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Jerusalem election seen as crucial

 
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An Orthodox man speaks with party activists for mayoral candidate Arcadi Gaydamak at Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehudah market last Friday. Brian Hendler

JERUSALEM – It sounds like the beginning of a joke: A rabbi, a Russian oligarch and a high-tech millionaire are running for mayor of Jerusalem.

Except there’s no punch line, just each of them offering up himself as salvation for the hallowed capital’s many troubles.

News Analysis

Many Jerusalemites view this year’s municipal elections, scheduled for Nov. 11, as a historic turning point for a city that is Israel’s poorest, still vulnerable to terrorist attacks, and wracked by economic, political and religious divisions. At stake, many say, is Jerusalem’s very character and future viability.

The election is “likely to be the most crucial local ballot ever held in the modern history of the capital,” Calev Ben-David, a Jerusalem Post columnist and longtime Jerusalemite, wrote recently.

Among the foremost concerns for Jewish Israelis is the hemorrhaging of Jerusalem’s Jewish population, particularly its middle class. These Israelis are being driven out of the city by high housing costs and scarce employment opportunities.

For secular residents, the growth of Jerusalem’s fervently Orthodox population is further cause for concern that the Orthodox will dominate the personality and priorities of the city.

In the predominately Arab eastern half, where most residents long have refused to vote in municipal elections in protest of Israel’s sovereignty over the city, basic social services have been neglected for years by City Hall. Many families live in cramped quarters because building permits are difficult to acquire, classroom shortages are so bad that at some schools different grades take turns using the same room, and road repair and garbage collection are routinely ignored.

Some observers argue that the neglect of eastern Jerusalem ensures that the capital may again be divided by an international border. Within the city’s Arab community, many warn that the gap in services leads to resentment that can be seen in the growing political and religious radicalization of Arab youth. Several times this year, relatively young Palestinians from eastern Jerusalem perpetrated terrorist attacks against Jews in Jerusalem, sometimes with deadly results.

Elias Khoury, a lawyer who represents Arab residents of Jerusalem on issues of property, building, and residency rights, says the boycott of municipal elections by Jerusalem Arabs only hurts the community.

“Today the situation in East Jerusalem is ‘tohu va’vohu,’” he said, using the biblical term for chaos. “If we don’t participate in elections, we need an alternative to managing our lives.”

The youngest of the three candidates is Nir Barkat, 49, a City Council member who made his fortune developing pioneering anti-virus software in the 1990s. A secular Jerusalemite, Barkat advocates reviving the city and its economy by focusing on tourism and making Jerusalem a world-class center for medicine and life sciences.

The Orthodox candidate is Rabbi Meir Porush, a seventh-generation Jerusalemite and longtime fixture on Israel’s Orthodox political scene who officially joined the race at the last minute.

The current mayor, Uri Lupolianski, who is fervently Orthodox, had agreed to step aside for another Orthodox candidate, but it took the fervently Orthodox political establishment until the 11th hour to settle on a final candidate. Several names were floated, but Porush became the man of choice only after disgraced ex-Shas Party chairman and Knesset member Aryeh Deri, who spent time in prison for taking bribes, was disqualified from running because his crimes constituted acts of moral turpitude.

Porush, who advocates holding the Israeli government accountable for unfulfilled pledges to invest millions of dollars in Jerusalem, hopes to win the mayoralty by galvanizing the city’s powerful fervently Orthodox voting bloc. Orthodox residents make up 30 percent of the city’s Jewish population but composed the majority of voters in the city’s last municipal election, helping usher in Lupoliansky, the city’s first Orthodox mayor, in 2003.

Porush cites Jerusalem’s Arab-Jewish demography as the city’s greatest challenge. He told JTA the first thing he would do as mayor would be to declare “an emergency situation” to boost the city’s Jewish population, which stands at about 66 percent.

“If this problem is not dealt with we will lose Jerusalem,” Porush said.

Rounding out the field is Arcady Gaydamak, Israel’s flashiest political enigma, a billionaire who says he speaks for the people.

Gaydamak’s past includes an international arrest warrant for allegedly illicit arms dealing in Angola and paying out of his own pocket to house Israelis fleeing the rocket fire in the north during the 2006 Lebanon war.

Zuhir Hamdan, who briefly ran as Jerusalem’s first Arab mayoral candidate, recently joined Gaydamak’s campaign in the hope of becoming his adviser on Arab affairs if Gaydamak is elected.

On a recent campaign foray to Jerusalem’s open-air Mahane Yehudah market, Barkat shook hands and smiled for the cameras in his charcoal gray suit and Oxford shirt.

“My goal and mission in life is to build the future of Jerusalem,” he told a gathering of foreign journalists before outlining his plans, which include tapping international philanthropists and private-sector funds for support for the city.

Addressing the poverty issue, he noted that the average Jewish income in Jerusalem is $16,000 annually compared to $24,000 in the Tel Aviv area — and just $4,000 among Arab residents of eastern Jerusalem.

