A Tale of Three Cities

The 2013 Jerusalem Municipal Elections

There are three cities of Jerusalem, and they seldom meet. There is the modern pluralistic city in the center, the religious city to the north and west, and the arab city to the east. The divide that separates each from the others shows in the recent municipal elections, where the voting patterns in each of the three cities could not have been more different from each other.

Israel municipal governments are parliamentary; even a modest showing by a party can lead to significant political power. The mayor must form a majority coalition out of the parties elected to the council. Parties that claim relatively few seats can find themselves holding the keys to a mayor’s government, and in a position to make demands.

In Jerusalem there are 31 seats on the council. In the October 22 election, 16 different parties ran for council and 11 of them won seats. This year, a relatively small party from the extreme nationalist camp that won only two seats held the keys to the mayor’s coalition. At root, though, the shape of the Jerusalem city council was already determined, even before the votes were counted, by one great factor — voter turnout.

In this image, each circle is a voting center. The area of each circle indicates how many people are eligible to vote at that center, and the color indicates voter turnout.

The large black circles are the Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem. In these polling locations, voter turnout approached 0%. At a polling station located in the Shu’afat girls middle school, 3696 residents were eligible to vote; 1 vote was cast. Arab residents of East Jerusalem account for more than one-third of the people in the city, and they do not vote.

The PLO has encouraged the boycott of the elections since 1967. It restated its boycott this year — saying that participating in the elections would constitute “legitimizing the annexation of Jerusalem”. The boycott covers both voting and running as a candidate in the elections. Toughs patrol the streets on election day, making sure that the boycott holds.

When Israel gained control of the West Bank from Jordan, it annexed the arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem to be part of the city of Jerusalem. The residents live in a strange kind of limbo. They are eligible to vote in the municipal elections, but they are not citizens of Israel, and can not vote in national elections. Jerusalem residents, unlike residents of the West Bank, can become citizens of the state, but only by swearing allegiance and renouncing other citizenships. Very few do.

The ideological boycott has very practical implications — 180,000 potential voters are left with no voice in the government of the city. If 50% of these voters turned out, they would have the power to determine about 9 seats on the council. 9 seats on a 31 seat council confers a very real power, power that would change city hall’s relationship to east Jerusalem dramatically.

There are signs of cracks in the boycott. For the first time, an Arab resident has run for council - Fuad Saliman, a Palestinian citizen of Israel and nuclear medicine technologist. He was listed as number 6 on the ultra-left Meretz slate. Meretz garnered only two seats. The polls were open in east Jerusalem, but nary a vote was cast.


On the other side of the city, the story is nearly a mirror image. Ultra-religious neighborhoods show exceptionally high voter turnout. Polling stations routinely saw more than 80% of eligible voters participating. On the map, these hyper-participatory voting centers are the dark blue circles in the north and far west of the city.

The ultra-religious have proven to be a formidable political force. Each sect votes as a bloc, generally throwing support to one of the two large ultra-religious parties. The two largest of these, the Ashkenazi Degel HaTorah and the Sephardi Shas, gathered 8 and 5 seats respectively.

In the ultra-relgious block too, cracks have begun to show. A small ultra-religious party, Bnei Torah, gained one seat, breaking the hegemony of the large parties. In a strange turn, this small party campaigned in the Arab neighborhoods as well, on a platform of shared religious values. Of the parties for city council only two had Arabic on their ballot slips — Meretz, with it’s Arab candidate, and Bnei Torah.


The grey dots down the middle of the city are the mixed-multitudes — modern Jerusalem. In another city, the 40 and 50% voting rates here would be normal, but next to the ultra-religious, they look anaemic. From these votes, the other half of the council is determined, the pluralistic, the secular, the left-leaning and the right-leaning. The mayor’s own party got 5 seats, and the rest of the ballots scattered among 7 different parties. This year the swing vote between the pluralistic block and the ultra religious block was the two seats held by the United Jerusalem party — an anti-Arab, nationalist camp. Of course, they were the first that the new mayor courted for his coaltion.

It is three cities, this Jerusalem. The hyper-political ultra-religious, the wide ranging modern, and the politically silent masses of East Jerusalem. Its newly elected council reflects the first two; the last hovers over as a shadow.


Thanks to Stephanie Pell, Batya Unger-Sargon and Alex Margolin for looking at early drafts, and Shai Davis for map design consultation. If you’d like to have a closer look at Jerusalem voter turnout, explore the interactive map. You can also explore the voting patterns for each party.