JERUSALEM — Five weeks after he was elected, Jerusalem’s first ultra-Orthodox mayor is set to announce his governing coalition next week, formally ushering in a new and unfamiliar era in municipal politics in the Israeli capital.
While the city council was certain to be dominated by the Orthodox and right-wing parties that back the new mayor, Uri Lupolianski, a last-minute cliff-hanger surrounded the left-wing Meretz party, whose members are due to vote Monday on whether to accept the mayor’s invitation to join his coalition.
Lupolianski has fostered ties to the city’s secular and liberal residents for years, winning friends and admirers through his management of the not-for-profit Yad Sarah organization, which supplies free medical equipment to the disabled. A 15-year city council veteran, he became acting mayor in February after Ehud Olmert resigned to join the Knesset.
The accession of Lupolianski, a 51-year-old father of 12, prompted some secularists to warn that the showcase city would be turned into an ultra-Orthodox theocracy under the indirect control of Lupolianski’s mentor, Rabbi Shalom Yosef Elyashiv, leader of the Ashkenazic ultra-Orthodox rabbinate. One word often bandied about is “charedization,” a play on charedi, the Hebrew word for ultra-Orthodox.
Lupolianski, elected in his own right on June 3, has vowed repeatedly to maintain the current balance between secular and religious influences in city life. “I see myself as the mayor of all Jerusalem’s citizens,” he said during the campaign. “There are many different cultures and religions in this city. I strongly believe that people dance to their own tune but not on the toes of others.”
A faction within Meretz, led by the party’s city council leader, Yosef “Pepe” Alalo, supports joining the coalition in order to hold Lupolianski to his promises and represent the interests of secular voters.
Opponents, however, warn that the real power in the city may not be the soft-spoken Lupolianski but his No. 2, Yehoshua Pollack, a hefty, hard-driving political operative who has served for a quarter-century as the behind-the-scenes “fixer” and budgetary angel for the city’s fast-growing ultra-Orthodox community. Pollack is expected to be named deputy mayor in charge of construction and planning, giving him leverage over major portions of the city’s $2.2 billion budget.
A longtime aide to the former leader of the Agudat Yisrael party, Menachem Porush, Pollack has repeatedly been tied to funding arrangements for not-for-profit agencies that have been accused of mismanaging or misdirecting government grants to ultra-Orthodox charities.
“Pollack is a prime example of someone who adapts things so they are run using third-world corruption,” said former Meretz city councilwoman Anat Hoffman, who opposes Meretz joining the coalition. “He is such a wizard at the way he manipulates finances, it would take a huge effort to unravel it all.”
In 1992, a report by the state comptroller determined that another organization in which Pollack was involved, the Center for the Cultivation of Charedi Education, had submitted inaccurate balance sheets to the Ministry of Religious Affairs, did not carry out any of the activities cited on its balance sheets and merely served as a pipeline for diverting funds to 37 other Orthodox nonprofit organizations. A police investigation was launched, but the inquiry never produced an indictment.
“He really doesn’t believe in full public disclosure for what he does,” said Hoffman, currently an official of the Reform movement. “I have grave doubts about his ability to run and be a public figure in charge of public funds. This might have been good in the shtetl a hundred years ago, but now we don’t work that way.”
Meretz leader Alalo says he is not afraid of what Pollack might do as deputy mayor. “I think he is afraid of me,” he said. “I am a very stubborn man, and I follow the law, and I want to be close to see what he is doing. That’s why I think we need to be inside [the coalition], to see what’s going on.”
Pollack, 53 and Romanian-born, has rarely spoken to the secular press. In occasional interviews he has been frank about his role. “Rumors don’t usually lie,” he told one interviewer. “I identified where there were problems in the charedi community, and I made sure that they got finances. I managed to improve a lot of things over the last 20 years.”