All of the candidates are trying to woo voters on the issue of affordable housing. Foreign demand for property in Jerusalem has contributed to skyrocketing housing of prices and a dearth of new middle-class housing. Most of the city’s current building projects are luxury housing for diaspora Jewish buyers, with prices per meter ranging from $7,000 to $10,000.

The high cost of living in Jerusalem has driven many residents to the suburbs.

Two new parties comprised of young Jerusalemites have made the issue their focus in the race for City Council seats. Aimed at trying to stem the tide of young people fleeing the city, one party is made up predominately of university students and other 20somethings and is called Hit’orerut — Hebrew for “wake up.” Earlier this month it merged with the other like-minded party, Yerushalmim — Hebrew for “Jerusalemites.”

“We need a change, and we understood it had to come from within,” said Ofir Berkovitz, 25, the head of Hit’orerut.

Party leaders helped organize a demonstration several months ago in which activists piled suitcases on their cars and drove to the city’s entrance with megaphones blaring, “Don’t leave us with no choice but to leave!”

JTA

 
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The converso’s dilemma

Local group goes to New Mexico to learn about crypto-Jews

Imagine that you were raised as a Catholic. Then one day — perhaps as a beloved parent or grandparent lay dying and leaned over to whisper something in your ear — you learned that your family once was Jewish. Your ancestors were converted forcibly some 500 years ago.

For those people all over the world who have had that experience, the next step is not entirely clear. Do they jump in with both feet and vigorously pursue their new Jewish identities, or do they simply go about their business, choosing to do nothing with this new information? These dilemmas, and more, were the subject of a recent Road Scholar program in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

The topic — “New Mexico’s Conversos and Crypto-Jews” — continues to fascinate both Jews and non-Jews, as evidenced by the religious identity of the attendees. Among those participating in this month’s session — there are 10 such programs held each year — were five residents from our area, including this author.

 

Noted chef to help raise funds for ELEM

Organization for at-risk Israeli teens raises consciousness in Bergen County

In 1982, a group of professionals and volunteers took note of the fact that Israel’s population of at-risk preteens and teens was not only growing but also sorely underserved.

In response, that group — Israelis and Americans — created ELEM/Youth in Distress.

Efrat Shafrut, the group’s executive director in Israel, said the organization now works with at least 20,000 kids each year. She estimates that there are more than 200,000 at-risk 12- to 18-year-olds in Israel.

“We work with immigrants from Ethiopia and Russia who moved here over the last 10 or 20 years, single-parent families, the poor, people with drug problems, prostitutes, Arabs, Bedouins, ultra-Orthodox religious kids, whoever needs help,” Ms. Shafrut said. The goal is to “extract them from their situation and help them find their place in society.”

 

Billionaire debutantes

Russian philanthropists take Bloomberg to the ball

JERUSALEM — There were ballerinas, a full dance ensemble, soloists, a harpist, a video tribute to Jewish luminaries in many fields, a multimedia orchestra performance celebrating the enduring light of creation, a speech from the prime minister, stand-up from Jay Leno, and an audience packed with top Jewish communal movers and shakers from both sides of the Atlantic.

Officially, it was a night at the Jerusalem Theater to honor former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg with the first $1 million Genesis Prize for embodying Jewish values in achieving excellence in the spheres of business, politics, and philanthropy. Mr. Bloomberg made a day of it, appearing with Jerusalem’s Mayor Nir Barkat to discuss urban innovation and holding a briefing with the media before showing up for the grandiose ceremony to take home what some are calling the Jewish Nobel.

 

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Israel launching drive to void Goldstone Report

WASHINGTON – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel would launch an international campaign to cancel the Goldstone Report after its author, ex-South African Judge Richard Goldstone, wrote in an Op-Ed in the Washington Post that Israel did not intentionally target civilians as a policy during the Gaza War, withdrawing a critical allegation in the report.

Netanyahu said he had asked his security adviser, Ya’akov Amidror, to establish a committee focused on “minimizing the damage caused” by the report.

 

Facebook and Zuckerberg does an about-face and deletes Palestinian page calling for a Third Intifada

Following widespread criticism, a Facebook page calling for a third Palestinian intifada against Israel was removed on March 29. On the Facebook page, Palestinians were urged to launch street protests following Friday May 15 and begin an uprising as modelled by similar uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Morocco, and Jordan. Killing Jews en masse was emphasized.

According to the Facebook page, “Judgment Day will be brought upon us only once the Muslims have killed all of the Jews.” The page had more than 340,000 fans. However, even while the page was removed, a new page now exists in its place with the same name,  “Third Palestinian Intifada.”

 

Did heated rhetoric play role in shooting of Giffords?

WASHINGTON – The 8th District in southern Arizona represented by U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords comprises liberal Tucson and its rural hinterlands, which means moderation is a must. But it also means that spirits and tensions run high.

Giffords’ office in Tucson was ransacked in March following her vote for health care reform — a vote the Democrat told reporters that she would cast even if it meant her career. She refused to be cowed, but she also took aim at the hyped rhetoric. She cast the back-and-forth as part of the democratic process.

 
 
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