By: Elliot Heller  | 

Mayor of Jerusalem Addresses YU Community Before Receiving Honorary Degree

Dozens of members of the YU community came out to Weisberg Commons on Thursday evening, December 8 to hear brief words from Nir Barkat, the mayor of Jerusalem. Barkat, Jerusalem’s mayor since 2008, was introduced by President Joel, who conferred an honorary degree upon the mayor at Sunday’s 92nd Hanukkah Convocation and Commencement Ceremony.

“Mayor Barkat was chosen to keynote this year’s convocation in celebration of the upcoming 50th anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem, and because of his many accomplishments, which complement YU’s own commitment to the safety and prosperity of the State of Israel,” said Matt Yaniv, YU’s Director of Marketing and Communications.

In his remarks, Mr. Barkat spoke of what the holy city means to him, and his optimism for its future.

“For me, making Jerusalem work better is a life mission,” Barkat said. “We have to make Jerusalem work for the benefit of all its residents. We have to open up Jerusalem for the benefit of the world to enjoy.”

Asked how American college students could best contribute to the city’s growth, Barkat highlighted three areas in which he and Harvard Business School professor Michael Porter had determined the city has a competitive advantage that is being underutilized: tourism, health and life sciences, and the hi-tech sector. The mayor stressed that Americans could make significant contributions in the latter two areas.

“The brand of Jerusalem as a destination for people to come and visit is underutilized. New York City has 50 million tourists a year,” he said. “Rome has 40 million tourists a year. Now, Jerusalem, with 5 billion people around the world that want to come and visit us – I found it unacceptable that we only have 2 million tourists a year. If Cyprus can have 10 million tourists a year, so can Jerusalem.”

“So, we have defined what we call the culture tours and business cluster. We market Jerusalem as a place where kings and prophets walked, where you can come to the holy sites, and to the religious sites, and to the archaeology and history, but also complement that with culture, and shows and significant fun when people come to our city. And we’re scaling very nicely. There are lots of opportunities in that framework.”

The mayor was equally optimistic about the recent boom in hi-tech the city has experienced. “…[W]e realize that we are very powerful, and have a lot of potential, in health life sciences and hi-tech,” he said. “As a hi-tech entrepreneur, I know the power of the Hebrew University, and the different colleges we have. Hebrew U is top in the world in in generic research in health life sciences, top ten in mathematics and computer science, yet we weren’t keeping talent in the city. So we created a very interesting ecosystem for entrepreneurs. Time magazine 2015 defined Jerusalem as the number one emerging tech city in the world. We grew from 250 companies less than four years ago, to over 600 companies in Jerusalem, and we’re scaling at a rate of over 120 a year. Now a lot of those opportunities are young start-ups, young companies…, We’re creating that ecosystem for young companies to become successful. And I think they need lots of skilled labor, lots of skilled management, people that understand the U.S. market, I think it comes with an advantage.

Asked how we handles the diverse and often feuding factions that live in the city, he responded “carefully,” in jest, before elaborating:

“If you deeply understand that we must live together, even sometimes when there are conflicts, if the philosophy is ‘okay, how do we create a relationship and work together,’ rather than have one party win and the other party lose. Because if you start off with one party losing and one winning, next round it’s the other way around, and then it’s just bashing each other and you end up in lose-lose. In game theory, if you learn game theory, when you start off with a win-lose relationship, zero sum game, eventually everyone loses. And so by consistently seeking solutions, mediating conflicts, you gain trusts of the different constituencies, and if you trust that you really mean, and you’re really seeking solutions designed from that position, you have a much, much better chance of succeeding. Another thing I want to mention is that, in one way, shape, or form economic growth has something to do with it. Because if the pie is shrinking, and the economy is not doing well, then people tend to – for their survival, for their basic needs – they tend to fight over [a] shrinking pie. And if you cannot get the growth there, for the benefit of all people – and unfortunately ours is a city that was not growing at the pace it should, as a matter of fact it became poorer and poorer – then the dynamics are negative, and positive economics contribute to easier solutions.

“So now with the city scaling in the last 8 years, I’ve doubled the mix of the budget from 3.5 billion shekels to over 7 billion shekels, if you take the total investments in our city. And that creates a very different atmosphere. It helps mediate tensions. Last but not least, you need to have a customer-centered approach, meaning when I meet the local leaders of the ultra-orthodox sect, you really have to open up your eyes and ears and understand what they need. Then you go to the secular and the national religious and the Muslim and the Christian communities. Turns out that if you come and help them live their life their way, it helps mediate tension. And sometimes there could be conflicts, but at least let’s help people live their life their way in their communities…it dramatically decreases tension and creates trust, as I said earlier. So it’s probably a combination of gaining people’s trust, understanding that there’s room for everyone, let them live their way, mediate tension, create economic growth – each one of these little strategies helps us coexist in our city.”

When a questioner asked for the mayor’s thoughts on a recent article in New York Times Magazine highlighting the poor living conditions of one of Jerusalem’s Arab neighborhoods, he was quick to defend his government.

“Unfortunately, the Palestinian refugees, nobody wants to settle in the Arab world, nobody cares about them, nobody’s even thinking how to take those refugees, and settle them, and help them, like we do to our Jewish people. We have 60,000 of those, in jerusalem….in my mind they’re political prisoners of the political situation between the Palestinians and the Israelis. If the Arabs wanted to solve the problem then they would start settling 5,000 them in different Arab countries, maybe in some of the Arab towns in the west bank, and take care of the children, and the people around.

“So what we do is because of security we have a security fence to defend the Jewish country and Jerusalem. That fence, the security fence, is there because they’re very violent. And what we do on a daily basis is we pass the majority of the kids on the other side to the city of Jerusalem and give them the best education we can and we give them the best jobs we can, and the best hospitals in the world, much better than they have in Ramallah and anywhere else in the Arab world. So whatever we can do to ease the pain of the Arabs living in Jerusalem, those refugees, we will do everything we can.”

The mayor also said that he supported the right to Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount, that he considered a building freeze for Jews east of the green line to be an act of discrimination, and that in order to make sure that Jerusalem will always be “the Jewish capital of the Jewish state,” he would not support the prospect having a Muslim mayor of the city.

Many students were pleased with the mayor’s remarks.

“It was wonderful to hear such optimistic words from Mayor Barkat,” said Maxwell Charlat, a first-semester biology major. The mayor described some of the amazing economic, social and cultural advancements in Jerusalem since he was first elected in 2008. Barkat is hopeful that Jerusalem will continue to flourish and grow into the thriving capital that Israel deserves.”

Math and computer science major Shalom Azar concurred. “I was very impressed by Nir Barkat’s points on having the right for Jews to build throughout Israel. Whether one believes the two-state solution is the best solution or not, we cannot ask someone what their race is to give them a building permit. No place in the world has that law.”

Others were not as impressed. “While he spoke about improving the city, I was disappointed that he did not cite examples of the challenges he faces as mayor and how he approaches them.” said Ari Rosman, a sophomore at Lehman College who lives in Washington Heights and attended the speech.  

After serving in the paratroopers and fighting in the First Lebanon War, Barkat earned a bachelor’s degree in computer science from Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and worked in the high-tech sector for the next fifteen years, before getting involved in philanthropy. In 1999, he and his wife, Beverly, invested in the Snunit Center for the Advancement of Web Based Learning, a non-profit organization that aims to improve online education for elementary and junior-high school aged students throughout Israel. He lives in Jerusalem with his family.