In February, Jerusalem’s mayor, Nir Barkat, was on his way to City Hall when he spotted an 18-year-old Palestinian wielding a knife. The teenager had just stabbed an Orthodox Jew and appeared to be ready to strike again. One of Barkat’s security guards drew a gun. The teenager dropped his knife and Barkat and his entourage lunged at him, pinning him to the ground until he was apprehended by police.
Barkat’s action instantly spawned a series of memes lionizing the mayor for thwarting another knife attack: Barkat as Superman, as Batman and as Neo from “The Matrix.” The Jerusalem municipality posted the images on its Facebook page, as Barkat’s feat made the rounds in Israeli and international media.
The incident earned Barkat a reputation as a kind of bodyguard of Jewish Jerusalem. It is an image that he has sought to maintain during the spate of stabbing attacks in the city and beyond, many perpetrated by Palestinian teenagers from East Jerusalem. Israel responded by barricading East Jerusalem streets with cement blocks and arresting hundreds of Palestinians, punitive acts that some say amount to collective punishment.
After urging Jewish Jerusalemites to arm themselves, Barkat was filmed driving through Beit Hanina, a typically calm Arab neighborhood, with what appeared to be a rifle. He later told Israeli media that it was a handgun with a pistol-to-carbine converter. Barkat’s media advisor urges reporters to conduct their interviews with him by phone, lest he have to cancel at the last minute to appear at the site of the latest terror attack.
Barkat’s sheriff persona has had the effect of both placating Jewish Jerusalem and putting it on high alert. It is also, perhaps, preparation for a larger role. For some time, rumors have been circulating that Barkat is eyeing the prime minister’s office, although he denies any interest.
As mayor of Jerusalem, Barkat presides over not only a city, but also a myth. Though Israel asserts exclusive sovereignty over it, Jerusalem is a city that belongs to everyone and no one, claimed by three major religions and battled over by secular and religious forces. And it is at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israel captured East Jerusalem and the West Bank from Jordan in the 1967 War. It later annexed East Jerusalem, significantly expanding its environs beyond the city’s historic boundaries. Its combined population of 804,000 makes it Israel’s largest city, by far. But no country in the world recognizes Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem. And although East Jerusalem Palestinians are eligible for Israeli citizenship, most forgo it in protest of Israeli rule. Most Palestinians consequently do not vote in either national or local elections. Yet as Jerusalem residents, they retain certain rights, such as freedom of movement in Israel itself, that West Bank Palestinians do not have.
To complicate the city further, many parts of Jerusalem are controlled not by the municipality but by outside entities. One example is the Holy Esplanade, known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as Haram al Sharif, which is administered by the Jordanian Waqf. “What does Jerusalem need?” Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai wrote.
A Jerusalem mayor should be “larger than life,” said Elan Ezrachi, a Jerusalem-based consultant to international Jewish groups. “What is larger than life is a person with a great prophetic vision, someone with a huge amount of charisma, someone who knows how to speak to all the different communities, someone with a spiritual aspect, since it is a city with a lot of spirituality around it.”
Jerusalem’s one modern mayor who might have approached this status was Teddy Kollek, who served the city for 28 years and oversaw its expansion after 1967. Raised in Vienna, Kollek brought his hometown’s cultural sensibilities to Jerusalem, founding the city’s major art institutions, like the Israel Museum. Kollek envisioned Jerusalem as a “beautiful mosaic” of Jewish, Christian and Muslim life. He had good relationships with village leaders in Palestinian East Jerusalem. Yet despite promises to the contrary, he never fully invested in the eastern part of the city, laying a foundation of negligence that every subsequent mayor has followed.
Barkat was elected in 2008 to a Jerusalem that was hungry for fresh leadership. His immediate predecessor, Uri Lupolianski, was an Orthodox Jew who was largely perceived as a caretaker for the city’s Haredim, or ultra-Orthodox Jews. Before Lupolianski was Ehud Olmert, a career politician who saw the Jerusalem mayorship as a conduit to national office. Olmert went on to serve as Israeli prime minister, but his political career ended in a corruption scandal.
Barkat, 56, is a third generation Israeli whose grandparents immigrated there from Poland and Russia. He was raised in Jerusalem, where his father was a physics professor. Young and secular, Barkat came to city politics in the early 2000s from the burgeoning world of Israeli high tech. A former Israel Defense Forces major, he founded one of the world’s first anti-virus software companies. In 2015, Forbes named him the wealthiest Israeli politician with an estimated worth of $116 million. He lives in Beit Hakerem, a predominantly secular Jerusalem neighborhood, with his wife, an artist. The couple has three daughters in the IDF.
Barkat first ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 2003 and went on to become head of the opposition in Jerusalem’s city council. In 2008 he benefited from an internal rift in the city’s Haredi community to prevail over an ultra-Orthodox candidate, Meir Porush. Though most Palestinians are nonvoters, some placed hope in Barkat, believing his secular image conveyed an open mind. Most of all, his election was hailed by secular activists who saw it as a sign that Jerusalem was becoming more inclusive after years of Orthodox rule.
