Israeli Municipal Elections, November 2018

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Can you name the mayor of the city in which you reside?

Can you name the name the final two candidates for mayor of Jerusalem, the most prominent city in Jewish history?

As the US is slated for its midterms, in Israel this past week, the government mandated a vacation day to encourage its citizens to come to the polls, and the battle for leader of Jerusalem has been contentious and “Can’t-miss TV.”

Every week, it’s our goal to bring you different perspectives on Israeli current events from perspectives found within Israel. As Jews living in the diaspora, we consume much of our media from CNN, FOX, MSNBC or NPR, but regardless of bias in any of these news outlets, they all share the common feature that they are not teaching from the lens of Israeli media. As a digital media company focused on Israel Education and Jewish identity, our goal at Jerusalem U in this weekly column is to bring educators around the world into the same conversation as the Israeli media. One will find that there is no such thing as the “Israeli perspective” (in the singular), but Israeli perspectives. Helping students see the wide landscape of views found within Israel will help ensure our students identify with one of the many perspectives found within Israel. There is no better way to showcase the wide contours of debate found within Israeli society than to teach about the elections in Israel.

  1. Do your students know about these elections?
  2. How do you teach about them?

See our column below on a primer for how to teach the Jerusalem mayor elections.

But before that, we’re excited to announce that we’ll be sharing videos on Israeli history with you on our YouTube channel and on the Jerusalem U Media Lab website. These videos were produced by the Jewish Story in Animation. Our team has developed educational resources for each video, which will be released weekly for the next six weeks. Please check out the first week on the History of Jerusalem here.

Coincidence that this video and its accompanying resources are about Jerusalem too? I think not.

What Happened?

Over 3.5 million Israelis voted in local elections around the country, with voter turnout at 57%.  In these elections, voters were asked to determine the mayor and city council members, terms that last for five years in Israel. Big news came out of Israel’s third-largest city, Haifa, where its first female mayor in history was elected. Einat Kalisch Rotem defeated incumbent ‎Yona Yahav, winning 55% of the votes, compared to Yahav’s 37%.‎ In Israel’s largest city, Tel Aviv, not much is new as Mayor Run Huldai won again, continuing his term since 1998.

Yet in Jerusalem, Israel’s second-largest city, Jerusalemites have not yet settled on a mayor.

Under Israeli law, a mayoral candidate must win 40% of the vote in order to be elected. If no candidate does, then the leading two candidates face off in a second round of elections. Moshe Leon received 33% of the vote, Ofer Berkovitch 29%, Ze’ev Elkin 19% and Yossi Deitch 17%. In what Times of Israel calls a “shocker,” Modern Orthodox candidate Elkin, 47, Knesset Member in the Likud Party and Minister of Jerusalem Affairs, had such a poor showing despite being long thought as the favorite and having the vocal backing of PM Benjamin Netanyahu and current Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat.

Facing off in the second round on November 13 is Moshe Leon, 58, a Modern Orthodox member of Jerusalem City Council and former head of the Jerusalem Development Authority, against secular candidate Ofer Berkovitch, 35, former Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem and founder of the political party Hitorerut (Awakening). According to Israel Hayom, pollsters said that many religious voters came out to support Berkovitch.

The local elections in Jerusalem are particularly complicated due to the ambiguous status of the Palestinians living in East Jerusalem. Nearly 38% of Jerusalem’s population is Arab, one-third is Ultra-Orthodox (or Hareidi) and the remaining 30% of Jerusalem is either secular or dati leumi (Modern Orthodox). Historically, the Arab residents of Jerusalem are stuck between both Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and are “claimed by both but not fully part of either.” Palestinians living in Jerusalem have boycotted the elections since Israel annexed east Jerusalem in 1967. Most Palestinians living in Jerusalem have residency status without citizenship, which means they have access to national services but do not participate in national elections.

Though two Palestinians had planned to run for office, that did not happen, as the Palestinian taboo against voting in the Jerusalem municipality remained powerful as a protest against normalizing relations with Israel. This issue is further complicated by the fact that in order for a Palestinian in East Jerusalem to run for office, he or she would need to challenge the court to remove the requirement to have Israeli citizenship, as well as annulling the “fatwa” (legal ruling by Muslim law) from the Mufti of Jerusalem, Mohammed Hussein, prohibiting Muslims to vote in the election. The fatwa is based on the belief of the PA and PLO that the vote “legitimizes Israel’s occupation.”

Why Does This Matter?

Israel’s capital city could look quite different based on its leader.

In an interview with Times of Israel, Ofer Berkovitch laid out his platform, which includes keeping Jerusalem safe and clean, bringing companies and government offices to the city to create jobs, and creating coexistence projects to improve life in East Jerusalem – equal rights and equal obligations.

