Jerusalem: The City Not Allowed To Be a City

This post is part of the Urban Affairs Forum Local Elections Scholars Series.  If you are interested in writing about local elections in the places you live or study, contact Mirya Holman at

By Michael Ziv-Kenet and Noga Keidar

All of Israel’s largest cities, including Tel Aviv, Haifa, and Beer-Sheva, will hold state-wide local elections on October 30. These elections will be decided mostly on traditional urban issues like public transport, plans for urban development, as well as the candidates’ charisma and support base. In Jerusalem, the capital of Israel, however, urban affairs have taken only a marginal space in the debate – instead, national politics’ embeddedness in the election sweeps aside almost any other issue.

When the residents of Jerusalem (or to be exact, Jerusalem’s Jewish residents, which make up 60% of the population, as its Palestinian residents mostly boycott the elections) go to the polls, they’ll elect one of four Jewish men: Ofer Berkovich, Yosef Deitch, Ze’ev Elkin and Moshe Leon. At first glance, it would seem that national parties are uninvolved in local politics: although Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, and his party, the Likud, decorate campaign posters throughout the city, and the Likud symbolizes the ideology that every candidate must align himself and and pack his list with activists from the party’s ranks. However, the party holds only 1 seat out of 31 in Jerusalem’s city council, and none of the mayoral candidates, elected on a different ballot from the council list, runs on the Likud’s list.


In fact, in Israel, national parties rarely participate in urban elections. Yet, the force of national politics is seen in the bildungsroman of each of the candidates in this mayoral race. We see three types of ‘becoming a candidate’ journeys that bring that national ingredient to local politics: First, there are the newcomer candidates, moving their formal address to the city especially for the occasion: both were parachuted in from national politics. One of them is a mid-level government minister, popular among the Likud’s ‘rank and file’; the other is a party insider chosen a technocratic compromise candidate between two of the Likud’s coalition partners in the government. Second, there are the secular ‘organic’ candidates of the two grassroot movements that have emerged in the city during the last decade, Jerusalemites and Awakening. Both have brought urban discourse to local politics. While Jerusalemites vanished after its mayoral candidate resigned, Awakening,  has since adopted a right-wing, libertarian and populist rhetoric. In response to almost any issue, Awakening’s candidate states that only under his leadership “we can march the city forwards – to uphold its Zionist vision.” Third, there is the ultraorthodox candidate, who has traditionally embodied the religious versus secular cleavage. In this campaign, however, he is using a uniting message about a city of “Torah Scholars and Hi-tech workers”. At the same time, he highlights Jewish domination in the Palestinian neighborhoods by stating there will be no construction freezing of new housing in non-Jewish areas.

These three journeys highlight a new nationalist consensus and a realignment in the politics of Jerusalem. After several decades of mayoral races in which secular and ultra-orthodox completed for resource allocation and traditional urban issues, the internal Jewish battles became obsolete. The candidates differ only by their definition of Jewish nationality, which ranges from civic Zionism to religious-nationalism, an extension of national politics into the local sphere.[1] Therefore, the battle, in a sense, is about who is the best Jewish-Nationalist. The competing ideas about who is the best Jewish-Nationalist leads to the policing of group boundaries. Despite segregation, a growing number of Palestinians choose to ‘cross the lines,’ apply for Israeli citizenship. and spend more time in non-Palestinian public spaces. The threat arising from this has produced fertile ground from which politicians can grow political capital.

This is a new understanding of the polity, which sees the shared urban common good on grounds of nationality, rather than on locality. Up until now, at least at the discursive level, the emphasis on a municipal bureaucratic mechanism that serves the Palestinian residents has trumped criteria of deservingness based on national citizenship. For sure, the severe marginalization of the Palestinian residents, seen in the lack of basic services and its replacement with abundant surveillance practices, isn’t any news. However, at this moment of time, exclusion from the body-politic could be discussed overtly and is nothing to be ashamed of.

There are structural reasons for the invasion of national politics in any of Jerusalem’s election cycles. Israel’s religious-national sectors are concentrated in the city, but the groups mostly live segregated from one another, and rely on different public services. At the symbolic level, Jerusalem is perceived as a localized extension of national politics, always present in cultural and historical imagery.

Nevertheless, under the thousands of Stars of David that cover any empty spot in the city, ‘regular’ urban political debates still need to be resolved. These are questions about housing, transportation, parks, nursery schools and garbage disposal. For instance, in west Jerusalem, while some older residents oppose Jerusalem’s light rail project out of fear it will disrupt their lives, younger residents openly embrace dense urban fabric – these debates about the urban future resemble the generational divides between millennials and baby-boomers in North American cities. In east Jerusalem, while most residents reject any cooperation with the city’s authorities,  some activist groups choose to take responsibility for the public spaces  by calling on city authorities to fix potholes and broken sidewalks. Only time will tell if there is room for political debates over local issues in a city where national divisions take central stage. We hope it will at least give Jerusalem a chance.

[1] Gayil Talshir, “Israeli Democracy in Crisis? Between Governability and Governance”, talk given at The Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Foundation Colloquium, November 9, 2017, University of California – Berkley

Michael Ziv-Kenet is a PhD student in the Department of Political Science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. In his research, he is interested in contemporary patterns of urban polity-building, the normative challenge of cities to the nation-state’s democratic legitimacy, and the concept of ‘political representation’ in cities.

Noga Keidar is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Sociology and a member of the Urban Genome Project at the University of Toronto. She is the Deputy Director and Head of Research at the Urban Clinic at The Hebrew University, leading the Clinic’s embedded research projects and developing platforms for engaged urban scholars. Her dissertation research theorizes some of the current forms in which ideas shape cities, and particularly the interaction between cities and their so-called ‘gurus’, the super-star scientists who preach for urban regeneration models that have become extremely popular. As part of this project, she evaluates the global scope of the phenomenon, as well as closely documenting the on the ground interaction with ‘gurus’ in Jerusalem and Toronto.

Photos taken by Authors.



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