If Mayor Barkat Fires Rachel Azaria He will Betray Zionist Jerusalem


By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 10-25-11

Related: J’lem mayor fires coalition member over court petition, JPost, 10-21-11

If Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat follows through on his threat to fire City Councillor Rachel Azaria from the coalition and take away her important portfolios of early childhood education and community councils, he will be declaring war on Zionist Jerusalem – the core constituents who elected him. Fortunately, the news reports treating the firing as a done deal were premature. This Thursday’s City Council meeting must ratify the decision. Everyone who cares about quality of life in a free, pluralistic, prospering Jerusalem should sign the petition demanding Rachel Azaria’s full reinstatement. If this grassroots initiative succeeds, not only will we be saving Jerusalem, we will be rescuing Nir Barkat from his self-imposed imprisonment to anti-Zionist, ultra-orthodox political bullies.

Rachel Azaria

The same redemptive spirit that elected Barkat in November 2008 propelled Rachel Azaria, a grassroots activist, to the City Council from the Yerushalmim Lo Mevtarim, “Jerusalemites Don’t Give Up” movement. Azaria, 33, now the mother of three young daughters, has dedicated herself to improving Jerusalem’s quality of life, focusing particularly on young Jerusalemites. She is a religious Zionist whose movement unites religious and secular, old and young, Sabras and immigrants, committed to reviving Jerusalem. She has performed her City Council duties magnificently, boosting the budgets for community councils, helping to open dozens of kindergartens, revitalizing neighborhood schools, and putting the issue of young families on the city’s agenda. “Before,” she explains, “everyone talked about keeping students. Now people in the municipality understand that young families are the key to our future too.” Full disclosure – I met Azaria during her campaign in 2007 and have supported her enthusiastically since.

Connected to her quality of life push, this religious woman has also navigated the complicated dynamics between ultra-orthodox haredim and their fellow Jerusalemites. She has fought to ensure that the Western Wall does not become a haredi synagogue but remains a unifying Jewish and Zionist space. She has combated haredi attempts to inflict gender segregation in public spaces, including her latest fight against gender segregation on Meah Shearim’s streets during Sukkot, a shocking imposition of fanatic, idiosyncratic, undemocratic, restrictions on public thoroughfares.

“I am not anti-haredi,” Azaria insists, visibly uncomfortable with the characterization itself. “I yearn for the way Israel was in the 1950s, when religious and non-religious Jews lived together in the same apartment building. We were all returning together, in the spirit of the prayer ‘Vahavieynu Leshalom Mearbah Kanfot Haaretz,’ G-d will bring us in peace from the four corners of the earth. But I object to all kinds of segregation – residential and gender. I want to affirm to the haredim that they are a part of us. They are 20 percent of Jerusalem and are here to stay. We have to change the discourse that this is ‘our’ neighborhood or ‘theirs.’ Meah Shearim can’t be beyond the law.” This segregation, she notes, harms haredim too. She has fought equally hard to ensure that buses serve all of haredi Jerusalem, on this principle of equality.

Mainstream, “hegemonic,” Ashkenazi rabbinic and political authorities find this religious woman fighting from within tradition even more threatening than secular Meretz types. But, she notes, “I am the address for many disenfranchised haredim. They come to me begging for help, because I am willing to get my hands dirty.”

Rachel Azaria embodies the open, constructive, pro-Jewish, pro-Zionist, pro-Israel, pro-Jerusalem spirit Nir Barkat himself embodies. She and her party represent the majority Jerusalem sensibility needed to make the city thrive. She is a poster child for all the aspirations of Zionist Jerusalem that Barkat stirred and promised to serve. He was absolutely right when he tried promoting her to deputy mayor last spring. And he was absolutely wrong when he succumbed to haredi pressure then. Even worse, he is now threatening to fire her on a technicality, based on the city’s marginal role in the lawsuit Azaria and others initiated opposing the gender segregation in Meah Shearim’s streets – which, she notes, many haredi women encouraged.

As a student of executive power, frustrated that Israel’s current Prime Minister lacks the spine to fire coalition members, no matter how incompetent or defiant, I understand Mayor Barkat’s discomfort with Azaria, his coalition partner, launching a lawsuit implicating the city, although Barkat also opposes the gender segregation. But, in a democracy, activists need to use a range of tactics. This move against Azaria seems too technical, too political, too opportunistic. The haredi press’s delight indicates that this palace coup has been long in the making.

The haredim are well-organized, appear unified, and control between 8 and 11 votes at different times in the 31-person City Council. Azaria’s –and Barkat’s – core constituents are more diffuse and more distracted, living their lives and making the city work rather than playing politics. If Barkat, however, figures he can continue disappointing Zionist Jerusalem, because no one else from that camp will run against him, he risks alienating so many we will simply stay home on Election Day. A surge of voters elected Barkat last time; elections can be lost by abstentions too. Barkat needs Zionist Jerusalem to rise up and free him, demanding Azaria’s reinstatement and promotion to deputy mayor. He should remember not just the 17,000 who elected Azaria but the tens of thousands who placed such hopes in him when he promised to bring this ancient city into the twenty-first century.

