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The Lion of Jerusalem

An exclusive interview with Jerusalem’s new mayor on the challenges of keeping the peace and keeping trash off the streets in the world’s holiest city

Tal Kra-Oz
June 04, 2019
Photo: Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images
Jerusalem, 2018 Photo: Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images
Photo: Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images
Jerusalem, 2018 Photo: Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images

Former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo said that politicians campaign in poetry but govern in prose. Nowhere is this contrast clearer than in Jerusalem. The city’s new mayor, the 57-year-old Moshe Lion—the first person of Sephardi background to hold the job— once served in the IDF’s rabbinate and has now turned his focus on garbage collection. “My first day on the job I started cleaning up the city,” said Lion, who has now been on the job for seven months and sat down just before this week’s Jerusalem Day festivities for an exclusive interview with Tablet, his first in the international press.

“I kept the sanitation portfolio for myself,” Lion told Tablet. “The city’s cleanliness is my responsibility. It’s tough but we’re seeing results.” For now. Lion’s sights are set on the city’s earthliest problems, but in Jerusalem, where even the cleanest streets overflow with history, challenges abound. During his short time in office, Lion has already had a lot to deal with: mediating conflicts and interests in a city that is home to the largest Arab and ultra-Orthodox communities in the country, and that also hosts an annual LGBT pride parade, has a housing shortage and needs new infrastructure. Thus Lion’s focus must shift between the loftier issues and those at street level, like his other point of pride: a five-year plan for replacing the city’s crumbling asphalt sidewalks with paver blocks. “That’s quality of life,” said Lion, whose name is pronounced Leon, the city’s feline mascot notwithstanding.

“First and foremost, I’ve loved this city my entire life,” Lion said about how he came to Jerusalem. “My father was born in Thessaloniki. In 1935 he came here as an infant with his father. This was before the Holocaust, before things went bad for the Jews. People would ask my grandfather, ‘why come to this land?’ He was making good money back home. His answer was always that he wanted to come to Jerusalem. He left his entire family, and they all perished in the Holocaust. When he came here, the first thing he did was come to Jerusalem and fulfill his dream. He ended up settling in south Tel Aviv, where the Thessaloniki community was based. When I was elected mayor and gave my victory speech, I told my father, ‘Dad, we’ve completed the journey from Thessaloniki to Eretz Israel, to Jerusalem. We’ve come full circle.’”

After growing up a self-styled lover of Jerusalem firmly ensconced in the country’s coastal plain, Lion first moved to Jerusalem mere months before throwing his hat in the race for the 2013 municipal elections. He faced a powerful incumbent in Nir Barkat, who was running for his second term. It was Jerusalem’s favorite son against “the man from Givatayim,” the Tel Aviv suburb where Lion had spent much of his youth and his entire adult life. Lion lost that race, but stayed in Jerusalem and served as a diligent member of city council. In 2018, with Barkat on track to enter national politics, Lion ran again. After first failing to secure the necessary majority, Lion finally won a runoff against his secular opponent, Ofer Berkovitch.

Lion’s eventual victory did not come easy. When I asked him about his policy for the handful of city businesses that operate on the Sabbath, he was adamant that he was a staunch supporter of the existing status quo, which allows for restaurants and bars to operate seven days a week in certain areas, but volunteered that his opponents had always accused him otherwise. “Ahead of the elections they threatened that I’d close the restaurants at the Old Rail Station and the shuk,” he said. “But to be totally honest, that was never on my agenda. I have a wall-to-wall coalition, with ultra-Orthodox and secular council members. The Haredim never even demanded it!” Why, then, were they convinced that Lion would do the bidding of the ultra-Orthodox? “You’re right!” he exclaimed. “Why? I honestly don’t know. People who know me personally knew it wasn’t true. It was cheap demagoguery.”

