A secular candidate for Jerusalem’s mayor is running against a conservative backed by ultra-Orthodox rabbis in a race to determine the balance of power between the holy city’s Jewish communities.
Secular Jerusalemites and their ultra-Orthodox neighbours have tussled for years over the role of religion in city government, leading to cultural battles over everything from gay pride parades to which restaurants can open on the Sabbath.
The debate has become more fraught as the ultra-Orthodox population has grown due to high birth rates, with the average ultra-Orthodox woman having seven children compared to three in the general Israeli population.
Today, Jerusalem’s Jewish population of 550,000 people is almost evenly split into thirds between the secular, the ultra-Orthodox, and those whose religious faith falls inbetween. The 332,000 Palestinians in Jerusalem mostly boycott Israeli elections and have little political power.
Ofer Berkovitch, a 35-year-old city councillor, was the only secular candidate in a crowded field. He is facing off in Tuesday’s election against Moshe Lion, a Right-wing politician who once worked for Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister. While Mr Lion is only moderately religious, he has courted ultra-Orthodox leaders.
It is regular practice in Israeli politics for rabbis to meet politicians and secure concessions in return for an endorsement. The rabbis then order their followers to the polls in mass numbers, making them a serious political force.
Mr Lion has the support of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party. A campaign leaflet shows him kneeling before the party’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. “This is the ruling handed down by the great rabbi,” the leaflet reads, urging votes for Mr Lion.
Dekla Torah, 79, said she was supporting Mr Lion after her rabbi backed him. “It sounds like we’re not using our own intelligence but that’s not it. We’re allowing our judgement to be tempered by people a lot more educated than we are.”
Many secular Jerusalemites fear Mr Lion will have to repay the rabbis’ support with budgets and regulations that favour the ultra-Orthodox community.
Mr Berkovitch, the underdog in the race, has accused his opponent of “backroom deals”. “We’re not against the ultra-Orthodox, we want to serve everyone. But we want to have services for everyone, not one community above the other,” he said.
The situation for Jerusalem’s secular residents is something of a paradox.
In many way, it is easier than ever to be secular in the city. There are more restaurants and cafes open on the Sabbath (sunset on Friday to sunset on Saturday) than before. Jerusalem has a blossoming cultural scene and there are growing numbers of attractive high-tech jobs.
Yet, many secular residents still feel embattled and look warily at an ultra-Orthodox population that is growing in size and political assertiveness. Because of the high voter turnout rates among the ultra-Orthodox, their parties hold a disproportionate number of seats on the city council.
Resident of ultra-Orthodox neighbourhoods set up barriers during the Sabbath to keep anyone from driving cars in the area. A small faction of extremists have blocked some of city’s main roads in the last year to protest against the military draft and the city's gay pride parade.
“There used to be more openness in the city, even though there were fewer cinemas on Friday night and fewer restaurants,” said Varda Shiffer, a researcher who voted for Mr Berkovitch. “I feel Jerusalem is much more divided now.”
One scenario is that secular and the ultra-Orthodox are heading for an inevitable showdown over the future of Jerusalem and Israel as a whole. Another, more optimistic, outcome is that modernising trends catch on within the ultra-Orthodox community and help close the cultural gap between the two sides.
More and more ultra-Orthodox men are working now, rather than devoting themselves full-time to studying the Bible. Small numbers are also serving in the army alongside fellow their Israelis. Both developments may ease secular resentment of the ultra-Orthodox, who are widely seen as not contributing to the country’s future.
Mr Berkovitch is hopeful that the second scenario will play out in the city he hopes to lead.
“There are major changes in the ultra-Orthodox community which allow for co-existence,” he said. “It’s not the old ultra-Orthodox we knew before. Many more of them are open-minded and want to live together.”
Haaretz, the Left-wing newspaper cherished by Israeli liberals, endorsed Mr Berkovitch. “A victory for him would be a victory for an open, tolerant and modern Jerusalem,” it said.
He goes into Tuesday’s final round of the election as the underdog. But not all the ultra-Orthodox rabbis have backed Mr Lion and some have scorned him because of his links to Israel’s secular defence minister.
Mr Berkovitch is hoping those divisions among ultra-Orthodox voters will leave open up a path for him to reach the mayor's office.