Uriel Heilman - Jerusalem's divides
Jerusalem’s Civic Future: A City Struggling with Numerous Divides, Fall 2008, B'nai B'rith
Fall 2008 BBM

Jerusalem’s Civic Future:
A City Struggling with Numerous Divides

By Uriel Heilman

JERUSALEM -- Since late June, visitors to Jerusalem have been greeted by a towering new suspension bridge at the city’s entrance—a cantilevered structure anchored by a 387-foot mast with 66 steel cables billowing outward.

Called the Bridge of Strings, the structure, designed by renowned Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, is meant both to serve as a dramatic landmark and to carry one of the lines of Jerusalem’s future light rail system.

The bridge’s champions herald it as a symbol Jerusalem’s renewal, a beautiful edifice evocative of a harp that, one day, may be associated with Jerusalem the same way the Eiffel Tower is with Paris.

“This bridge is a symbol and sign not only of Jerusalem’s glorious history, but also of its ability to renew itself, to be different, to inspire, and to create hope,” Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, a former mayor of Jerusalem, said at the bridge’s opening ceremony. “The Calatrava bridge—the Bridge of Strings—is the modern gate to the historic Jerusalem.”

To some, though, the bridge is viewed as a white elephant.

Detractors say it looks more like a gigantic clothesline or a crooked nail than a harp, that its ungainly size—it’s the highest structure in the city—doesn’t fit Jerusalem’s character, and that it represents an overly expensive solution to the relatively simple problem of building an overpass.

Critics also note that the light rail system the bridge was built to carry isn’t ready: The rail project, millions over budget and running several years late, is scheduled for completion in 2010. Until then, the bridge will be limited to foot traffic.

Even the bridge’s June 25 opening festivities were marred by controversy. Residents grumbled about the $2 million spent on the gala; the gridlock traffic jams caused by the inaugural ceremony; and a performance at the event, where female dancers were forced to wear long skirts and head coverings to avoid offending fervently Orthodox constituents.

In a city that, 41 years after its reunification, is still struggling with deep divisions, economic troubles, and the tension between preservation and innovation, the controversial bridge indeed might be viewed as an appropriate symbol of contemporary Jerusalem.

“What the bridge can and should do,” wrote columnist Calev Ben-David in the Jerusalem Post, “is help remind its residents—including this country's leadership—that the New City has yet to the live up to the promise of the prophets who once proclaimed Jerusalem ‘the perfection of beauty,’ both in what has already has been constructed here, and what remains to be built.”

Even as Jerusalem enjoys a revival of sorts, evident in the return of tourists, a frenzy of construction projects, and a variety of new economic development initiatives, the city faces critical challenges.

Jerusalem has become Israel’s poorest city, with one-third of its population and 56 percent of its children living below the poverty line, according to the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies.

Politically, the city that was united following the 1967 Six-Day War remains, in truth, deeply divided. Arabs reside in eastern Jerusalem neighborhoods, where far fewer city services are provided than in Jewish neighborhoods, while Jews live in western Jerusalem or in all-Jewish enclaves in newly built neighborhoods, east of what was once the city’s dividing line.

One-third of the city is fervently Orthodox, one-third is Arab, and the remaining third—mostly secular and modern Orthodox Israelis—are leaving the capital in significant numbers, in search of more affordable housing, better job opportunities, and a life farther away from Jerusalem’s religious and political fault lines.

Perhaps the most worrisome development for many Jewish champions of Jerusalem is that, if current demographic trends continue, the Arab population in Israel’s capital will outnumber the Jewish population sometime between 2035 and 2050, according to varying estimates.

“Only a mere 40 years after bringing to fruition a 2,000-year-old dream, the shocking truth is that we are, in fact, in danger of losing it again,” says Nir Barkat, an entrepreneur, Jerusalem city council member, and Jerusalem mayoral candidate. “There are many reasons for this: Arab versus Jewish birthrates, an emigration of young people to areas outside of Jerusalem, and many others.”

The question many Jerusalemites are asking is: Can Jerusalem as a city be saved?