Berkovitch vows to work with Jews of all streams, including Haredim, and claims he is the only candidate who will not give in to “Haredi extortion.” Berkovitch was born and raised in Jerusalem and served in its government for 10 years. He has the backing of much of the city’s secular population, as well as some voters of other religious affiliations. In an interview with Arutz Sheva, Berkovitch highlighted the value of diversity, saying that in order to maintain it, “we must find a way to live and thrive together despite our differences.”

Moshe Leon, a former businessman who entered politics and moved to Jerusalem to run for mayor in 2013, when he lost against incumbent Nir Barkat, is largely backed by Haredi voters, with a sprinkling of Modern Orthodox and secular voters. He’s supported by important Haredi factions — Shas and Degel HaTorah —  as well as ministers Avigdor Lieberman and Arye Dery. In an earlier interview with Times of Israel, Leon addressed similar issues he would improve as mayor: keeping young Jews from leaving the city by bringing in businesses and reducing housing costs, cleaning up the city, and improving East Jerusalem infrastructure. He stressed the value of culture in Jerusalem in an Arutz Sheva interview, stating that he’ll work to “double the budget of culture in the City and to strengthen cultural activities.”

Diversity of Perspectives within Israel

A recent Haaretz editorial claimed that Berkovitch’s election would secure an “open, tolerant and modern Jerusalem.” It argued that Berkovitch built a political movement (Hitorerut) without a “political apparatus behind him” and has an “understanding of the city’s deep problems.”

However, Haaretz columnist Anshel Pfeffer is conflicted about Berkovitch. On the one hand, he is young and secular, which is important because he would provide an “important morale boost for the shrinking community which still pays most of the city taxes.” On the other hand, Berkovitch has been described as lacking “understanding and cooperation,” and Pfeffer believes he is “far from ready to be Jerusalem’s mayor.”

Two weeks ago, thousands of Haredim rallied in support of Moshe Leon. Having the backing of major Haredi leaders ensures many votes. After the first round of elections, Culture Minister Miri Regev endorsed Leon, encouraging Jerusalemites to vote for him and “earn a wonderful mayor who’s attentive to your needs” and “connected to government ministers who will help him succeed for you.”

In the article mentioned above, Anshel Pfeffer acknowledges Leon’s financial prowess but believes that’s not enough to get the mayor job done. Instead, Pfeffer calls him a “proxy for the two most corrupt men in Israeli politics, Lieberman and Dery” and states that no “self-respecting Jerusalemite” should consider voting for him.

Just a few weeks ago, current Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat warned voters not to vote for either Berkovitch or Leon, calling the former a “charlatan” and the latter a “puppet.”

Discussion Questions

  1. East Jerusalem Palestinians are eligible to vote in local elections, yet they consistently boycott the Jerusalem elections due to pressure from the Palestinian Authority. This article states that 60% of East Jerusalem residents believe they should vote, and only 14% oppose it. Yet any Palestinians who try to run for office are threatened by their political leaders until they withdraw their candidacy. Read the article and consider: Why are Palestinian leaders opposed to voting? Why do many Palestinians believe in voting, yet don’t?
  2. Does every vote really count? Why would Israel give a day off for local elections? Years ago, P. Diddy, an American hip hop artist had the slogan, “vote or die.” Is it a critical civic duty to cast your vote? Why or why not?
  3. In Australia, voting is mandatory and there’s a fine for not voting. Do you agree with this policy? Why does Israel (and America) not have that policy?

Practical Classroom Tips

Mock Election:

Have the students hold a mock election in which they do the following:

    • Break the students up into small groups and have them review information about one of the candidates, and answer the three most important goals of each candidate.
    • Ask students to consider what makes a good leader and develop a list of these qualities.
    • Give each student the responsibility to be a campaign manager, leader of a voter advocacy group or member of media.
    • Have the students campaign, making brochures, flyers and slogans.
  • Students should then vote.


Discuss implications of the Palestinians not voting. On the one hand, if the Palestinians in East Jerusalem voted, it would have major ramifications on the Jewish nature of the city and its leadership, perhaps reducing it to an extent. On the other hand, the Palestinians are being told by their leaders not to vote because it “normalizes the relationship.” What do you think should happen and why?

Further Reading

  1. Haaretz analysis of the impact of local elections
  2. Jerusalem Post article about the dramatic Beit Shemesh race
  3. Times of Israel analysis of Jerusalem race

Noam Weissman

Dr. Noam Weissman is Senior Vice President at OpenDor Media. He leads the education vision and implementation at OpenDor Media with a special focus on the development of meaningful content and resources for students and educators. He holds a doctorate in educational psychology from USC with a focus on curriculum design.

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