Dr. Laura Wharton wishes her mother could see her now.
Back in 1981, Elinor Wharton was a member of the Tenafly Borough Council.
Following in her mother’s footsteps, Dr. Wharton, a Hebrew University professor, is a member of her city’s council. But her adopted city, Jerusalem, has more than 800,000 residents, more than 50 times Tenafly’s population of 14,704, and a range of issues — conflicts, frankly — that dwarf Tenafly’s occasional fights over zoning and eruvs.
Still, the two council jobs “have a lot of things in common.” Dr. Wharton said. “The city council is directly responsible for a lot of things that affect the residents. It’s not just theoretical matters of passing laws or issuing statements. It often involves dealing with daily issues, everything from the school system to the sewage system.”
Of course, “In Jerusalem we have somewhat unusual issues: dealing with conflicts about the Temple Mount; regulating hours and behavior at the Western Wall; conflicts among the different Jewish communities; between different Muslim, Jewish, and Christian communities, and dealing with tourists.”
Dr. Wharton is back in New Jersey this week for a family simcha. On Sunday morning, she will speak at Temple Sinai in Tenafly on “Religion, State and Women’s Rights in Israel: A View From Jerusalem’s City Council.”
Dr. Wharton holds a doctorate in political science from Hebrew University. She made aliyah in 1984, after she graduated from Harvard with a bachelor’s degree in government.
“As I was growing up, I became more and more interested in Israel as a home for the Jewish people and more and more involved with what was happening there,” she said. “I decided it was a great opportunity to be a part of an important period in Jewish history and join those who decided to renew the home for the Jewish people in Israel.”
As it is in Tenafly, serving on the Jerusalem council is a volunteer job. Dr. Wharton’s paid job is teaching political science at Hebrew University’s Rothberg School for International Students.
She was first elected to the Jerusalem council in 2008. This followed a long period of civic activism, which, like much of Israeli public life, was undertaken through a political party. She started working with Meretz, the left-wing Zionist party, on social matters, gradually working her way up. It was her growing influence within Meretz that led her to be on the party’s council slate. As in Knesset elections, voters for the city council select a party, not a person, to represent them.
Meretz is a small party. Vocal on issues of civil rights, it now has only five seats in the 120 member Knesset. In Jerusalem, Meretz ran on a slate with the Labor Party. In right-wing Jerusalem, the two together garnered only three of the council’s 30 seats. Recently, one member defected to join Mayor Nir Barkat’s overwhelming broad coalition. That left Dr. Wharton as the leader of an opposition of two.
Why stay in the opposition?
“It’s a very problematic coalition,” she said. “We’re on okay terms with the mayor. We were in the coalition in the past. But he formed a coalition with members of the extreme right, including a man who is a supporter of Meir Kahane, people who formed a list that didn’t pass the threshold to be elected to the Knesset because they were deemed too extreme by the public.
“We were also very critical of the decisions he made in bringing all the ultra-Orthodox groups into the coalition, including very extremist ones that oppose the draft and rights for women.
“Besides, it’s important that there be an active opposition. Since we’re in the opposition, were free to speak against him when he makes wrong decisions,” she said.
While as a member of the opposition she has fewer responsibilities than if she were in the council’s coalition, as a member of the council she can work on various projects. In the previous term, she formed a council for the elderly. Now she’s working on organizing a center for the homebound elderly. She has run a series of workshops for ultra-Orthodox working women to teach them about their rights as workers and as women.
And then there’s the matter of oversight — which she exercises with the help of her contacts in the public and media.
“For example, at the beginning of this term, the mayor brought up a huge number of appointments to various committees. I was aghast at how few women there were. There was absolutely no Arab representation. The opposition didn’t get our due. We brought this to court, and he had to redo the members of the committee.
“The mayor has a great fondness for things like fast cars,” she continued. “There was a big demonstration of Formula One cars in the city. Our party came out with an investigation of how much it cost and how it was handled. As a result, the state controller stepped in and the system was changed.
