Over 200 students and faculty gathered in Weissberg Commons, anticipating the words of Jerusalem’s mayor Nir Barkat. President Joel welcomed him as “the man who is planting the new Jerusalem.”
Barkat, the mayor of Jerusalem since his election in 2008, has held many roles in serving the people of Israel: philanthropist, entrepreneur, and politician. At 57, he has also experienced Jerusalem as a true citizen. Barkat lived through the War of 1967 at the age of seven, and later served as a paratrooper. He then went to Hebrew University, became involved in the tech sector for 15 years, and, while working in philanthropy, discovered a drop in the communal morale of Jerusalem. “I believe in making a difference,” Barkat said. This work ethic, combined with his forty-plus years perceiving the pitfalls and advantages of the city in which he had grown up, was his impetus to run for mayor.
“Let me take you back three thousand years,” said Barkat. He described the 12 tribes’ designated territories, which each had specific cultures and flags–with the exception of Jerusalem. He went on to vividly depict the ancient pilgrimage to Jerusalem, when Jews from every tribe came together, belonging to one unified nation. Barkat interpreted the verse “For from Zion shall Torah come” as an outflow of people accepting Jerusalem as the de facto standard both spiritually and socially. “To create such excellence,” he declared, “we must remember where we come from and the uniqueness of our people. By design, there is room for all kinds of people [in Jerusalem]. It must stay a united city.”
It is this very diversity, said the mayor, that causes the conflicts so oft-discussed by a condemnatory media, but he emphasized that these conflicts “managed wisely, make Jerusalem better.” Barkat explained the key to managing the coexistence of Jerusalem is to believe there is room for everyone, and to exhibit determination in finding a solution that is a win-win for all involved parties. “If you gain the trust of difficult constituencies,” he informed the crowd, “you have a higher chance of succeeding.” Not just that, but conflict resolution is easier, Barkat said, when there is economic growth, because there is less fighting over resources. He joked that his time as a businessman had allowed him to understand the “consumer-centric approach,” to open up his eyes and ears and see what the people around him need, and to help them live their lives the way they want to.
When it came time for questions, Barkat said with a smile, “Leave the easy questions for other people.” A mixture of students and faculty raised their hands to ask questions regarding improving Jerusalem, media perception of Israel and the settlements.
“Jerusalem as a destination for tourists is under-utilized,” said Barkat, when asked how Jerusalem could be improved. He cited the two million tourists that visit each year, and said, “I want ten million each year.” He explained that Jerusalem is being marketed as a place where kings and prophets walked, expounding upon the Old City’s cultural and Biblical importance. Not just that, said Barkat, but “we have a lot of potential in high tech and the sciences.” Jerusalem was named the number one emerging tech hub in the world by Time Magazine, as it has seen an increase from 250 to 600 new startups each year. “These companies need skilled laborers who understand the American market. You students come with value, and you must seek out in Jerusalem those who need your skills.”
Barkat also had a chance to discuss the state of the Palestinian refugee camps in Jerusalem. The sixty thousand Palestinian refugees, he said, are “political prisoners” that no Arab country wants to settle or assist. He explained the usage of the security fences as necessary because some of the refugees had exhibited violent tendencies. However, he added, “we give the best jobs, hospitals, and education to these refugees,” said Barkat, who also expressed his desire to take the fence down because it impacts their quality of life. “I wish it was better,” he said fervently, “but it’s unfair to blame Israel.”
When asked about settlements, Barkat firmly stated his support for Jews settling where they want to. “If a Jew wants to build anywhere else, in any other democratic country, he is able to. So Jews should be able to build wherever they want, especially in the Biblical places that their forefathers walked.”
Barkat was greeted by loud applause and thanked his audience, who expressed gratitude and interest for all he had to say. It was his attitude toward Jerusalem and its future that excited students, as he told them almost straight off the bat, “I’m a very optimistic guy.”