re:Jerusalem Interviews: Mayoral Candidate Ofer Berkovitch

A little while back, we sent an email to every Jerusalem council member asking a number of questions regarding why they were council members and their positions on a number of important issues (all emails included the fact that I am involved in Hitorerut). Some agreed to do a face to face interview while others emailed us responses.

We are incredibly appreciative to everyone who responded and who agreed to interviews. We are hoping to publish them as soon as they are translated, transcribed and edited. For our first interview, we spoke to Hitorerut’s mayoral candidate Ofer Berkovitch. In the coming weeks, we will also publish interviews with people like Deputy Mayor and Finance Portfolio holder Hagit Moshe (HaBayit HaYehudi), opposition firebrand Arieh King (Ichud Leumi) and former student politician turned councilman Itai Gutler (Labor).

Thank you for reading as we try to provide you with the best coverage of Jerusalem politics and news!

(Any quotes have been translated from the original Hebrew)

Last November, the crisis between Mayor Nir Barkat and Hitorerut, Jerusalem’s largest pluralist party, came to a head. Hitorerut, made up of a coalition of secular and religious Jerusalemites who had previously supported Barkat, was pounding away at a deal the mayor made with the Ashkenazi Haredi community to build Haredi schools and housing in neighborhoods that were generally populated by Hitorerut’s constituency. The fall out between Barkat and Hitorerut was severe with accusations of corruption and physical confrontations. It was a far cry from when Hitorerut made calls on Barkat’s behalf during the previous election.

After a series of deliberations, Hitorerut, led by Ofer Berkovitch, decided to leave the coalition and their lucrative portfolios in order to launch Berkovitch’s run for mayor.

Meeting with Berkovitch, you get the sense that he is a born politician. The 35-year-old was born in Jerusalem where his mother was a political activist and his father an academic who researched Jerusalem’s holy places. Berkovitch used to write letters to the Prime Minister as a child and when he was 19, he told an army officer that he wanted to be mayor of Jerusalem one day.

In 2008, Berkovitch experienced a political awakening in light of the state of the city. “In 2008 it felt like the city was going in the wrong direction. As someone who grew up here, Jerusalem shaped me, influenced me, caused me to develop a complex Jewish and Israeli identity… I felt obligated to the city, the city made me who I am and at 24, after 6 years in the army, I had the idea to form a political movement.”

He believes that his party had a major role in the social and economic revolution that Jerusalem has experienced since 2008. He and his party claim a number of achievements including doubling the amount of high tech companies, developing Mahane Yehuda, increasing support for culture and youth movements and the renewal that has taken place in business and neighborhood centers.

Regarding Barkat, Berkovitch is complimentary while maintaining his criticism that the mayor was focused on national politics for the last year at the expense of Jerusalem. Berkovtich’s ultimate goal is to be more like a previous Jerusalem mayor. “Nir was weak, in my opinion, on the matter of the simple interests of the residents. Look at cleanliness. It’s pretty shocking that I, who held the culture portfolio, requested that the budget surplus be transferred to cleanliness and not to culture. Nir refused and I voted against him. As mayor, I intend to return to what Teddy Kollek was [ed. Note: Kollek was mayor after the reunification of Jerusalem in 1967 until 1993]. Teddy would go out at 6am to see what was happening in the city…There was someone looking at the simplest things. It’s a message of leadership to workers and residents.”

When asked about whether he intends to care for the Haredi residents as well, Berkovitch insists that he will but without selling out Jerusalem’s Zionist community. Practically, this means that he would build for the Haredim, but only within existing or entirely new Haredi neighborhoods and not within secular neighborhoods. He views Jerusalem’s diversity, including Haredim, as one of its strong points and notes his track record of working with the community on issues such as cleanliness even while fighting against them on issues of religion and city. We also touched on his desire to improve the infrastructure of East Jerusalem, but did not have time to go in depth.

