jerusalem,” he said. “People in Argentina thought I was mad, that I was trying to start a political movement: ‘He’s not normal.’ And then they came back to Israel after a few months and saw I was a council member.”
In the 10 years since its founding, Hitorerut (Hebrew for “awakening”) has climbed from holding two of the 31 seats on the city council in 2008 to four in 2013, when Berkovitch was also appointed as one of the city’s eight deputy mayors.
Berkovitch is aiming to double Hitorerut’s representation again in the 2018 election — which along with the mayoral race will see residents elect a city council list — to eight seats.
“We brought together people from left and right, put the Palestinian question aside and said, ‘Let’s focus on the simple day-to-day interests of the residents — in transportation, culture, economic development, cleanliness,’” he said of the movement.
With their trademark yellow T-shirts and bright-eyed energy, Hitorerut activists discernibly dot Jerusalem’s streets, and, Berkovitch proudly added, are all volunteers. But the hallmark youthfulness associated with his cause has also been used as fodder by Berkovitch’s critics, who claim he is too young and inexperienced to run the city, with all of its complex economic and social challenges.
Employment, cleanliness, coexistence
During the interview, Berkovitch laid out three main challenges he anticipated, should he be elected: The first was economic development, namely drawing international companies to set up shop in Jerusalem, building employment hubs, and forcing government offices to have their bases in the capital, as the law requires.
“It’s not happening today. They’re working from Tel Aviv,” he said of the government offices, “and I will fight the government, or cooperate with the government, to bring them back here. It’s costing the city tens of thousands of workers, NIS 400 million to the local economy.”
The second issue, he said, was the nitty-gritty “simple interests of the residents,” citing cleanliness as a prime example.
“That Jerusalem is dirty is not a decree of fate. This stems from having a mayor who doesn’t sufficiently want to deal with this matter,” said Berkovitch, pledging to “start with cleanliness, to start the change from there.”
He vowed to “start issuing fines — litterers will pay: a family in parks, marchers, those who throw things from windows. [I want to] increase the monitoring in this area to bring in money to the city. Let [city officials] drop parking [fines]; let them bring in funds from those who litter the city.
“I have a lot of respect for the cultural events, but I think Nir [Barkat] lost his way. He forgot that being mayor starts with ‘safe and clean.’ And that’s what the residents expect,” he added.
The third issue raised by Berkovitch was coexistence projects, which he views “less through [a prism] of identity, and more through joint interests.” As examples, he proposed joint sports, cultural and cleaning initiatives with Jewish residents of West Jerusalem and Arab residents of East Jerusalem.
“When Arabs see that Jews are fighting with them, shoulder to shoulder, for a clean city and that the eastern part of the city remain clean, it will change their thinking,” he said.
He was also critical of the city’s handling of municipal services in East Jerusalem.
“Who should we blame for the situation in East Jerusalem? We should blame ourselves. If we don’t give classrooms to the children of East Jerusalem, and those who do are Hamas and the PA — we need to blame ourselves for this,” he said. “For the incitement there, for the fact that they aren’t being taught things that can serve them in the future in order to integrate into Israeli society.”
Taxing ‘ghost’ apartment owners, abandoned structures
Berkovitch voiced support for increased construction in the capital, while coming down hard on owners of so-called “ghost apartments” who live abroad and whose properties lie empty for much of the year.
“As far as I’m concerned, I would triple the taxes” on these properties, he said, to incentivize the owners to rent their apartments during the year.
“Those who want to come to Jerusalem for a week or a month, let them take a hotel room. We have terrific hotels,” he said. “Usually, [the homeowners] are Zionists who want to strengthen the city. Help the youth of Jerusalem by renting your apartments in between [holidays].”
“Second, I wanted to send a message to this market: I don’t like this phenomenon. If you keep building apartments for the wealthy, we’ll keep fighting this phenomenon,” he added.
He also pledged to apply municipal taxes to long-abandoned properties in Jerusalem, such as the Dan Pearl Hotel outside the Old City, that have historically enjoyed tax exemptions.
“The city has lost hundreds of thousands of shekels in property taxes, the city has lost hundreds of jobs, the city has lost thousands of tourists who would have made purchases [at the city’s] small businesses,” he said of several former hotels that have remained empty for over a decade. “Why?”
Lion, Elkin ‘liable to capitulate to the Haredi extortion’
“In the end, it’s a choice between a candidate who will work in coordination with the ultra-Orthodox versus a candidate who will be controlled by the Haredim. Elkin or Lion, because their political base will come from the Haredim — they can give everything away. And if not, they will create stagnation that will allow the Haredim to continue to take their piece of the pie, instead of creating a balance. This is the choice here,” said Berkovitch in summing up the race.
“It’s not that I’m against the Haredim — I am in favor of the Haredim. I love all of Jerusalem’s residents… But I also want to safeguard the sense of the secular public that they can live here, and the same goes for the moderate religious community, and so on,” he added.
He said his main rivals, both of whom are relative newcomers to the city (Lion moved from Givatayim near Tel Aviv five years ago to run for mayor in 2013; Elkin moved recently for the same reason), are unfamiliar with both Jerusalem’s challenges and recent successes.
“The other candidates are liable to capitulate to the Haredi extortion, and may not understand the strategic steps the city needs to take in order to flourish and get on the right track. They weren’t partners in the successes of recent years: the vibrant cultural [scene], economic development, the urban revolution…. I don’t think they know what is needed, I don’t think they know the city well enough, I don’t think they understand what to do here.”