In truth, it’s not difficult to see why many Jerusalemites were suspicious of Lion’s pluralist bona fides. During his first run for office in 2013 Jerusalem residents knew only that Lion’s candidacy was the result of a political deal between his two unlikely patrons: Avigdor Lieberman of Yisrael Beitenu and Aryeh Deri of Shas. The two master politicians who, at least publicly, agree on very little, decided to mount a joint effort to place their friend at the helm of Israel’s capital. When Lion finally prevailed in last November’s elections, it was in no small part thanks to his success in securing wide swaths of the ultra-Orthodox vote in backroom deals (Lion himself belongs to the national religious camp). None of Lion’s candidates made it into city council. But of the 32 elected council members, 15 are ultra-Orthodox, and form the core of his coalition. When the ever-boisterous Minister of Culture Miri Regev went on the war path against Lieberman last week for his part in derailing the prime minister’s attempts to form a new government, she treated Lion’s allegiance to the Haredim as an open secret. “Lieberman sold out Jerusalem’s secular residents for Moshe Lion,” she said.

Lion seems determined to prove his detractors wrong. In the run-up to this week’s Pride Parade in the city—usually a fraught affair—he faced pressure to defund Jerusalem Open House, the LGBT nonprofit that organizes the parades. He told me that that was a nonissue for him, and quoted another leader of Jerusalem: “That which has been is that which shall be.” Same for the pride flags that the city’s chief rabbi had beseeched him not to mount this year, saying they make the city ugly. “No change to policy,” Lion said. “I don’t know what makes the city ugly or not. But I want everyone to feel at home.”

It’s a theme Lion keeps returning to. “The most important thing for me is that anyone who wants to live here will be able to live here and feel that it’s their city, too,” he said. “No one should feel as if the city has been stolen from them, or that they don’t belong. Of course, you have to love this city in order to live here. Jerusalem is not Tel Aviv. But Tel Aviv will never be Jerusalem. And once you’re here, it’s my job to give you everything you deserve, and the feeling that the city wants you.” Fulfilling that vision requires a complex political calculus. At one point during a council meeting convened two days after our interview last week, ultra-Orthodox members of Lion’s coalition left the room, and the NIS 500,000 annual municipal budget to Open House was approved in their absence, as Lion had promised (albeit not without the support of Lion’s secular-leaning opposition).

If there is a silver lining to Lion’s close association with Messrs. Lieberman and Deri, it is that they have helped him attain a mastery of the country’s political machinery generally not found among men who first run for public office at age 52. A budding cantor in his youth, Lion served in the IDF rabbinate’s entertainment troupe. By the ‘90s, Lion was head of an up-and-coming accounting firm that helped the Likud party balance its budget after its big loss in 1992. In 1996, Likud returned to power, with Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister. Netanyahu appointed Lieberman as director of the Prime Minister’s Office, and Lieberman appointed Lion as his deputy. In late 1997, Lion took over as director, becoming one of the country’s most senior public servants at age 36. Lion credits that job with his first close exposure to the challenges facing the nation’s capital. Stints as chair of Israel Railways and the Jerusalem Development Authority followed, interspersed with time at his accounting firm, one of the country’s largest.

Nir Hasson covers Jerusalem for Haaretz and wrote the indispensable book Urshalim, a sobering dive into the unified city. Hasson has been a close observer of Lion since the latter’s 2013 campaign. The fears of Lion voiced by non-Orthodox Jerusalemites were far from baseless, Hasson told me. “But most of the threats haven’t materialized so far, certainly not the apocalyptic ones. There’s been no change to city hall’s commitment to all residents, or any changes to the Sabbath status quo,” he said. “But on the other hand, there haven’t been any revolutions either. Lion made a lot of promises, but the system just keeps running same as always, by force of inertia. He’s still something of an enigma.”

Lion is charged with the well-being of some 900,000 residents. Upwards of a third are Arab, and nearly another third are ultra-Orthodox, making him mayor of the largest Arab and ultra-Orthodox cities in the country. Though the remaining non-Orthodox Jewish population is still sizable, it has gotten smaller. Lion’s predecessor, Barkat, liked to frame his efforts to combat Jerusalem’s negative migration as his fight for Jerusalem’s Zionist sector (perhaps inadvertently drawing attention to the fact that the majority of the capital’s residents have a strained relationship with the idea of a Jewish state, per se). Lion told me that he rejects the binary Zionist classification. “I respect the Arabs here,” he said. “Many of them were living here before I even began to think about Jerusalem. They have very deep roots. The Haredim too! The city is 3,000 years old. Everyone has lived here. You can’t change it. It belongs to the world. The entire world, certainly the Jewish world, sends its prayers here. And the whole world is represented here. Churches, mosques, and synagogues of every stripe.”