Rachel Azaria is Nir Barkat’s natural ally in this all-important mission. We, citizens of Jerusalem, and lovers of Jerusalem, must reunite them, not just by signing the petition, but by demonstrating that while we may not be well-organized or very loud, we care deeply about this special city, which remains the Jewish people’s capital, precious to many of us, religious and secular alike.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. The author of “Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today,” his latest book is “The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.”giltroy@gmail.com

Why isn’t Jerusalem our jewel in the crown?

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 11-5-08

If there was one thing that the many different constantly quarreling Zionists of yesteryear agreed about, it was that Zionism had to end the era of Jewish passivity. Zionism repudiated the religious addiction to waiting for the messiah. Zionism also rebelled against the ghetto tendency to do the oy vay dance whenever faced with a problem: Shrug to the left, sigh to the right, call out gevalt and end with a world weary witticism about how hard life can be.

Imagine how appalled our Zionist forbears would be by the sense of resignation paralyzing the Israeli body politic these days. Kacha zeh, “that’s how it is,” is as debilitating and defeatist as our grandparents’ many disquisitions on how hard it is to be a Jew.

Imagine how shocked our Zionist founders, who willed a state into being, would be by the fact that the future of Jerusalem is at risk because not enough citizens can be bothered to vote.

On November 11, Jerusalemites will have a chance to shape their city’s future. Last time municipal elections were held, only one-third of the city’s Jewish but non-haredi citizens bothered to vote. Nir Barkat, an attractive, creative, energetic candidate who had potential to revive the city, lost by less than 20,000 votes.

They say there are no second acts in show business, but politics is filled with great comeback stories. Five years later, having served in the city council honorably, Barkat is running again, more experienced ­and determined to get out the vote.

JERUSALEM IS the capital of Israel and of the Jewish people, a magical city that romantically meshes the old and the new. It should be the jewel in the crown of the Jewish people, a model city that delights its inhabitants as well as its visitors. Instead, it is a city of great contrasts, of absurdly high real estate prices and devastating poverty, of transcendent spirituality and vulgar corruption, of splendid sites that gleam at night and of litter strewn willy-nilly that stinks during the day. Jerusalem should be compared to Athens, Rome, Washington.

Instead, it often seems like Chelm, that mythical city filled with people who looked wise but acted foolish.

As the real Jerusalem has become infamous for its dysfunction, many residents have adopted this demoralized, depressing, ghetto-like weariness. Facing underfunded schools and overcrowded classrooms, too many change the subject by saying that the home is the most important influence on children anyway. Watching an overpriced, ill-conceived light rail project soar over budget, and clog traffic by ripping up large stretches of crucial roads for months on end, too many Jerusalemites knowingly explain that the fix is in, the contractors are earning too much for anything to be done. Hearing about houses burglarized, cars broken into, precious items people spend their lifetime collecting stolen by brazen robbers, too many citizens wearily ask “what can you do?”

Citizens in others cities have learned that you can fight corruption, revitalize schools, clean up streets, improve public transportation and crack down on crime. A great mayor can help save a city. New York has been blessed by larger than life mayors who revived that great metropolis. Mayor Ed Koch lured major corporations back to Manhattan, stopping the decline it suffered in the 1960s and 1970s. Mayor Rudy Giuliani fought crime by deploying the police strategically and refusing to tolerate the turnstile-jumping and aggressive panhandling that undermined civic values.

The current mayor, Michael Bloomberg, has reformed the schools, fought corruption, and balanced the budget. Beyond New York, Chicago’s Mayor Richard Daley has pioneered private-public partnerships and made America’s second city work. Less well-known is Mayor Randy Kelly who reduced the crime rate in St. Paul, Minnesota by 30 percent in four years. Within Israel, Mayor Moti Sasson has turned Holon, of all places, into a cultural center. And one of the most legendary of mayors remains Jerusalem’s Teddy Kollek, who showed how to parlay the worldwide love affair with Jerusalem into major cultural, architectural and landscaping projects that made the city sparkle.

DESPITE THEIR accomplishments, all these mayors had flaws, of course. And Barkat himself comes with no surefire guarantees. As a hi-tech entrepreneur, he may lack the politician’s light touch essential in such a volatile city. Recently, he made the absurd proposal that foreigners who own mostly unoccupied apartments should be fined ­ even though no one has ever tried inviting these absentee owners to contribute to the city with a voluntary extra-municipal tax fund through the Jerusalem Foundation or a similar charity.

Still, Barkat has been impressive during the campaign, uniting modern Orthodox and secular Jews, denouncing the light rail boondoggle, highlighting the funding disparities in education, culture, infrastructure investment between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

All the hoopla about the mayoral contest overlooks the fact that residents will cast two ballots. The second, equally important, ballot is for the city council. Jerusalemites should not vote for party hacks more concerned with national party politics. The Hitorerut Yerushalmim list offers young idealists, both secular and religious, who want to do what their name promises, revive Jerusalem¹s splendor. The right to vote is a privilege too many of us take for granted. Those of us lucky enough to live in a democracy should not be so blasé. Those of us lucky enough to live in Jerusalem dare not be so lazy.

Jerusalem has experienced periods of grandeur and periods of desolation during its long history. Jerusalem should be thriving in this the 21st century. Everyone who lives in the city should do everything possible to ensure that Jerusalem has the right leadership to make the city the pride of Israel, the Jewish people and the activist, constructive Zionist cause.

The writer, who lives in Jerusalem, is an American historian and the author of Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents and Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today.