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Moshe Lion a little lost on his new home turf

His ostensible partnership with Shas’s Aryeh Deri is the ‘kiss of death’ for some voters at the Old Katamon polling station where the Likud-Beytenu underdog cast his ballot

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Mayoral candidate Moshe Lion outside an Old Katamon polling station in Jerusalem on Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2013. (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Mayoral candidate Moshe Lion outside an Old Katamon polling station in Jerusalem on Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2013. (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Moshe Lion may or may not be the better mayoral candidate, but the man from Givatayim evidently doesn’t really know his way around in Jerusalem — not even the neighborhood where he now lives… and votes.

On Tuesday morning, Lion and his wife drove through the Old Katamon neighborhood to cast their votes. Exiting a shiny silver BMW — which was later parked in a prohibited location, causing a mini-scandal — the city’s would-be first couple, surrounded by reporters, supporters and volunteers for the opposing candidate, strode confidently along the sidewalk and straight past the entrance of the school in which their polling station is located. Onlookers near the school’s entry watched and wondered where the candidate was going, until someone realized the error and forced the Lions and the knot of people around them to effect an inelegant turnaround.

As of earlier this year, Lion, the official candidate of Likud-Yisrael Beytenu, officially resides on Jerusalem’s Keren Hayesod Street, and was assigned to cast his ballot at the nearby Beit Hahinuch School on Kaf Tet BeNovember Street. Most polls predict Lion will lose the race against Mayor Nir Barkat, and anecdotal evidence from Lion’s polling station in this upscale neighborhood in central Jerusalem did nothing to undermine the notion. Several residents said they saw him as both an outsider and a puppet of Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman and Shas chairman Aryeh Deri, his two most prominent backers. Lion is also said to have the backing of most — but not all — of the city’s Haredim, thanks to what Barkat alleges is a kombina (a sordid political ploy) engineered by the ultra-Orthodox Deri and the fiercely secular Liberman.

“I lived here for 40 years, he’s been here for all of three months. He simply doesn’t know his way around here,” said Alex Ragen, a native New Yorker who immigrated to Israel in 1971, of Lion. “He’s a sleazy politician,” Ragen, a skullcap-wearing former software developer, added. “And he has the backing of Shas, which is the kiss of death for any politician.”

Out of more than a dozen voters interviewed outside the school, one said he had voted for Lion. “It’s not because of what the rabbis commanded. Of course I’d never go against what they say, but this time I understand them,” said Yehuda, a 23-year-old Haredi student at Hebron yeshiva. “Lion will be better for the residents. I voted for him both because of the rabbis’ order and out of my own reasoning.”

Barkat’s supremacy on Lion’s new home turf was unmistakable. The polls opened at 7 a.m., and for the first two hours, campaigning at the school and its surroundings was tightly in the hands of about a dozen teenage volunteers for the Barkat ticket. The noise they made caught the attention of a group of toddlers playing in the kindergarten across the street. The teenagers chanted “Nir, Nir for mayor,” and the two and three-year-olds, slightly misunderstanding the message, yelled back, “Bibi for mayor.”

Later, volunteers for several other lists seeking seats on the city council — including Jerusalemites, Awakening and Meretz-Labor — arrived to lobby. But Lion’s campaign stand was a pitiful sight. Until about 9:15, two high school girls sat at a table, hardly moving and certainly not trying to convince anyone to vote for Lion. “Nobody stopped by to say ‘good job’; the only thing people say to me is that it’s ‘awful and appalling [that we’re here],’” said Tamar, 18, who said she was only present because she was getting paid. Then, five additional Lion backers arrived. They tried to chant a few slogans, and were promptly shouted down by a much larger group of Barkat supporters.

When Inbar, a 35-year-old volunteer for Rachel Azaria’s Jerusalemites party, asked an approaching voter if she might suggest a vote for “Nir and Rachel,” the voters replied: “Barkat is obvious.”

Outside the Old Katamon polling station where Moshe Lion cast his ballot (photo credit: Raphael Ahren/TOI)
Outside the Old Katamon polling station where Moshe Lion cast his ballot (photo credit: Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel)

Anat Koren, a nonreligious Jerusalem resident in her 30s, said she’d voted for Barkat simply because he’s secular and Lion is not. “That’s the only reason.”