“The perception is that [secular Jerusalemites] are besieged, that we are some kind of minority, but we are not,” said Uri Dromi, director general of the Jerusalem Press Club and former director of Mishkenot Shaananim, a cultural and conference center in Jerusalem. “Perceptions are important, and Nir Barkat made a big change in the city as a young and secular mayor coming from the business world and having a vision for Jerusalem.”
Jerusalem has undergone a secular awakening under Barkat, but not necessarily because of him. Rather than initiating projects that might perturb the Orthodox community, he gave non-Orthodox entrepreneurs leeway to move them forward. For the most part, he has avoided friction with the ultra-Orthodox by limiting new developments to the southern, less religious part of the city, Dromi said. One example of this is the First Station, an Ottoman era train station converted into a cultural center with nonkosher restaurants open on the Sabbath. The train station is on public land, which was leased to two entrepreneurs for 10 years.
“In a very clever way, [Barkat] looks for and finds creative solutions,” Dromi said. “On the one hand, he can say to his secular constituency, ‘I’m looking out for you, I promise an open city,’ and to the ultra-Orthodox he can say, ‘It’s not us, it’s the private entrepreneurs.’”
Yet while West Jerusalem has slowly become more open, East Jerusalem has languished. Though East Jerusalem Palestinians make up a third of the city’s population and pay municipal taxes, they are allocated less than 10% of tax revenues by recent estimates. West Jerusalem’s manicured parks and clean streets are a sharp contrast to many corners of East Jerusalem, where garbage bins overflow and major thoroughfares are pitted with potholes, with hardly a streetlight or a sidewalk in sight. Children in Beit Hanina and Shuafat, two major East Jerusalem neighborhoods, share a single two-slide playground on a tiny strip of green.
The economy in East Jerusalem has declined over the past 10 years, ever since Israel’s security barrier cut the city from its hinterland communities in the West Bank. According to Raed Saadeh, owner of the Jerusalem Hotel near the Old City, East Jerusalem has lost 15 hotels in the past 20 years. Saadeh said that business has been down since Israel’s 2014 war with Gaza scared away tourists, and that it has yet to recover, especially now, with parts of East Jerusalem looking like a war zone.
“At one point I was looking to see what Nir Barkat can do for the city, but it seems like Israeli policy is Israeli policy,” he said.
Barkat says that he wants to close the gap between East and West, and is investing hundreds of millions of shekels in transportation, education, community centers and post offices. He has also initiated an after-school program to keep young Palestinians off the streets. Yet for all that, Jerusalem is at a boiling point. Since last July, when 16-year-old Muhammad Abu Khdeir was kidnapped and burned to death by Jews in retaliation for the kidnapping and murder of three Jewish teens at the hands of Palestinians, East Jerusalem neighborhoods have been beset by clashes between teenage boys and Israeli forces. And now, the stabbings.
In October, two Palestinians in their 20s from Jabel Mukaber boarded a bus in nearby Armon Hanatziv and slashed and shot passengers, killing two. A third, a 76-year-old American Israeli peace activist named Richard Lakin, later died from his wounds.
Barkat eschews systemic explanations for the most recent violence, saying that the Palestinian Authority and other Arab leaders are “lying” about Israel’s intention to change the status quo on the Temple Mount. According to Israel’s agreement with the Waqf, the site is off limits to Jewish prayer. But in recent years, right-wing Israeli politicians have made provocative visits to the site while Jewish settler groups have gained control of properties nearby, stoking Muslim fears of a Jewish takeover.
“Unfortunately, the young people of the city, many of the youngsters, the teenagers, and the young adults in Jerusalem and other places believe those lies,” Barkat said. “It is very, very clear that the way to approach it is by fighting the incitement, telling people the truth and creating the right mechanisms to defend against the violence and terrorism that is unfortunately this wave of violence.”
One of the main mechanisms deployed in early October was physical barriers to divide East Jerusalem neighborhoods from the West, physically shattering for the first time, if temporarily, Israel’s boast of having unified the city. According to Ir Amim, a not-for-profit focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Jerusalem, there were 16 manned checkpoints and 19 road closures at the height of the violence. At one point, police also erected a wall between two Jerusalem neighborhoods, but it was a “mistake” done without the municipality’s permission, Barkat said, and it was taken down. Other barricades have been removed as the stabbing attacks have abated.
In early November in Jabel Mukaber, concrete blocks still obstructed major entrances. A public bus pulled up to the barricade and let a group of schoolgirls off. They walked between the blocks and got on another bus waiting for them on the other side.
Daniel Seidmann, founder of Terrestrial Jerusalem, an organization devoted to monitoring sensitive issues on the ground, said that since the 1967 war, Jerusalem has never been more divided. Yet Barkat insists that the city “will always be a united, undivided city.”
“Nowhere on the planet is there a mayor so utterly detached from the political realities of the city he purports to rule than the mayor of Jerusalem,” Seidmann said.
Even so, Barkat insists that the city will go back to normal soon — that is, normal for Jerusalem.
“We have had rounds of violence before,” he said, “and we overcame them and the city moved on with life faster than you can imagine.”
Contact Naomi Zeveloff at email@example.com or on Twitter, @naomizeveloff
Naomi Zeveloff is the former Middle East correspondent of the Forward, primarily covering Israel and the Palestinian Territories.