As Jerusalem Votes, Watch the Arab Turnout

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- As the sun set on a warm Jerusalem day this past August, an open area just outside the walls of the Old City began to fill with people who seated themselves on the grass and on blankets facing a temporary stage. They were Israeli Jews, many of them, Ashkenazi and Mizrachi. But there were also Arabs in significant numbers, some ultra-Orthodox Jews in their traditional black garb, and a few Christian clergy, as well. It was a condensed version of the human mosaic that is Jerusalem, gathered for the annual Kulna concert, which is part of the Jerusalem Season of Culture.

With dusk, as a thick scent of marijuana wafted through the crowd, the lights dimmed and an evening of music began. A crowd of thousands stood, clapped and ultimately danced as performers — Jewish and Muslim, to music liturgical and secular, in Hebrew and Arabic — sang the night away. Some Jews sang Arabic. Some Arabs sang Hebrew. It was difficult, sitting in that crowd, not to feel that there is hope for Jerusalem, not to be filled with some optimism that thousands of fellow residents still harbor hope for a city less divided, more interactive.

Jerusalem is a tough city, though, and the Kulna has its cynical critics. It is a concert, not more, they say, noting that it is funded by an American Jewish foundation. Kulna, some say, may be more a reflection of others’ hopes for Jerusalem than what most Jerusalemites themselves imagine.

Yet with municipal elections scheduled for Tuesday, there are signs that Kulna might be a harbinger of things to come. Arabs in East Jerusalem have a unique legal status in Israel. They are not Israeli citizens, and cannot vote in elections for the Knesset; but, unlike West Bank residents, they can vote in municipal elections, have health and national insurance benefits, freedom of movement and, in many ways, share in the benefits of Israeli citizenship.

Nonetheless, Jerusalem Arabs, who are 38 percent of the population in Israel’s most populous city and could therefore represent a powerful electoral force, have squandered that potential. In 1969, shortly after Israel captured East Jerusalem in the Six-Day War, voter turnout among East Jerusalem Arabs was 20 percent. But that number has consistently declined, and in the most recent municipal elections in 2013, only 1 percent of eligible East Jerusalem Arabs voted.

The decision not to vote was a conscious symbolic act meant to show their rejection of Israeli control over East Jerusalem. But there are signs that is changing. Lior Schillat, director of the Jerusalem Institute for Policy Research, has a fascinating explanation for why. When, in response to the Second Intifada, Israel constructed the security barrier between Israel proper and the West Bank (which led to a drastic reduction in terrorist attacks), East Jerusalem was on the Israeli side of the barrier. Although East Jerusalem residents could go to the West Bank and return without difficulty, West Bank Palestinians suddenly found it very difficult to enter East Jerusalem. Jerusalem, Schillat says, changed from being a hub of West Bank life to a periphery of Jewish Jerusalem. East Jerusalem Arabs have come to represent a distinct group among Palestinians. Frustrated by not having the same rights as Israeli Arab citizens, but exasperated with the Palestinian Authority’s incompetence and corruption, they increasing indicate that they want to enjoy the life of middle-class Israelis.

It is not at all unusual in today’s Jerusalem see Jews and Arabs working side by side. That has long been the case in hospitals, where Jewish and Arab doctors and nurses have long worked; now, though, it is far more common to see in restaurants and cafes, as well as in pharmacies, malls and other retail establishments. Arab taxi drivers are omnipresent in Jerusalem.

When the U.S. moved its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in May, Hamas called for large protests in Gaza, and dozens of Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces along the border. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas decried the move, saying that he would no longer work with the U.S. But East Jerusalem Arabs, who rioted by the thousands in the summer of 2017 in response to Israel’s decision to place metal detectors at entrances to the Temple Mount, did not react to the U.S. Embassy move with riots. They have long understood that Israel controls East Jerusalem, and they live with the benefits of that fact.

The most interesting hint of change is that Jerusalem has an Arab candidate running for city council. Ramadan Dabash, who comes from the Arab village of Tzur Bacher, has made it clear that he is a pragmatist. Careful to stress that he opposes the occupation, he knows that it is not likely to change any time soon. He has no chance of winning office, but his candidacy reflects the question central in the minds of Jerusalem’s Arabs: How do they get the most out of the system?

Because Israeli law mandates that the Ministry of the Interior establish polling places only where people actually turn out to vote, of the 193 polling stations in the last election, 187 were in Jewish areas and only six were established in Arab neighborhoods. No one complained of insufficient facilities in those areas, though, because almost no one voted. On Tuesday, there will be 21 polling stations in East Jerusalem. Some researchers I spoke to hoped that turnout might rise as high as 5 percent, a significant increase over 2013.

A hint of progress is in the air. Life in Jerusalem is still far from the idyllic picture that Kulna represents. But even statistically oriented researchers are quick to point out that while it is almost impossible to measure the impact of Kulna and the larger culture festival, it is an important phenomenon. “Peace is not going to come at any point in the near future,” one of them said to me, “but when it comes, that is what it is going to look like.”

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Daniel Gordis is senior vice president and Koret distinguished fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem. Author of 11 books, his latest is "Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn."

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