November 01, 2012
Politics very big and very small

There is concern here not only for Obama vs Romney next Tuesday, or Netanyahu vs who knows on January 22nd, but also for the more difficult choices facing French Hill in the election for a neighborhood committee (מנהלת) November 22nd.


You've heard about a storm in a tea cup. This is a storm in a tea spoon.

Obama vs Romney is too big for personal comprehension. The likely outcome appears to be very close, and will depend on a host of factors not in any one's control, certainly not in the control of anyone in French Hill. Not only will there be a lot of money spent over the next few days on the candidates' travels and advertising, but media personalities from around the world will fill our ears with their assessments. Will there be a spillover from Sandy? So far it looks like it has helped Obama's image as the caregiver-in-chief offering the resources of the Federal Government to all in need, along with well-spoken feelings and encouragement. However, sentiments may change as days without electricity continue. Differentials in enthusiasm may leave some kinds of voters at home while others are so intense as to climb over all obstacles on their way to the polls. The mechanics of the electoral college may affect the outcome. All Americans may think they are equal, but procedures created 230 years ago make some more equal than others.

Here new parties keep sprouting. Earlier in the week there was the registration of an Ethiopian party. That's a sign of political coming of age. Other immigrant groups feeling themselves poorly treated have gone the same route. However, the Ethiopians do not have the numbers of the Russians, and so far have not put forward personalities with the pulling capacity of Natan Sharansky or Avigdor Lieberman. So the new party probably will not do any better than Romanians who keep trying every so often.

Currently in the headlines is the prospect of a new party said to be centrist-left on social issues but centrist-right on issues concerned with the Palestinians, likely to be created by the current Minister of Communications. He made a name for himself by evening the playing field between consumers and cellphone companies. He wanted a promotion to Finance Minister in the next Netanyahu government, but did not get a commitment from the Prime Minister. So he may try his luck with the voters. What that does to the prospective line-up is too early to predict. Still pondering the possibility of running and creating other party(ies) are at least two other potential stars.

The election for the neighborhood committee is simpler, but more difficult. Essentially, it involves selection to a body without significant authority, but there is a hot issue, and we are facing the prospect of more good candidates--who we know well--than we can select.

Those with Hebrew capacity can read about the functions of Jerusalem's neighborhood committees here. Basically they represent the views of the neighborhood to officials of the municipality, and organize a variety of self-help, voluntary programs along with the professional staff of the neighborhood community center. The community center is a body with a building and some resources that runs sport and social programs for different age clusters.

So much for the formal picture. The real issue involves a kulturkamp between Haredi newcomers and everyone else.

French Hill is suffering from an invasion of mostly young ultra-Orthodox couples with lots of children. They represent an extension from the earlier conquest of the next neighborhood to the west, which was taken over by the ultra-Orthodox from what had been a mixed neighborhood of religious and secular Jews. In modern, Israeli Hebrew, "religious" means non-ultra-Orthodox. French Hill has three Orthodox synagogues and one Conservative synagogue. The language of prayer in all is Hebrew. The language of conversation in the Conservative synagogue is American English.


French HIll's population had been a comfortable mixture of religious and secular Jews, with a few ultra-Orthodox and a sprinkling of East Asian and Arab students from the nearby university, along with some Arab families and a variety of others. The most recent years have seen a marked increase of ultra-Orthodox, with a fear among other residents that the future can become unpleasant. Likely demands include Sabbath elevators. Those are elevators that run continuously on the Sabbath and religious holidays, stopping at every floor or every second floor, so that religious Jews can ride them without violating the Sabbath by pressing buttons. Israeli elevators might be converted to Sabbath elevators without great cost, but the subsequent use of electricity is expensive and the noise annoying. There may also come demands, as have occurred in other neighborhoods that have "tipped," to halt the sale of "trash" (i.e., non-ultra-Orthodox) newspapers in neighborhood kiosks, halt the use of radio and television that bother ultra-Orthodox families, and close the roads to vehicle traffic on Sabbath and religious holidays. Also in the air is the lack of military service by the vast majority of ultra-Orthodox men. French Hill has memorials for young men who attended school with our children, and gave their lives for national defense.


We have heard from Orthodox friends about the pressure of Haredim in their synagogues to change things in undesirable directions. Meetings of synagogue participants have agreed with the desire to perpetuate the "open and pluralistic" nature of the neighborhood. That means, without quite saying it, to vote against ultra-Orthodox candidates for the neighborhood committee.

The line-up for the neighborhood election features ultra-Orthodox and non-ultra-Orthodox candidates. Sidewalk conversations are more likely to be about who is who in this fight rather than the big stuff concerned with the American president or the Israeli prime minister.

Chief among our problems is that each voter gets to select two candidates, but there are three attractive non-ultra-Orthodox candidates. We know and admire them all. One is a resident in our building, a friend for 20 years, who has dedicated herself to the committee that manages the building, and looks after our apartment when we travel. Another is a former student, who wrote a good paper on social policy in my seminar, and has become a friend along with his two young boys who smile and say Shalom when we see them frequently here and there. The third is the husband of a university colleague, himself a professional in a government ministry, who would bring considerable expertise to neighborhood affairs.


Our rational analysis is that it is best to vote for the two candidates most likely to be elected. A precise weighing of qualifications isn't all that important in an election whose importance is much more likely to be symbolic than substantive. In other words, it's important to choose the right kind of members for the neighborhood committee, even though the committee has no real power.

Among the items on the agenda is a proposal to develop an ultra-Orthodox educational center in the next neighborhood to the west. That's close enough to spur the attraction of French Hill for ultra-Orthodox families.

Secular people in French Hill are disappointed that the secular mayor supports the project. No surprise. At least 30 percent of Jerusalem's voters are ultra-Orthodox. Expecting a mayor to resist a major ultra-Orthodox project would be like expecting Barack Obama and Mitt Romney to have campaigned against the arrival of Sandy.

Altering plans for an ultra-Orthodox educational center nearby isn't in the cards, but it is part of the emotional picture. And as my late colleague Murray Edelman taught us all, symbolic issues are among the great factors that move politics. Nothing may be more symbolic in the Promised Land than the line up of the ultra-Orthodox against the rest of us. Most of us may be Jewish, but how Jewish we must be involves tough conversations and unhappy prospects.


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Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Tel: +972-2-532-2725
Cell: +972-54-683-5325
Fax +972-2-582-9144
irashark@gmail.com

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at November 01, 2012 05:51 AM