Flight from the City
Jerusalem is a tale of many cities. There is religious Jerusalem and secular Jerusalem; the Arab city and the Jewish one; wealthy Jerusalem and poor Jerusalem; the tourists’ Jerusalem and the locals’ Jerusalem; the resurgent Jerusalem and the failing Jerusalem.
On the one hand, the city appears to be moving in a positive direction.

The downtown area, empty just six years ago during the height of the second Palestinian intifada, is again bustling with shoppers. In the city’s trendier neighborhoods, restaurants, serving everything from steaks to sushi, are packed.
Once simple apartment buildings in leafy Jerusalem neighborhoods are being converted into magnificent homes by architecturally astute developers. The city is adding world-class hotels to accommodate the growing number of visitors. Perhaps more than anything else, Jerusalem’s growth is evident in a myriad construction projects.

The main thoroughfare of Jaffa Road is being torn up to lay track for the new light rail system. Vehicles are being re-rerouted at major intersections to allow for better—and, often, more confusing—traffic flow. The Knesset, Israel’s parliament, is putting the finishing touches on a major new wing. The Israel Museum is in the midst of a massive renovation project that has most of its campus closed to the public.

But accompanying signs of vigor are those of trouble.

The newly glitzed downtown neighborhood that once was the cultural and economic heart of the city has few non-retail businesses or cultural establishments.

The magnificent homes rising in wealthy neighborhoods such as Rechavia and Katamon are being sold to absentee homeowners from the Diaspora, rather than to Israelis, pricing out locals. The phenomenon of absentee homeownership has turned some Jerusalem neighborhoods into virtual ghost towns and destroyed the mom-and-pop stores that relied on local patrons for business.

“The only housing that’s going up now is luxury housing for foreigners,” laments Harry Rubenstein, co-founder of Jerusalemite.net, a cultural guide to the city. “These are people who come twice a year. It’s a huge drain on the economy. They’re not supporting local businesses at all, and what are they contributing to the city?”

Approximately one in five apartments in Jerusalem’s central neighborhoods— about 9,200 —are foreign-owned, according to a recent review of municipal tax records conducted by an Israeli consulting company.
Young families are fleeing the city because they cannot afford the sale prices. Rubenstein, who moved his family to the rapidly growing Jerusalem suburb of Modi’in when the time came to buy a home, is among them.

“We were a young couple who were looking to buy an apartment, and the prices were ridiculous, and we couldn’t afford it,” he says. “I consider myself a Jerusalemite through and through who just happens to live in Modi’in right now.”

For about the last 20 years, more Israelis have moved out of the city than into it. Since 1990, 272,000 Israelis have left the city. In 2006, the combined total of Israelis moving out of the city and Israelis moving into the city resulted in a net loss of 6,300 residents—though high birthrates among Jews and Arabs, and the growth of Jerusalem’s Arab population, have kept the city’s population rising.

A recent survey conducted by Maya Hoshen, a senior researcher at the Jerusalem Center for Israel Studies, shows that, of Jerusalem’s 40,000 or so students, 64 percent said they expect to leave the city after graduating.

The City’s Economics
Lack of affordable housing is not the only reason Jerusalemites are fleeing the capital. In a city whose primary industries are government and tourism—which together account for roughly 70 percent of all jobs—many young people can’t find work.

This summer, a group of students stacked suitcases on top of cars and paraded through Jerusalem to demonstrate that high apartment prices and a dearth of jobs are driving young people out of town. In Hoshen’s survey, 43 percent of students polled cited lack of employment as the primary reason for their planned exodus.

One reason for the housing problem is that, on average, Jerusalem residents earn significantly less than their counterparts elsewhere in the country. The average annual salary in Jerusalem is approximately $16,000 per year; in metropolitan Tel Aviv, it is $24,000.

In recent years, a variety of entrepreneurial projects have cropped up to try to reverse the flight from Jerusalem. In 1993, a major technology park on the northwestern side of the city, Har Hotzvim, opened. It has attracted some major science and technology companies, including Intel, Teva, and Amdocs, and employs about 10,000.

