How does exposure to diverse community leaders influence urban political engagement in a divided city?

1 Jun 2023, 2:13 p.m.
Noam Brenner

During 2018 we were engaged in a peacebuilding initiative led by the Leonard Davis Institute for International Relations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the IPCRI organization. Our main objective was to bring together Palestinians and Israelis to talk and foster shared visions for the future of Jerusalem. In our recruitment process, we engaged with several community leaders from different neighborhoods in East Jerusalem. We were surprised by their willingness to cooperate with us and their reasonable and optimistic opinions regarding Jerusalem’s future. Moreover, since in the same year (2018), Jerusalem’s municipal election was about to take place, we also heard their different (sometimes contradicting) opinions regarding future participation in the polls. We were surprised because the actual involvement of Palestinians is so rare and considered almost Taboo. That is due to the Palestinian national struggle and the Palestinian norm of Anti-normalization insisting on not recognizing Israel’s sovereignty over Jerusalem. Moreover, in the upcoming election, there was, for the first time, a local Palestinian leader who ran for office in the city council. These colliding observations made us wonder if exposure to these community leaders can affect the Palestinian resident’s willingness to participate in the election and politically engage in local politics.

Ballot Tickets from Jerusalem 2018 election. The letters “י” and “ي” stand for the Palestinian party “My Jerusalem” led by Ramadan Dabash (Chair of the Zur Baher Community Council)

Ballot Tickets from Jerusalem 2018 election. The letters “י” and “ي” stand for the Palestinian party “My Jerusalem” led by Ramadan Dabash (Chair of the Zur Baher Community Council)

Map of Jerusalem Geopolitical Borders




Map of Jerusalem Geopolitical Borders

In our study, we asked, Do the leaders of minority communities in divided cities influence group members’ expressed willingness to engage politically with rival groups? We engaged with contact theory literature, which argues that encounters with individuals from opposing groups reduce prejudices and promote political engagement. However, in divided cities, such direct contact is problematic, wherein opportunities to interact are scarce and frowned upon. Hence, we argued that community leaders act as intermediaries for their group members. Moreover, we wanted to examine the effect of the leadership repertoire (more or less diverse) on the Palestinian residents’ attitudes toward political engagement with Israeli Authorities via municipal elections. Our analysis employs original data from a public opinion survey conducted among Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem immediately before the Jerusalem 2018 municipal elections.

Our main finding shows that exposure to diverse leadership repertoire positively influences the residents’ attitudes toward voting in the municipal election. Moreover, we found this correlation more prominent among residents without direct contact with Israelis. Our main contributions can be helpful for urban and political scholars. First, for those investigating contact theory, we contribute the idea of ‘leaders as middlemen’ or indirect contact. This finding is quite interesting for scholars of contested cities, as neighborhood leaders can act as middlemen between rival groups who rarely engage.

Nevertheless, our most profound contribution is the notion of ‘leadership repertoire’ and the general idea that pluralism and openness to varied opinions can positively influence political engagement, even in one of the most contested cities in the world today. However, future studies and practitioners should be cautious and critical thinking since reliance on local (informal) leaders can lead to a democratic deficit of paternalism or clientelism. Finally, while we point out several limitations to our study in the paper itself and that we only talk about attitudes rather than participation, we encourage other scholars and practitioners to acknowledge the power and effect of community leaders more carefully in contested places.


Read the accompanying article on Urban Studies OnlineFirst here.



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