Orthodox voters, too, were clearly with the incumbent. “Barkat contributed a lot to the city in the realm of culture and many other things,” a 35-year-old lawyer sporting a knitted skullcap said. “But more importantly: Whoever has Deri’s support doesn’t have mine.”

Before arriving here to vote at around 10:10 a.m., the Orthodox Lion had prayed at the fresh grave of Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and asked for divine assistance at the Western Wall. The secular Barkat was there at around the same time. Lion’s schedule, handed out to reporters on Monday, read “Prayer at the Western Wall” while the mayor’s program spoke of a “visit” there. But photographs seemed to show he prayed too.

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat prays at the Western Wall on October 22, 2013, during Israel’s municipal elections. (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat prays at the Western Wall on October 22, 2013, during Israel’s municipal elections. (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

After exercising his civil duty, Lion plunged into a day full of campaign stops, most of them in areas where he likely has more supporters. First, two hours in the northern neighborhoods of Ramot and Pisgat Ze’ev and even the far-flung Neve Yaakov. Then, after a lunch break, the Western part of the city — a school in Kiryat Moshe, a community center in Ir Ganim and three schools in Kiryat Yovel. Toward the evening, he was set to head south to Talpiot and Armon Hanatziv. At a polling station on Derech Bethlehem in Talpiot, with a diverse mix of middle-class, working-class, Orthodox and secular residents, and a fair number of Ethiopian immigrants voting, his supporters were certainly louder and more numerous at mid-morning than the rather cowed Barkat camp.

Meanwhile, Barkat voted at the WIZO school in his Beit Hakerem neighborhood, and embarked from there on a similarly busy day trying to woo the undecideds, with a lunch stop at “Falafel BeMoshava” in the German Colony.

Neither was planning to spend time in the Haredi strongholds, despite that community’s potential for determining the race. Lion was originally banking on the support of the entire Haredi community, and did gain the backing of the United Torah Judaism party, but several Hasidic factions decided at the last minute to withhold their endorsement. “Bnei Torah,” a Jerusalem-based rogue wing of the ultra-Orthodox Degel Hatorah party, went so far as to field its own candidate for mayor, Haim Epstein. Backed by the influential Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach, he is expected to garner several thousand votes.

Talking to residents on the streets of Mea Shearim and adjacent Haredi neighborhoods, it quickly emerged that the city’s ultra-Orthodox community is everything but monolithic.

The more anti-Zionist Haredim don’t vote at all, since the elections are being organized by a regime they reject on religious grounds.

Yekutiel Kirschenfeld, a 23-year-old from Har Nof, did vote — UTJ for city council and Lion for mayor. Why? “Because he promised to lower arnona [municipal tax].” Kirschenfeld, who works in a Mea Shearim housewares store, said he can’t afford to pay NIS 7,000 (about $2,000) every year and hopes for a serious reduction, even for Haredim who work. “I’m not sure that Lion will really do it, but he promised.”

Yehuda Riss, who owns a nearby fish store, said he voted for Shas and Lion, mostly because “Barkat is anti-Haredi.” Eliyahu, one of his employees, voted for the accountant from Givatayim simply because the rabbis said so. Did he know what Lion promised to do differently than Barkat? No, but that wasn’t not important, he said. “I’m a Litvak, I do what Rabbi [Aharon Leib] Shteinman and Rabbi [Haim] Kanievsky say.”

Eliyahu Weiss, a Haredi man in his 50s, said he voted UTJ for city council — and no one for mayor. “My rabbi didn’t say anything [about whom to vote for], so I didn’t vote for anyone.”

Avraham Soloveitchik, a scion of the rabbinical dynasty who was born and raised in Jerusalem, said he doesn’t ever vote. Not because it’s a forbidden legitimization of Zionism but mainly because of a dictum issued by one of his late ancestors. “Voting is neither a mitzvah [commandment] nor an aveirah [sin], the Brisker Rav said. So I prefer not to get involved.”

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