Jerusalem is Israel’s largest city and its second poorest. Its population of 680,000 is sharply balkanized, with about 215,000 Arabs, some 32% of the total, few of whom vote in municipal elections. The Jewish population is some 455,000 or 68% of the total, and is falling annually.
Ultra-Orthodox Jews, who make up about 10% of Israel’s population nationwide, comprise about 28% of Jerusalem’s total population — 41% of the Jewish population — but they account for some 51% of all the city’s incoming first-graders, suggesting that their proportion will continue to grow rapidly as a share of the whole. Tellingly, ultra-Orthodox Jews account for just 9% of the city’s tax revenues, according to a 1999 study by the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies.
Lupolianski’s candidacy was as controversial within the charedi community as it was elsewhere. Some questioned whether an ultra-Orthodox Jew could run a city and avoid conflicts between the duties of the office and strict rabbinic law, such as disbursing funds for the gay pride parade or permitting stores to remain open Friday night. It was reportedly the direct intervention of Elyashiv last winter that cleared the way for Lupolianski to run.
Whether the ultra-Orthodox world will accept one of its own running a multicultural city, despite rabbinic blessing, remains to be seen. For the last three Saturdays, violent street demonstrations have taken place on Bar-Ilan Street, a major thoroughfare that cuts through a charedi neighborhood and was the scene of repeated rioting during the 1990s. Ostensibly the protesters were opposing the use of cars on the Sabbath. Some observers say the charedi street is testing Lupolianski, or are flexing its new political muscle, or perhaps are simply bored youth on long, hot Sabbath days.
“Yes, it’s summer, and most of them are onlookers who are bored,” Hoffman said. “There is no air conditioning in most of these apartments, and it’s something to do between Kiddush and lunch, and between Mincha and Ma’ariv,” the afternoon and evening prayers.
Nevertheless, the demonstrations have yielded damaged vehicles, injured police, arrested protesters and a revived controversy over who owns the road once the sun sets on Friday night.
Lupolianski has sharply denounced the demonstrations, reportedly recognizing that he must maintain control of his own constituency if he is to have any chance to govern the city at large. “I strongly condemn the acts of violence and provocation that were carried out on Bar-Ilan Street,” Lupolianski said. “It’s all about a small handful of extremists. I’ve spoken to the district police commander in order to prosecute the stone-throwers to the fullest extent of the law.”
He also dismissed the notion that the Bar-Ilan protests mean the charedim are testing him. “I don’t think we’re talking about a test for me as a charedi mayor. I understand that when Olmert and Teddy Kollek were elected as mayors, there were also protests on the road.”
The bigger issue is the future of the city, its population makeup and shared space. With ultra-Orthodox Jews already comprising a majority of first-graders, secular Jews say they question whether they will be able to live in Jerusalem in the future.
“If you are a parent of a young baby in Jerusalem — say you’re an architect, your wife is a lawyer — you’re packing to Tel Aviv,” said Hoffman. “Who are your kids going to go to kindergarten with? Will there be a secular kindergarten next to your house in Rechavia, or Kiryat Yovel? They will be given to the charedim — if they are booming in enrollment, they will have to find structures to put them in. Each class costs half a million shekels. What is the city going to do, put secular kids in a class of seven children? They will have to give kindergarten classes in secular neighborhoods to charedim.”
Meretz’s Alalo is less fearful of the charedization of the capital, saying Lupolianski knows that creating an Orthodox city is bad for everyone and that it is in his interests to widen the coalition to include Meretz.
“Lupolianski understands that they need us because they know that most of the religious people are poor people, and if you want to be a healthy city, you need people with high and middle standards. They know what is happening in B’nai Brak,” referring to the ultra-Orthodox city that is Israel’s poorest city, its municipal budgets so mismanaged that the Interior Ministry was forced to take over running the local government.
“Not only are we afraid, they are also afraid,” Alalo continued. “They don’t want a religious city in Jerusalem but a capital city with religious and secular. We have to find a way to live together. Maybe we cannot; I am not sure, but we need to try.”