A Vote For Jerusalem's Soul

By Simon McGregor-Wood, Correspondent & Bureau Chief, ABC News Jerusalem

Let’s start with a joke.

Question: “What’s the best thing about Jerusalem?”Answer: “The road to Tel Aviv.”

Just a joke, but an increasing number of secular Israeli residents of this troubled city believe it and they are leaving.

In the last ten years there has been a steady exodus of the city’s secular community. And as their numbers have fallen so the numbers of ultra-orthodox residents of the city have increased.

As a result Jerusalem has become Israel’s poorest city as most religious residents do not work.

It is a conflict of lifestyles and ideologies that is at the center of Tuesday’s race for Jerusalem’s mayoral office.

The two leading candidates represent the competing camps – Meir Porush a bearded orthodox rabbi, and Nir Barkat a successful right wing businessman. Barkat leads in the polls.

The city is festooned with their posters and placards. Young people man the intersections thrusting flyers and handbills through car windows. Their favored candidate reflected in the distinctive styles of dress favored by the religious and secular.

Some are saying it is a battle for the soul of this famous but divided city.

If it was just a question of numbers, the orthodox would seem to have a winning hand. In the seven years of my assignment in Jerusalem their influence and growing numbers have become obvious. Neighborhoods that were once secular now have orthodox families moving in.

This has caused growing resentment. In a friend’s apartment building traditionally home to young professional Israelis, orthodox families have moved in and recently complained about the “immodest” dress of female residents.

The increasing influence of the orthodox seems to have motivated the city’s secular voters this year. During this election campaign people who never used to vote have flocked to Barkat’s campaign. Many feel this is the last chance to save a mixed and cosmopolitan Jerusalem.

My wife, all her life a secular Jerusalemite, desperately wants to vote. She doesn’t want to vote Barkat because both he and his opponent both favor the expansion of Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem and are against peaceful compromise with the 250,000 Palestinian residents of the city.

Since Israel’s occupation and reunification of the city after the Six Day War in 1967 the city’s Arab residents have refused to vote. They have never fielded a candidate.

The only truly leftist candidate this year according to my wife is Dan Biron a former television director and now bar owner who is campaigning as the Green Leaf candidate, proposing the legalization of marijuana and greater investment of public funds in Arab parts of the city.

He doesn’t have a chance of winning.

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