Another technology park near Jerusalem’s biggest mall and the city’s little-used train station, in Malcha, has been somewhat less successful in drawing businesses. However, one of the companies that recently moved out of Malcha for a more central-city location, Jerusalem Venture Partners, has been a key player in the city’s entrepreneurial revival.

Founded by Erel Margalit, an eclectic entrepreneur who served as director of business development for Jerusalem under former mayor Teddy Kollek, the venture capital firm that manages $680 million has helped bring more than 70 technology firms to the city, including IBM and Digital. The company also has launched a number of long-term projects that have raised Jerusalem’s cultural and economic profile.

Margalit’s latest project is the creation of a media technology studio in central Jerusalem that brings together nine of the companies his firm. The idea, Margalit says, is for the fully equipped animation studio at the center to give a boost to creative industries in Jerusalem, attracting entrepreneurs and artists.

“What’s needed here in Jerusalem is for the different dimensions of creativity that exist in the city to find a common arena in which they will operate coherently,” says Margalit. “What you have to do is transform the advantage inherent in the fact that you have here writers and artists and thinkers and people from technology—a situation that exists nowhere else.”

Economic Divisions
The relatively low level of employment in the city is a function not just of a relative dearth of job opportunities, but of the population itself.

Jerusalem’s large Orthodox and Arab populations have relatively low workforce-participation rates. Many fervently Orthodox, or haredi, Jews choose to study in yeshivas rather than work and, among Arabs, low educational levels and discrimination combine to keep employment levels below average in the Arab sector.

That’s also what make Jerusalem’s poverty rate exceptionally high.

While the city continues to explore ways to raise employment levels and reduce poverty among the Arabs and fervently Orthodox, to some Israelis it is the mere presence of these populations’ in Jerusalem that is a deterrent to living there. Compared with cosmopolitan Tel Aviv, Israel’s cultural and commercial capital, Jerusalem can seem parochial, overly pious, and Arab-heavy.

For Israelis disenchanted by the religious and political conflicts of the Jewish state, Jerusalem is a place where religious and political divisions can be sharply felt.

Billboards and bus stop advertisements in Tel Aviv that feature scantily clad women selling one product or another are altered in Jerusalem, where the capital’s Orthodox constituency holds greater sway. The mayor of the city, Uri Lupolianski, is fervently Orthodox, and his election in 2003 was seen by many as a harbinger of the city’s increasingly Orthodox direction.

The mayor at times has clashed with opponents on such issues as the city’s gay pride parade, and his support for the construction of new Jewish neighborhoods in eastern Jerusalem.

Israeli border policemen patrol busy downtown areas, subjecting Arab passersby to frequent ID checks and questioning. Though no border exists between the Arab and Jewish parts of Jerusalem, few Jews venture into the capital’s Arab neighborhoods.

The West Bank security fence, which Israel erected to keep Palestinian terrorists away from Israeli population centers, skirts the edge of the city and is visible from many of its main thoroughfares—an uncomfortable reminder that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is but a stone’s throw away.

After a Palestinian from eastern Jerusalem went on a bulldozer rampage on a busy Jerusalem street in July, killing three, scores of Jerusalem Jews marched to the assailant’s home demanding the razing of his family’s house and new restrictions on movement for Jerusalem Arabs. Deputy Prime Minister Haim Ramon, of the Labor Party, suggested that outlying Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem be cut out of the city entirely and placed on the other side of the West Bank barrier.

Ramon is not just concerned about security. He, like many others in Jerusalem and in the country, is concerned with maintaining a Jewish majority in Jerusalem.

With the Arab birthrate continuing to outpace the Jewish birthrate in the city, and Arabs migrating to Jerusalem while Jews leave, officials worry that Israel’s capital one day will become a majority-Arab city, threatening Jerusalem’s status as the undivided capital of the Jewish state.

Ramon’s idea is to cede some Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem now so the city’s demographic composition tilts Jewish. The same concern for the city’s demographic composition drives the construction of Jewish neighborhoods in eastern Jerusalem, on hilltops within Jerusalem’s municipal boundaries that the rest of the world often considers Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Lupolianski has said he will resist any Israeli government actions to halt construction in eastern Jerusalem.

