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Tom Teicholz Headshot

Which Jerusalem?

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On October 22, Israel will hold its Jerusalem mayoral election. Nir Barkat, the business-minded pragmatist who is completing his first five year term as mayor is running for reelection. His main opponent is Moshe Lion, the former chairman of the Jerusalem Development authority, who is supported by both the Sephardic Orthodox Shas party and the right-wing Likud Beitenu. At first blush this may seem as a contest between right and further right but the outcome could not be more important. This is an election that is, in many ways, an indicator of the direction the country is headed in and more critically, this is a battle for the heart and soul of Jerusalem.

Barkat has spent his first term steering clear of politics, focusing on jobs creation and improving the business appeal of Jerusalem, investing heavily in popular cultural events, such as arts festivals as well as Israel's first Formula One racing exhibition and the Jerusalem Marathon. At the same time, he has reached out to Ultra-Orthodox residents with job programs so they can continue to afford to live in Jerusalem, rather than move to one of the city's suburbs.

Critics from the left fault Barkat for not confronting the eventual status of East Jerusalem and for not sufficiently improving the lives of Arab residents. Barkat's answer is that as mayor of Jerusalem his first task is to make Jerusalem a place people want to come to, and from which residents don't want to leave -- increasing jobs, industry and tourism, which he has done consistently each year. Barkat claims that in this fashion he serves all of Jerusalem including the Arab population.

Moshe Lion's campaign argues that Barkat spends too much on image and branding, too much on culture, and not enough on what the citizens of Jerusalem care most about: education, housing and reducing traffic jams. Lion's longtime governmental service, as director-General of the Prime Minister's office, head of the Israel Railways and head of the the Jerusalem Development Authority, her argues, will help him negotiate the government approvals and cut the red-tape involved in helping Jerusalem's citizens. Lion is the fix-the-potholes candidate. Lion's campaign appeals to longtime residents who resent the attention lavished on tourists (despite Tourism being one of Jerusalem's most important industries).

Barkat's challenge is to get out the vote and fight against apathy among the general Jerusalem electorate -- particularly if the Ultra Orthodox vote in block for Lion. If Barkat loses, then in all probability, Jerusalem will pursue a more conservative and insular vision that tries to hold on to as much as possible for its residents for as long as possible -- improving what is; but offering no vision for tomorrow beyond maintaining the status quo. That is why the election is so important and worth paying attention to.

As Teddy Kollek, Jerusalem's best known mayor once said, "If you want one simple word to symbolize all of Jewish history, that word would be 'Jerusalem." But which history? And more important, which Jerusalem?