The city’s Arab residents are by and large not Israeli citizens, meaning they can vote in municipal elections but not for the Knesset. Still, the vast majority opt to boycott the local elections, and the city leadership, in turn, has effectively given up on courting their vote. Lion has solemnly pledged to finally close the gap between the city’s Jewish and Arab neighborhoods. He plans on spending billions on overhauling East Jerusalem’s much-maligned roads and sewers, and on revolutionizing its schools, many of which are associated with the Palestinian Authority. “So far, not enough effort has been made to bring the Israeli education system to the residents of East Jerusalem,” Lion said. “Today only 7% of schools in East Jerusalem are run by the Israeli Ministry of Education. My goal is to bring that number up to 50% within five years. That will make a world of a difference. The level of education will be much higher. And even more important, we’ll be rid of the incitement that you find in the Palestinian curriculum.” If Lion succeeds where his predecessors failed in shifting East Jerusalemites’ allegiances from the PA to Israel, the ramifications for Jerusalem’s future as a unified city, and indeed for Israel’s future vis-à-vis the Palestinians, would be profound.

“Unfortunately, there hasn’t been enough construction these past few years and I’m doing my best to build as many apartments as possible in Jerusalem,” Lion said, outlining a development plan that’s critical to keeping the city livable and stemming the outmigration of secular Jerusalemites. “There’s a very high demand. I think that if we build many apartments, we can bring down prices. And if I build as many office buildings as possible, and fast, that will bring in tech jobs. Good housing and tech jobs will bring strong populations to the city.”

Hasson, the Jerusalem chronicler, told me that he worries that Lion’s urban policies are somewhat antiquated. “Lion talks about construction, construction, and construction, but hardly mentions public transportation, which is a far more pressing issue,” he said. “The last thing the city needs is more awful neighborhoods like the ones built in the ‘80s and ‘90s, with no thought given to the environment, trees, quality of air and quality of life–the things that preoccupy most mayors of modern cities. Those are a lot more important than whether or not a kiosk or movie theater is open on Shabbat.”

Lion has shown no interest in capitalizing on the city’s conflicts for his own political gain and can, at times, sound almost Pollyannaish in his efforts to downplay them. Speaking about the Jerusalem Day festivities, which include a traditional “Flag Dance” parade by tens of thousands of Jewish youths through the Old City’s Muslim Quarter en route to the Western Wall that often leads to clashes between Jews, Arabs and police, Lion was dismissive. “Every year, different extremists try to stoke tensions between Jews and Arabs on Jerusalem Day,” he said. “But it always ends quietly. I don’t think there’s a conflict. I want Jews to be feel comfortable everywhere in the city, and I want Arabs to feel comfortable everywhere, too. If I feel safe going to the Old City on Shabbat, something I do quite often with my dad, then I think the city is truly unified.”

Last Friday, mere days after Lion spoke with Tablet, two Jews were stabbed by a Palestinian assailant in the Old City. And while the Flag Dance parade, though dangerously provocative, mercifully attracted little violence this year, Jerusalem Day kicked off with Palestinians rioting on the Temple Mount, in response to the decision to allow Jews to visit the site on one of the final days of Ramadan. “Being mayor of Jerusalem can be very difficult,” Hasson told me. “And that difficulty often has very little do with the mayor’s talents. Many people remember Mayors Olmert and Lupolianski as mediocre. But how much of that is due to their actions, and how much is due to their terms coinciding with the Second Intifada? The country’s economic and security situation affects Jerusalem far more than it does other cities. Barkat was quite lucky in that respect: Most of his tenure was relatively quiet. If Lion isn’t as lucky, he might not be remembered fondly.”

As a Jerusalemite in exile myself, I told Lion that I wish him the best of luck. Lion, personable as ever, chuckled. “You know, it’s interesting,” he said. “All Israelis want me to be successful, truly. During my campaign, there were big arguments for and against me. But starting the moment I was elected, people tell me, ‘just do the job’. Baruch hashem, it’s fun. When you’re elected mayor of Tel Aviv, not everyone wants you to succeed. But Jerusalem is everyone’s city. ‘Do me a favor, just do a good job. Take care of the city.’”


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Tal Kra-Oz is a writer based in Tel Aviv.

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