“We were involved in a suit against the mayor because he hasn’t been seeing to the allocations the law requires for making the city accessible for disabilities,” she said. “We’re doing a lot to try to make sure the city runs as well as possible.”
Still, Dr. Wharton’s biggest impact on Jerusalem this year might not have come through her actions as a council member. Separate from her official civic and political positions, she was one of a group of friends who started a new transportation cooperative.
Transportation cooperative? Have two duller words ever been written?
But the name of the cooperative tells the story.
It’s the “Shab-bus.” As a membership organization, it is able to be driven through Jerusalem on Friday night and Saturday without running afoul of the ban on public transport on Shabbat.
“It’s something that developed out of a real need to enable people of all backgrounds who are interested in visiting friends and family, or going into the city, or traveling for any reason,” she said.
Membership costs 20 shekels — about five dollars. Trips cost about three dollars each.
“It’s something we run as a public service,” she said. “It allows people to get around who can’t otherwise. It’s a problem that results from a social gap. People like myself who have cars can do whatever they want. Young people, soldiers, people who don’t have means are stuck in their houses. Taxis are very expensive.
“We go on major streets; we don’t want to bother anyone religious or ultra-Orthodox.”
The cooperative has more than 1,000 members. (Some are supporters from places as far away as New York and Australia.) It has been copied in other Israeli cities.
“It’s an example of how a grassroots movement can solve a problem without bothering anyone,” she said.
And then there are the grassroots efforts that cause problems.
That’s where she places the blame for the recent violence in Jerusalem, centered on the Temple Mount.
“I think it’s very sad,” she said. “All of the Israeli religious establishment, the chief rabbis, the chief rabbis of Jerusalem with whom I’ve discussed the issue, have made it clear that Jews should not go up to the Temple Mount, for halachic reasons” — that is, out of concern for Jewish law — “and out of considerations of the sensitivity of the place. The fact it is considered holy by the Jews is a reason it should be kept quiet.
“Sadly, there’s been a lot of escalation lately.
“Unfortunately there have been more and more extremists going up, against rabbinic advice, against rabbinic decisions, and against the advice of military intelligence.
“And on the other hand, there’s been more and more rock throwing by Palestinians, which I of course condemn.
“I’ve met with Muslim leaders. All those figures agree that everything should be done to keep peace and quiet.
“Unfortunately, neither side is doing enough to reign in the zealots on both sides. As a result all the rest of us suffer. There have been a number of people killed on both sides. There’s the tragic case of the man killed while driving his car.
“Much of this could be avoided if more were done to reinforce the more responsible centrist elements and prevent the extremists — from both sides — from speaking out.
“Even a member of the city council started performing all kinds of rites to re-enact what he and others reconstructed as the ritual of animal sacrifices during the period of the Second Temple. Not enough has been done to condemn this kind of thing.
“The biggest problem we have in Jerusalem is the problem of East Jerusalem and West Jerusalem. Anyone who goes to Jerusalem should visit a neighborhood of East Jerusalem and see the huge social gaps that are there. It’s very sad. That’s one of the bases for the upset we have there. There are huge discrepancies in the standard of living. I don’t think the mayor has done enough to address the problem. As long as Israel is the self-proclaimed sovereign of East Jerusalem, it has responsibility, and it hasn’t been doing enough in fulfilling the responsibility in an equal way,” she said.
But Dr. Wharton doesn’t want the violence to be the lasting impression of the city she lives in and loves.
“Despite the grim headlines, there are a lot of very active, caring Jerusalemites doing all they can to make Jerusalem a better place,” she said. “If you haven’t been there for a few years, or have never been there, I encourage you to come. It’s a thriving city, developing in a lot of positive ways.
“As someone who grew up here in New Jersey and cherishes my relationships with people here, and the relations between Israel and the United States, I encourage people to become involved and help in whatever ways they can,” she said.