November 10, 2008 / 9:09 AM / 11 years ago

Jerusalem mayoral race highlights religious rifts

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - An Israeli mayoral election in Jerusalem has turned the holy city into a political battleground between secular and ultra-Orthodox Jews.

Nir Barkat (L), a Jerusalem mayoral candidate, speaks to an ultra-Orthodox Jew during a visit to a fruit and vegetable market in Jerusalem November 6, 2008. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

Palestinians, who along with the international community do not recognize Israeli rule over occupied Arab East Jerusalem and its claim to all of the city as its capital, say they will boycott Tuesday’s vote.

An ultra-Orthodox rabbi, Meir Porush, 53, and Nir Barkat, 49, a centrist city councillor and high-tech entrepreneur, are the main contenders in a race that includes darkhorse candidate Arkady Gaydamak, a Russian immigrant and business magnate.

“The culture war is the main issue. It’s a battle between the secular and the ultra-Orthodox,” said Shmuel Sandler, a political scientist at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv.

With ultra-Orthodox voters estimated at 27 percent of the electorate and secular voters 43 percent, a candidate needs support from a middle constituency of moderately religious Jews, estimated at about 30 percent, to win, analysts said.

The religious and secular communities in Jerusalem live in a delicate balance.

In Orthodox neighbourhoods, families in traditional black garb stroll to synagogue during the Sabbath and Jewish holidays along roads blocked with cars. In downtown Jerusalem, secular Jews frequent non-Kosher bars and eateries.

Any change in that so-called status quo could raise tensions and provoke confrontations between the two communities.

BACKLASH

The Jerusalem vote is among the most significant of some 160 local elections being held across Israel ahead of a national parliamentary poll on February 10.

Though none of Jerusalem’s mayoral candidates represent any of Israel’s ruling parties, “there could be a backlash” by voters against religious parties in the countrywide ballot if Porush wins, Sandler said.

Some 750,000 people live in Jerusalem, including 260,000 Palestinians. A candidate must poll at least 40 percent or a second round of voting must be held.

A low turnout of secular voters could lead to a Porush victory, said analysts who attributed current Orthodox mayor Uri Lupolianski’s win in 2003 to the failure of many non-religious residents to vote.

“Please don’t judge me by the length of my beard,” Porush said during the campaign. But he has fueled secular fears by saying he doubted there would be any non-Orthodox mayors in Israel in 10 years.

Barkat has angered some supporters by courting religious voters with promises to support Jewish settlement expansion in Jerusalem, a move some say could cost him the election.

The liberal Haaretz newspaper responded with an editorial urging “Vote ‘no’ on Barkat” and some influential intellectuals have vowed publicly not to vote for him.

Slideshow (4 Images)

Many secular Israelis in Jerusalem say they are worried by growing poverty in the city, where many ultra-Orthodox have large families and low incomes, and about permanently losing a voice in Jerusalem politics if Porush wins.

“Some people feel they must vote for Barkat or there will be no room anymore in the city for the secular,” said Israeli geographer Amiram Gonen.

City administrators caused a stir recently by forcing young women dancers at the ceremonial opening of a bridge to cover their hair and don sack-like dresses to avoid offending rabbis.

Editing by Elizabeth Piper

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