Whenever we look into the matter of the voting of Arabs in Jerusalem municipal elections, I am always surprised anew and ask myself why most Arab residents of Jerusalem have refrained from exercising their electoral rights for the past thirty years.
The Arabs of Jerusalem unquestionably consider the city their own. They unquestionably avail themselves of municipal services in all aspects of daily life. They unquestionably represent the interests of more than one-fourth of the city’s population. If so, why should they continue to boycott Jerusalem’s municipal elections? Why not do the opposite – cast their votes and elect their delegates to represent “their” public on the municipal council?
I do know that some members of Arab society have attempted to influence things in this direction, only to be rewarded with death threats and the torching of their cars! However, the more willing voters there are, the fewer assaults will be aimed at them and the prospects of normalization will improve immeasurably.
If we may draw a comparison with another population group that has been undertreated – the haredi community – we see that their massive electoral participation has transformed their status in this city.
For thirty years, Arabs in Jerusalem have refrained from voting in elections for the municipal authority. Has this mattered to anyone? I believe it has not! They merely lost their influence, and their status was damaged!
It is of course noteworthy that, since the city was reunified thirty years ago, the Municipality of Jerusalem has done much for the eastern side of town. Some of its actions have been taken in the Old City – installation of sewage systems, paving of streets, and care of streetcorner parks and gardens.
There is no doubt, however, that not enough has been done and that the actions taken have not been in the proper proportion.
We should, of course, bear in mind that when Jerusalem was unified, the two sectors of the city were not in equal condition. From the time the state of Israel was established until 1967, western Jerusalem underwent an especially rapid development process: Neighborhoods, streets, universities, hospitals, and theaters were added, all on the basis of modern outline plans.
Although Jerusalem was a dead-end city until 1967, it was developed with special intensity. Its population tripled and its area quintupled. In contrast, the Arab Jerusalem of those years stagnated and was left undeveloped and backward in every technical, cultural, and social respect. When the city was reunited, it became urgently necessary to overcome an immense disparity that had developed over two decades.
Notably, international interest in Jerusalem has been mounting since 1967, forcing the city to spend vast sums for the development of tourism infrastructure, installation of employment infrastructure, overcoming of social disparities, and other matters. Such developments are meant for all residents of the city and not for any particular sector.
It is true that, in the past thirty years, the Municipality of Jerusalem and the Government of Israel have not eliminated the disparity between the two sectors of the city. However, much work has been done – foremost, as I noted, in infrastructures in the Old City and modern eastern Jerusalem. Unfortunately, these efforts have not sufficed to eliminate the disparity.
Jerusalem’s relatively new mayor, Member of Knesset Ehud Olmert, has made indefatigable efforts that have resulted in the allocation, this year alone, of NIS 135 million for infrastructure development in the eastern areas of Jerusalem, not including 180 classrooms being built during the years since the new municipal regime took over.
I do not know if these resources will eliminate the gaps, but it is clear that if seven or eight Arab representatives sat on the town council, just as City Hall employs 1,500 Arabs, even more resources might have been available and would perhaps have been allotted for purposes the Arab public considers more important and better appreciated.
We just laid the cornerstone for a new school in the Arab neighborhood of Beit Safafa, and we have already heard that the notables of Beit Safafa boycotted the ceremony. We will continue to build for Arab children in Jerusalem because they are equally entitled residents, but the hostile attitude, dictated from on high, is not useful to say the least.
Today, the main representatives of the Arab public and society in City Hall come only from the Israeli far Left. Apart from the fact that the Israeli left people are, by their very nature and fiber, dissidents vis-a-vis the incumbent municipal government, I am convinced that they come no closer to understanding the Arab public’s wishes than other members of the council, and may even be farther from such understanding. Their goal in representing the Arabs is not to solve real problems but rather to use the Arab problem to attack the incumbent municipal government.
Most of the Arab public in Jerusalem is traditional-minded. These residents share with the traditional Jewish public many behavioral, cultural, and social attitudes toward various problems, and cooperation between these population groups may lead to a different approach toward cultural, religious, and social affairs in which the two societies have common interests. The Israeli left’s representation of Arabs’ views is not always acceptable, and I am convinced that it has sometimes been to the acute displeasure of Arabs who adhere to their traditions. If this is so, one must ask again why the Arabs do not participate in municipal elections.
Arab society in Jerusalem has been incited to fear that voting in municipal elections would amount to recognition of Israel’s dominion in the city. According to this logic, those not interested in Israeli control of the city should refrain from voting in municipal elections. On the other hand, every plan submitted to the Municipality and any revenue paid to the civic authority is in itself recognition.
Israel allows Jerusalem residents to vote for the Palestinian Authority council. Although the Government takes a dim view of this, it respected this agreement and thereby gave the Jerusalem Arab public a way to express its political affinities. Thus, this population group can permit itself to vote in municipal elections even if it rejects the Municipality’s source of authority, and is well advised to do so. This public must also recognize that the procedure at issue is a democratic one. For this reason, it must accept the limitations and constraints of democracy although it holds a different political view, a minority view in the city.
The moment the Arab public votes in municipal elections, it has only one way to fight for its views and demands: the democratic way. In other words, by using the democratic tools available in Jerusalem – elections, the council, the administration, and the various municipal committees – the Arab public may of course avail itself of all the mass media, the press, and television to express its views in any matter, as long as it does not use media organs for purposes of incitement or to advocate the murder of persons who step out of line. Because the abuse of democratic tools is a breach of the trust that democracy invests in those who sustain it, it should be protested and resisted like any criminal phenomenon in our society.
The democratic regime and the democratic principle of freedom of speech must be protected from exploitation by undemocratic forces who would use them to deny freedom of occupation or gag those who fail to join in the general chorus.
Each passing day brings forth new ideas for municipal partitioning and neighborhood councils as ways to grant the Arab population limited self-rule.
These ideas may be taken up for consideration after the Arab public has begun to participate in municipal elections as electors and electees, at such time as it has acquired the ability to express itself on the municipal council and to attain a convergence of interests with other groups that demand solutions such as these.
Therefore, I consider it essentially pointless to boycott municipal elections in order to avoid recognizing Jerusalem as the political capital of the Jewish state.
Allow me to express several thoughts as a Jew who strictly observes his religious commandments. The Land of Israel and Jerusalem, as part of it, were given to the Jewish people in trust – to retain as long as we behave in accordance with the social, ethical, and civil norms that the Torah requires of us.
If we abandon these norms, we forfeit our right to the land and cede it to peoples who abide by loftier norms.
We read in the Torah: “But the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me (Lev. 25:23).
What the Book of Books, in which we all believe, says, is that dominion over the land – the material object – belongs not to any human being but to the Creator. All of us are but “strangers” who reside there as long as He permits this.
We believe that the Land of Israel, and Jerusalem as part of it, are possessed only by those who are socially, ethically, and humanly worthy. Therefore, the test for all of us is whether we learn to dwell here as human beings who maintain lofty ethical norms. If we do not honor this imperative, we shall lose out on the country mutually, leaving behind a wasteland.
It is the quality of our behavior toward ourselves, and toward each other, that will assure the stability of all of us in this land and this city.
Let me then propose, as an outgrowth of this religiously and politically abstract thinking, that when the next municipal elections approach, we all prepare to vote in order to make this city a model of “multi-existence” among residents of different backgrounds, different religions, and different cultures. For this is the true meaning of Jerusalem.
David Cassuto is Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem and Commissioner of Cultural Affairs