While Americans are well on the way to getting over their election hangovers, we in Israel are only halfway through election madness. Today were nationwide municipal and mayoral elections, to be followed in February with national elections. And today, Cap’n Crunch and I exercised for the first time our privilege as Israeli citizens and voted for a new mayor and slate of municipal officers for Efrat. Normally, I don’t feel the need to read the Jerusalem Post during the week, preferring the meatier Friday edition, but after today, the outcome of three mayoral elections have us on tenterhooks.
The first seat, Efrat’s, has been held by a competent person for some years, though there is a belief among some here that he and his predecessor were caretakers more than initiative-takers. Issues facing Efrat include growth (within whatever limits the national government places on the issuing of new building permits), expansion of sports and cultural facilities, turnover of the oldest neighborhoods (which also have the oldest residents and not many new young families), affordable housing, and security supervision of Arab workers in the settlement. Cap’n Crunch thinks that many people will have voted today based on their age group, with older voters voting for the widow of a former mayor (who appears to be in her 60s) and younger voters voting for a new guy with an ambitious agenda who appears to be in his 40s.
The second election whose outcome we’ll be very interested to see is Beit Shemesh’s. The candidates there represented three of the main religious/ethnic populations in the city. The incumbent, a Moroccan from one of Beit Shemesh’s oldest families, possesses no formal education beyond high school and apparently lied to the public about having received a university degree online. He also has ties to the Mafia and is known for wishy-washiness and making promises he doesn’t keep. If he has an agenda for this rapidly growing city, he has not confided it in his constituency. He’s wildly popular with the secular and traditional Israeli communities in the older sections of Beit Shemesh. His deputy, a religious Zionist and immigrant from America, is popular with the English-speaking technocrats in some of the newer sections of Beit Shemesh, as well as with the Harda"l (haredi religious Zionist) population in Ramat Beit Shemesh-Alef. He is a clear communicator and has many criticisms of the way the city has been run in the past. He promises cleaner government and will likely address some of the growing pains the city is having, as well as the social tensions that exist, particularly between the haredi population and the modern Orthodox. And the third candidate, a haredi man, promises more housing for families without undue regard for green space or overcrowding issues. He’s popular in the haredi neighborhoods of Beit Shemesh and Ramat Beit Shemesh-Bet. Some of our grievances while living in Beit Shemesh were the city’s unfettered growth, the fragmentation of interests of the population, the litter, vandalism, and neglect that marked every quarter of the city. It would be really nice to see someone assume the mayor’s duties who was able to identify these areas and come up with plans to improve them. We’ll see tomorrow what Beit Shemesh decides. I’m not optimistic, though, since it is the voters’ tendency in that city to vote for whichever candidate physically resembles them.
And finally, the third city that we feel an interest in is Jerusalem. There the issues are manifold. As anyone knows who has followed the news in the past eight months, Jerusalem too needs better oversight of its Arab construction workers. It has also undertaken a massive light rail project that has closed streets, created nearly impassible traffic congestion, shut down important bus lines, and caused small businesses to close along major stretches of heavily trafficked roads. It has also gone way over budget with this project and made what was to be a small overpass bridge for the trains a gigantic "aesthetic" eyesore (a la Lenny Zakim Bridge between Boston and Charlestown, only completely out of architectural context). Cultural events are poorly funded, housing prices have gone through the roof, and all new housing is either cramped apartments for haredi families or luxury housing for wealthy absentee Jews from outside of Israel. The city’s haredi population continues to soar while secular Jews are fleeing the city. Young couples who have grown up in the city are forced to leave it for lack of affordable housing. Parking is a hassle in most neighborhoods, and the number of cars on the road has increased dramatically since we lived there 11 years ago. In other words, Jerusalem needs some competent leadership ASAP. The candidates include a Russian immigrant millionaire (a Ross Perot-type) who has used his money very generously and hopes to appeal to the poorer sector of the city; a successful secular businessman who would like to increase accessibility of culture in the city and plans to re-evaluate the light rail project, leaving open the option of canceling it altogether; and a haredi Knesset member whose photo on his election posters was so scary all the later ads for his campaign on billboards and buses have a cartoon representation of him (a Santa Claus in black). I look on the brave soul who gets elected to the Jerusalem mayoralty with equal parts awe and pity. The Holy City these days is not an easy place to govern and I hope and pray that the Almighty gives the winner the wisdom and sense to tidy it up.
I remember a couple of years ago a heated discussion in our ulpan class over politics that resulted in our teacher making the observation that perhaps immigrants should be barred from voting in Israeli elections for the first three years of their residency. We were astounded at the comment, and I continue to bristle at that idea (probably shared by many secular Israelis who don’t like religious Zionist immigrants influencing Israeli politics). For what do we come here to live and become citizens if not to help steer the country we care so much about? Most of us were keen followers of Israeli politics for years before making aliyah, and one could probably count on one hand the number of immigrants who, after three years of Israeli residency, would vote any differently than they would have voted while still living in Brookline, Monsey, or Boca Raton. And besides, looking at the level of quality of the average Israeli politician, I think the sooner immigrants are allowed to vote, the better.