Australia/Israel Review

Silicon Revolution in the City of Gold

Dec 18, 2008 | Amotz Asa-El

By Amotz Asa-El

The contrast could hardly be more striking. On the one side was a father of 12 who married through a matchmaker before walking in the footsteps of his father and grandfather – also leaders of ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem – while wearing their trademark black coats, fedora hats, velvet yarmulkes and wild Santa Claus beards. And on the other side was a bare-headed hi-tech entrepreneur and paratrooper captain who married the next-door neighbour, an immigrant from South Africa, who came to visit him in the hospital while he was recovering from an injury sustained on a Lebanese battlefield. 

Though short, balding, and unassumingly dressed, the Mercedes SUV from which he emerges defies the otherworldliness, provinciality and poverty that many have come to associate with the city over which this pair of contrasting Israelis locked horns.

The city is Jerusalem, and the two contestants for its mayoralty were Rabbi Meir Porush, scion of a family that has been a pillar of ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem for more than two centuries, and Nir Barkat, a computer engineer and MBA who had vowed to wrest the Israeli capital from its religious leaders, and restore what he sees as its lost glory.

Barkat’s parents are a Hebrew University physicist and a dance instructor. He made his fortune with two friends, jointly establishing a start-up that pioneered anti-virus software. The 20 companies in which he and his colleagues invested included Check Point, now a global leader in network security software. Eventually they made it big, successfully taking some of their companies to Wall Street, and becoming the kind of self-made millionaires of which there are today a good several hundred in Israel. At 49, and more than half-a-decade after leaving hi-tech for politics, Barkat is believed to be worth more than US$100 million.

All of this of course did little to equip Barkat with the kind of street wisdom that municipal politics demands, and which he later learned the hard way, as leader of the municipal opposition following his electoral defeat in 2003. Porush, by contrast, needed no such baptism. Now 53, he arrived at November’s race a veteran Knesset member who had previously served as deputy minister of housing and before that as deputy mayor of Jerusalem. Though he never built a company, nor in fact had any secular education, he knew thoroughly the art of legislation, lobbying, negotiating and budget engineering. And in Jerusalem, these are not exactly pieces of cake.

Presiding over US$640 million and 7,500 employees, and dealing daily with some of the world’s most complex municipal dilemmas, the mayor of Jerusalem can be more important than many Israeli cabinet ministers. With some 750,000 inhabitants, Jerusalem is Israel’s largest and most populous city. However, unlike Tel Aviv, which is the lynchpi of an urban sprawl of more than a dozen cities and two million inhabitants who make and handle most of Israel’s money, Jerusalem has historically been economically weak. It is distant from the Mediterranean coast and has never been much of a magnet for industry and commerce. The city’s two largest single employers have for decades been the government and the Hebrew University, and its property-tax returns are among the lowest in the country per-capita.

Moreover, Jerusalem is by far Israel’s most politically-charged city, piling on top of each other myriad monotheistic communities while compelling Israelis and Palestinians to share physical space, and secular and religious Jews to hammer out spiritual compromises.

Still, during the first 25 years after its unification in 1967, Jerusalem blossomed and became an internationally celebrated island of religious tolerance, cultural creation and political pragmatism.

Under the leadership of the late Teddy Kollek, dozens of landmark theatres, museums, schools, libraries, stadiums, pedestrian malls, parks and vast neighbourhoods were built from scratch. Celebrities on the scale of Marlene Dietrich and Barbara Streisand routinely arrived for high-profile visits, and creative genuises such as Saul Bellow and Leonard Bernstein came to produce their art. The city was clean, its tourist sites were well-kept, and it was the undisputed intellectual capital of the Jewish state.

Moreover, during a legendary 28-year mayoralty, Kollek managed to keep Jerusalem above the Middle East conflict by the power of his charisma, dedication and the knowledge that he had no personal ambitions other than to look after Jerusalem’s needs. As such, local clergy and community leaders, even when they had qualms with his secularism, Zionism, or Jewishness, knew they would get from him personal respect and communal benefits, as long as they too contributed to the maintenance of quiet and tolerance.

Since Kollek’s departure in 1993, some of this has been lost. Kollek’s successor, Ehud Olmert, had his eyes on higher office, and Olmert’s successor, ultra-Orthodox charity manager Uri Lupolianski, lacked his predecessors’ political clout. Jerusalem began to fall into disrepair, both figuratively and literally. Garbage collection downtown was inadequate, tourist sites were poorly maintained, the city centre was visibly decaying with the main avenue – connecting the old city with the exit to Tel Aviv – losing elite stores to newly opened malls. With young professionals steadily migrating to the coastal plain, and younger universities increasingly challenging Hebrew University’s appeal, secularists were feeling that ultra-Orthodox Judaism, which generally does not believe in Zionism, was taking over the city.

For their part, the ultra-Orthodox refrained from restricting, or even just harassing, secular Jerusalem’s cultural institutions and night life. Instead, they used their control of municipal budgets to cultivate their communities in general, and their education system in particular, at the expense of the system’s secular clients.

Overall, the number of secular and modern-Orthodox students in the city’s school system has declined annually by at least 300, shrinking since 2000 from 30,000 pupils to 25,000.

In the Rehavia neighbourhood, once home to famous philosophers, historians, novelists and Supreme Court justices, the local high school that once produced much of Israel’s elite has seen its student body dwindle this decade from 1,300 to fewer than 900 pupils. In the sprawling Ramot neighbourhood, overlooking the exit to Tel Aviv, three of four secular elementary schools have been shut down for lack of students. The fourth, which originally had 1,000 students, now has 200.

Ultra-Orthodox schools, at the same time, have become so overcrowded that classes are often improvised in basements and trailers. In all, ultra-Orthodox schools already serve more than 40% of Jerusalem’s students. Add to that the Arab sector’s 28%, and you can comprehend the feeling among secular Jewish Jerusalemites that they are gradually losing their city.

This is the trend that Barkat promised to undo if elected, and this is the sentiment that made thousands who had previously ignored local elections flock this time to the ballots, where they handed Barkat a decisive 52%-43% victory over Porush.

During his first week in the handsome mayoral chambers overlooking the Old City walls, Barkat, who has three daughters, chose to keep for himself the education portfolio, sending a message that he intends to try to shape the city’s character with the same tools that his ultra-Orthodox rivals used so well.  The new mayor has also pledged to increase cultural budgets and review the currently in-progress overhaul of the city’s mass-transit system, whose deadlines and budgets the previous management repeatedly failed to meet. At the same time, he invited his ultra-Orthodox rivals to join his coalition, even though he had a majority in the city council without them. The invitation was accepted, even though Barkat only offered the ultra-Orthodox councilmen responsibilities within their own communities.

Israeli ultra-Orthodoxy thus lost its opportunity to take an office of national importance and, through it, impress the mainstream public. For the next five years (and if it’s up to him, for at least the next decade) winning the confidence of Jerusalem’s utterly diverse population will be Nir Barkat’s main quest. It’s his new start-up.



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