Nir Barkat was elected mayor of Jerusalem in 2008 and was re-elected in 2013. He was in Toronto recently for a gala dinner put on by the Jerusalem Foundation of Canada, to mark the 50th anniversary of the city’s reunification.
What are your thoughts on the 50th anniversary of Jerusalem’s reunification?
I was seven years old when the Six Day War broke out. I remember I lived 200 yards from the demilitarized zone with the Jordanians. When we played outside, my parents were always concerned not to get too close to sniper fire. I remember filling sandbags, with soldiers putting them in front of my home. It was a big deal. I remember it very well.
Fifty years later, we have an amazing accomplishment. We are fortunate to live in an era where after 2,000 years, when we returned to our homeland, we were able to reunite the city and develop it. I’m very proud of what we accomplished, and we have lots of work to do to continue to develop the city. I’m honoured and proud to serve Jerusalem. If this isn’t a miracle, I don’t know what a miracle is.
You have said that U.S. President Donald Trump was serious about his intentions to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. How do you feel now that those plans are on hold?
I think he had a very good visit to Israel and the Middle East. It was important for Jerusalem and Israel because he’s the first acting president to go to the Wailing Wall and understand and connect with our roots. These are very important statements. So I think we’re off to a good beginning with the president.
My advice would be to do the next natural step and don’t wait. There’s no scenario in which the United States should not move the embassy to Jerusalem. It would be a very classic, natural next step. I do think Trump’s policies are the right ones. He did not say he would not move the embassy. He said he will at another date. I am disappointed by the fact that he didn’t, but I’m very optimistic that he will at some point.
You were quoted last year as saying, “I’m not ever going to stop building. No construction will be stopped by me as mayor.” What is your response to the overwhelming international criticism of the municipality for expanding Jewish homes in Jerusalem?
A very clear one. Here in Toronto, I met the mayor, John Tory. I meet mayors around the world. I ask them, “Can you ever imagine that in Canada, a mayor would say, ‘Jews are not allowed to build here. Blacks cannot build here. Christians cannot build there?’ What’s this nonsense? It’s total nonsense! Under Israeli law and naturally under all Canadian and American law and in all modern Western countries, the law cannot differentiate between Jews, Muslims, Christians, blacks or whites. Jews are entitled to build anywhere they want in the world, in any city, in any country. And of course they’re allowed to build anywhere they want in our capital city, Jerusalem, where anywhere you put a shovel in the ground, there’s Jewish roots. So it’s an absurd claim and I will never give in to it. I will never agree and I don’t recommend any mayor agree to any kind of discrimination.
Do residents in eastern Jerusalem receive the same level of municipal services as those elsewhere in the city?
As a goal, of course that should be the case. Infrastructure is not as well developed in some of the Arab neighbourhoods as in the Jewish neighbourhoods. But there’s a good reason for that: the land was never registered, so there’s no collection of taxes. So reinvestments in those neighbourhoods are smaller than other places.
My goal is to have one standard and we are, slowly but gradually, bringing everyone up to one standard in services, education and other elements. When people say there’s a gap in services, my answer is: it’s true, but it’s not only in Arab neighbourhoods. It’s also true in ultra-Orthodox neighbourhoods and other Jewish neighbourhoods. The city was underinvested for decades and my goal is to regain our equal share of funding from the national government and bring everyone to one standard. Of course, I’m not happy with the snapshot, but I am happy with the trend. The city is going in the right direction and we’re catching up.
According to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, Jerusalem is the nation’s poorest city per capita. What’s being done to address that?
I’ve been proposing to the national government to increase its investments in the city. We’re building a new business district and getting more people into the labour force. Trends are positive on that. Yes, gaps are very big. Other metropolitan centres have double the budget per capita. I’m fighting with the national government for our equal share of funding. The more money we get, we demonstrate that we can decrease that gap.
You were an entrepreneur before entering public life. How do bring that spirit to your job?
It’s meaningful. I’ve been working with the national government to create an ecosystem for young companies and expanding companies in the high-tech sector. This is my ninth year as mayor. All of a sudden, we’ve joined the list of the 50 largest cities in the world, in terms of hi-tech. We were number 35 in 2015. Last year, we jumped to number 25. Similarly, in culture and tourism, we are climbing very rapidly. We see a big change in the atmosphere in the city in quality of life, leisure, arts and sports. These are entrepreneurial ideas on how to boost things that create a halo effect and make the city more attractive for young people and investors.
We’re also looking at education and welfare. I’ve created some interesting models on how to decrease the dropout rate from schools and/or bring more music, because it decreases violence, and technology to schools. Or taking people from below to above the poverty line. I would call myself today a public entrepreneur, thinking outside the box.
Why do you refuse to attend Jerusalem’s annual LGBTQ parade?
I will do everything I can to help LGBTQ people accomplish their goals. I meet with them every year. They don’t have to fight for their budgets. I will defend their right, viciously, to make sure they get protected and get all their rights. And they do, year after year. Marching in a public domain in our city has others meanings, as mayor. I have other constituencies. So from my perspective, supporting their needs and meeting them and giving them my support where needed is very clear. Never in doubt. To ask people to march is a bit of a different story. I explained that this is something I would not do as mayor. In my city, it’s always a balancing act of how to respect different people. And I respect all people. I respect the gay community and I respect other communities. And working between the two is my goal as mayor. They’re all my children and I take care of them all.
You recently announced a five-year plan to invest in culture. What are the benefits?
They’re tremendous. You create many opportunities for young, creative people to decide to stay, both to enjoy the fruit of culture and to be a participant in culture and sports. If you don’t have art, culture and sports, you’re at a disadvantage, because they are key elements people require these days as a standard of services from a municipality. Closing gaps and creating an advantage that is unique to Jerusalem – for me, it’s an investment in the future.
This interview has been edited and condensed for style and clarity.