JERUSALEM — Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat is doing everything he can to keep his city flourishing. From the moment he took office in November 2008, the former venture capitalist has been on a mission to transform Jerusalem into a city rich in culture, youth, tourism, education and lasting economic development.
“Jerusalem is starting to show its real potential as a centre of the world, as a city loved by over 3.5 billion people around the world, and I believe and hope we’ll continue that trend,” Barkat told The Canadian Jewish News in a late-evening meeting at city hall ahead of a trip to Canada this week. The ninth mayor of the city, Barkat was born and raised in Jerusalem.
“Barkat has tried to cast himself as a kind of Israeli Bruce Wayne – a young, hip millionaire dedicated to saving his city,” Newsweek.com has written.
“He even dresses a bit like Batman, favouring dark suits, dark shirts and blue ties.”
Indeed, Barkat speaks excitedly about the “renaissance of culture” now taking place in his city, as well as the environmental initiatives and community gardens he has instituted and the ongoing technological upgrades in education. And it’s through international partnerships that Barkat feels the city is finally heading in the right direction. He points to the Canadian Jewish community as a “role model” when it comes to such collaborations.
“I’m extremely impressed by the depth of the love to the city of Jerusalem by the Canadian public,” Barkat said, days before his second visit to Toronto and Montreal this week. “In many ways, it’s a role model for relationships to others. The extensive trips, the total commitment, the deep understanding are something I’m coming to salute.”
During his Canadian visit Nov. 9 and 10, Barkat was to meet local philanthropists and pay tribute to distinguished donors of the Jerusalem Foundation of Canada.
“The Jerusalem municipality loves to create partnerships, and the Jerusalem Foundation is one of the leading vehicles of the philanthropic world,” he said.
One of the projects the Jerusalem Foundation is now working on is to renovate the Morasha Community Center, which serves students and young families – two groups Barkat is trying to keep in his municipality limits. In almost every interview he gives about Jerusalem, Barkat says that the “future of Jerusalem depends on the next generation.”
He is hoping to halt what is known as the “Jerusalem brain drain” – whereby the bright, young Jerusalemites leave the capital for Tel Aviv for lack of job opportunities.
In fact, before he took office, Barkat founded StartUp Jerusalem, which encourages the creation of jobs in the city through economic growth and marketing guidance. He was also a founding member of New Spirit, an organization that focuses on deepening the connections that students have to Jerusalem so that they’ll stay and raise their families there.
Construction work in Jerusalem can be seen throughout the city, just as it is everywhere in Israel. Barkat said he’s working on providing an equal amount of housing for all sectors of society, but steadfastly rules out any division of the city.
“There’s no such working model of a split city in the world. My vision for the city is to open it up, enable the whole world to come and enjoy the city when they come peacefully – enjoy our city, all parts of it. Derived from that vision is freedom of choice, freedom of religion, freedom of movement, focusing on the common denominator of what people want to see. God forbid, splitting the city is the exactly the opposite,” Barkat said.
“The public is not interested. The Arab residents of Jerusalem are not interested in this. It’s like the world forgot to ask the public. If anything, you see an increase in their will to stay as part of the united city.”
Barkat said a walk through his city proves the point.
“You walk in Jerusalem today and everyone is a minority. The Muslims are a minority, the Christians are a minority, the ultra-Orthodox are a minority, the secular are a minority – you walk in the streets and most of the people are different than you. And that’s the power of the city of Jerusalem,” he said. “You cannot physically, practically or ideologically divide the city. God forbid the world will push us there. We’ll all regret it, because it will never work.”