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How did Jerusalem’s community administrators do?

CM 29/07/2021

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“Battlefield,” “Last Enclave,” “Last Station Before Escaping to Tel Aviv,” “The Elite on the Mountain.”
These are just a few of the expressions and dubious compliments used to describe a number of Jerusalem neighborhoods that held local council elections for community administrators earlier this month. 
Electing community administrators was a singular solution created especially for Jerusalem, and it does not exist in any other city in the country. This system was conceived of by Jerusalem’s mythological mayor Teddy Kollek as a way to decentralize city management, which even back then, 35 years ago, was already cumbersome and difficult to manage. 
The idea was to encourage residents to take responsibility for their neighborhood and to promote plans to improve their surroundings in close cooperation and full transparency with the municipality. The other important rationale behind this initiative was the idea that it would defuse political infighting and enable leaders to focus strictly on their neighborhoods’ needs, without engaging in discussions of a religious, political or social nature. 

In reality, this is not what happened. The community administrators in Jerusalem are overall a success story, in that they have encouraged local leadership and serve as a voice of the residents within the large, and at times, cumbersome municipality. But the political infighting did not disappear, and overt clashes began taking place in the neighborhoods, instead of in the city council or in the various committees that sit at Safra Square. The discord mostly focused on two main issues: pluralism vs haredization, and budgets for organizations, including schools, kindergartens and community centers. 
One example is the clash over the public swimming pool in Ramot, with one side pushing for separate swimming hours for men and women, and other residents refusing to give in to haredi residents’ demands. It might also be noted that elections in Ramot have been postponed time and again for precisely the same reason, with both sides – haredi and secular – not wanting to risk the other side gaining greater representation in neighborhood management. A third round of elections is planned for the end of the year, or at the latest, early 2022, and this time, the municipality has declared an election must take place in Ramot. 
There were a number of positive achievements in the last election round, which took place in five local councils in early July, including the inclusion of more women in leadership roles, and the election of the first haredi woman to a local council. On the other hand, it appears that a number of local councils with secular or mixed populations are now being led by haredi leadership.  
Faced with various challenges, such as lack of transparency in urban planning and failure to cooperate with residents, the topic of maintaining a pluralistic nature in certain neighborhoods was raised this time around, just as it was in the previous election this past December. In other (less politically correct) words, they discussed how to prevent their neighborhoods from being taken over by the haredi community, with their lack of willingness to live side by side with secular Jews. 
Two interesting elements characterized this last election: The large number of women who ran and were elected, including as chair; and secondly, Esther Elkin was the first haredi woman to run and win as local council head of Greater Kiryat Hayovel. What is even more striking is that Elkin – an accountant residing on Stern Street, which has become overwhelmingly haredi in recent years – received the blessing of many haredi rabbis, who, in an unprecedented move, even publicly declared their support for her candidacy. 
Yet residents who identify with the more pluralistic populace of the neighborhood view the support of Elkin as a crafty move, since outwardly, supporting a female candidate appears like an essential and democratic step, but according to Inbar Blauser, a resident who ran against Elkin, “This was very clever, since Elkin is obviously not going to support pluralistic principles.”
Deputy Mayor Arieh King, who holds the Community Administration portfolio, says the increase in the number of women running and winning spots is an extremely positive achievement. He did, however, follow up this statement with the claim that “election regulations should no longer safeguard specific slots for female candidates, since 56% of candidates were women.”
 The famed miflezet (monster) in Kiryat Yovel (photographer: Wikimedia Commons) The famed miflezet (monster) in Kiryat Yovel (photographer: Wikimedia Commons)
Regarding another matter, King complained that the municipality’s professional staff intervened more than necessary in elections. For example: “They divided the constituencies in the Yuvalim area into zones, so that the power of haredi residents would be split. But the haredim overcame this obstacle by showing up in great numbers on election day. Although they constitute only 20% of the neighborhood’s residents, not many secular residents voted, and now they are complaining that the haredim received a much higher percentage of neighborhood representatives. In my mind, that’s not very pluralistic of them.”
Despite the intense discussions taking place among administrators in light of the recent vote, results show that voter turnout remains extremely low. For example, in East Talpiot, where a woman was elected as the new local council leader, only 17% of neighborhood residents took part in the voting process. In Beit Hakerem, which is considered a stronghold of the secular community, voter turnout was only 20%. 
In Har Nof, on the other hand, which is a completely haredi neighborhood that is considered relatively wealthy and where many English-speaking new immigrants live, 28% of residents took part in the recent election. In Yuvalim, which encompasses the Greater Kiryat Hayovel area, including Ramat Sharett, Ramat Denya, Malha, Ein Kerem and of course Kiryat Hayovel, 25% of residents voted. The highest percentage of voting took place in Neveh Ya’acov, which registered a relatively high 31% voter turnout. 
Vika Elkin, the woman recently elected local council head in East Talpiot, says her main interest is to strengthen the neighborhood and to lead, in cooperation with the municipality, a comprehensive urban renewal program in the neighborhood. 
“We’re really excited to get started working on our extensive plan, even though I’m sure there will be lots of unexpected hurdles, and we do have some concerns,” explains Elkin. “Like, for example, who will be in charge of planning? And how much will the residents be involved in each stage of planning their neighborhood?”
Elkin is aware of the complexities, and that it won’t be easy dealing with the bureaucratic issues, but still insists that the municipality is a partner and does not pose a threat to the process. “I believe we will succeed in implementing our plans, and that the only way to achieve our goals is to work in cooperation with the municipality, and not in opposition to it. If disagreements arise, we will handle them. The municipality is our partner, not our enemy.”
Rabbi Tamir Nir of Achava Bakerem, a Reform synagogue in Beit Hakerem, is extremely concerned about the haredization of the city. “I have no problem if a haredi person moves in next door to me, but when the community as a whole tries to take over local institutions and make them haredi, that is a problem, and I am fighting against this phenomenon.”
Nir claims that when new haredi institutions are founded in the neighborhood, it changes the communal character of Beit Hakerem. “We have reached the last stage, and soon there will be nothing left for us here in Jerusalem, and we will be forced to move to Tel Aviv. For many years, we had such a wonderful feeling of community here, and we just want to maintain this warm communal character. I don’t have any qualms with any specific individuals, but it’s a problem when a haredi postnatal home or yeshiva is slated to be built here. We are against building new institutions that will alter the character of our community.”
Nir is actively engaged in working to find ways to maintain the neighborhood’s communal atmosphere, such as supporting the local pub, which is open on Shabbat and will continue to operate on Shabbat in the future. “There are plans to build a new campus that will include an expansion of Ziv School, a swimming pool, clubs and other venues that will help strengthen the communal character. We are focusing on all of these wonderful projects,” concludes Nir.
Many residents of the Yuvalim area were feeling despondent – and some even angry – the morning after the election. Individuals in both camps were pointing fingers at the other side, as well as at the municipality, for intervening when it was not their place. In a number of neighborhoods, residents agreed on the appointment of council members without holding elections. But in some cases, such as in Malha and in Ein Kerem, the representative was switched at the last moment to a person who had not been deemed acceptable by secular residents. 
Some people, for example, are now claiming it was unreasonable that only one candidate ran for office in Malha. For the most part, though, Yuvalim residents are concerned that recent election results have ushered in a new reality similar to the overall phenomenon taking place in the Jerusalem City Council. Secular residents are greatly concerned that political interests will be taken into consideration over the good of the community, and that the local council will turn into an arena for settling political battles.
Translated by Hannah Hochner.

Source: Jerusalem Post

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