We talked about many more matters which I did my best to translate below. re:Jerusalem would like to remind everyone that elections are on October 30th and you will be receiving a day off! Make sure to go vote no matter who you support!

Q: The municipality has terrible budget issues even though Jerusalem’s arnona is the highest in the country. The city is Israel’s poorest. East Jerusalem only pays in 16% of the budget despite making up around a third of the city’s population. How can we fix this?

It’s a major challenge. There are structural issues in Jerusalem. I think that Nir was right to demand that the Finance Ministry give the city a proper budget, but I did not support how he managed the fight against [Minister of Finance] Kahlon [ed. note: Barkat threw garbage in the streets, took out anti-Kahlon ads around the city, led strikes and threatened to lay off workers].

In order to stabilize the city’s finances, I think that we need to make more land available for businesses. In Tel Aviv there are 20 meters of businesses for every resident; in Jerusalem, there are 4.6 meters per resident. We must close this gap to increase total arnona received from businesses.

We also need to work hard to integrate the Arab and Haredi communities into the work force. Especially Haredi males and Arab females.

We must collect taxes that were not collected in the past. With regards to the issue of the church [ed. note: Barkat tried to collect owed taxes on Church buildings that were not expressly used for worship. The Church resisted leading to a minor international incident] Barkat acted like a bull in a china shop, but we need to collect on [Church] property that is not directly related to religion. It should be part of an organized process in cooperation with the government, the foreign ministry and the Churches. However, the Churches need to understand that all Jerusalem residents pay arnona so they need to as well though we’re not talking about buildings used for a religious purpose.

More so, the state needs to take responsibility for the loans that the municipality took to pay for schools. The city has begun to provide solutions for the problems in East Jerusalem where we have responsibility and sovereignty and now the government needs to help out.

Finally, there are areas that we need to make more efficient within the municipality. Not all of the positions that exist today need to exist.

How can we reduce corruption in the municipality?

Firstly, open the doors and let people come in and look. Let people criticize. I come from a worldview that says that something that is open is cleaner.

Give a salary to council members even those in the opposition, (I’ll believe that even when I am mayor). I think that it’s not a job that can be available only to the wealthy and retirees. We need to allow people to make a decent salary.

We need to strengthen the standing of the municipal attorney general and really examine the building and planning processes which are very susceptible to problems. Don’t stop the processes, don’t add extra steps, but improve on the current processes.

How can we better integrate olim?

I think that we need to improve absorption. Olim are a very important population and can even be a trigger to economic improvement. We should help them to bring businesses from overseas and market Jerusalem internationally. The municipality needs to make all its services accessible from a language perspective. To hold conferences for olim once every three months on a number of topics. From education to housing, business, general rights. We should also let olim express their culture to make them feel a part of the city.

What will you do in your first 100 days?

The central change that I plan on making in the first year is in the area of cleanliness. I will add money to the sanitation budget to so that we can go to youth groups, schools, small businesses and cultural institutions in order to talk about how we can change the culture of cleanliness in the city. I will also increase enforcement. Any person who litters will receive a big ticket in order to create change.

I will make the mayor’s office smaller to provide a personal example of efficiency.

I will hang a small sign over every municipal office that says “Yes, Yes, Yes.” We need to have a positive attitude towards entrepreneurs, residents and businesses. We need to serve them.

I also want to create volunteer teams for every municipal division. I want to make a team of 20 people that the head of the division will meet with every month. The teams will bring criticisms, new ideas. Some will be professionals, some residents, some youth. They will meet once a month. I will create a budget to cover ideas coming from those meetings.

Are there other cities you admire?

I think there is a lot to learn from every city. We can learn from Tel Aviv, we can learn from New York, from Paris. They’re all a little different from Jerusalem. Jerusalem is unique. We need to improve how public spaces look. They need to be ordered and clean. I think that in New York the public transport is very good. I think that Paris teaches us how to preserve beauty, how to preserve history, architecture, a unique fabric. New versus old.

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