“Israel must not become the first country in the world to turn its capital into an illegal outpost,” the Jerusalem mayor said in January, when Israeli media reported that the government was planning to suspend construction in one of the controversial neighborhoods.

Jerusalem’s uncertain status, and the omnipresent threat of its inclusion as a subject for negotiations with the Palestinians, continues to hamper the city’s long-term growth.

Alan Schneider, director of the B’nai B’rith International World Center in Jerusalem, blames the international community’s refusal to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of the State of Israel for Jerusalem’s second-city status.
“That puts it at a great disadvantage,” Schneider says. “If there were 80 embassies in Jerusalem instead of in Tel Aviv and in Ramat Gan; if there were 80 residences of ambassadors and all the diplomatic staff that goes along with international recognition, I think Jerusalem would be a much less provincial city. I think it would be a much more international city. [That] would give a new and different luster to Jerusalem that it lacks today.”

The B’nai B’rith World Center’s establishment in Jerusalem in 1980 was an attempt to offset the lack of embassies in the capital, and a response to a U.N. Security Council resolution at the time that called on all the embassies then in Jerusalem to leave the holy city.

A Tricky Future
The potency of the competing and widely divergent views on Jerusalem is part of what makes the city’s future—and planning for it—so tricky. Jerusalem is being pulled in many different directions at once.

The city’s Orthodox mayor wants to boost Jerusalem’s Orthodox population as a bulwark against the city’s Arabization. But secular Jerusalemites worry about the city becoming too Orthodox, even as they fear it may become too Arab.

Some left-wing Israelis want to secure Jerusalem’s future by trading away parts of the city in a peace deal with the Palestinians, but others view such a move as a catastrophic mistake that would render the Zionist enterprise morally bankrupt.

On the local level, developers are eager to capitalize on Diaspora-Jewish interest in Jerusalem by building hotels and apartments that appeal to them, but local residents complain about the dearth of affordable housing under construction for would-be Israeli buyers and the ruin of some neighborhoods by high-rise hotels and apartment buildings ill-suited to their surroundings.

The tension between preservation and innovation runs through the city.

A new mall outside the Jaffa Gate has breathed new life into a long-derelict neighborhood squeezed between downtown Jerusalem and the Old City; it also blocks views of one of the most beautiful and historic gates of the Old City walls.

A new Four Seasons hotel is slated to be built in the picturesque Germany Colony, but local residents are fighting the plan because, they say, the proposed structure would be out of a place in the neighborhood and the area needs more housing for Israelis, not empty hotel rooms for American Jews.

Ambitious developers wanted to stem the exodus from Jerusalem by building 20,000 new housing units in the mountains to the west, expanding the city into the Jerusalem forest. But environmentalists and opponents successfully fought the proposal, known as the Safdie Plan, which they argued would have irrevocably harmed Jerusalem’s natural landscape.

Others want to expand Jerusalem eastward, into the Judean desert and toward the Jerusalem suburb of Ma’ale Adumim in the West Bank. But U.S. opposition to the plan has, so far, made expansion of Jerusalem into the West Bank impossible.

And, in city hall, constituencies from schools to cultural institutions to religious bodies all compete for their portion of Jerusalem’s municipal pie. Somehow, all these challenges have to be met simultaneously. That, after all, is what running a city is all about.

The key, says Jerusalem Venture Partners’ Margalit, is to bring Jerusalem’s disparate groups together in common cause. With the city’s next mayoral elections set for November, he says, it’s time for visionary leadership.

The mayor of Jerusalem “will have to rehabilitate the city center, to bring back to it creativity, young people, and content,” says Margalit. “To foment a revolution in the disadvantaged neighborhoods in order to bring them into the 21st century. To include the haredim in the creative vision, make them part of the workforce. But above all, he must celebrate and sanctify the creative forces in the city.

“All that has to be done is to get those forces into the open, to get them into the streets of the city,” Margalit continues. “The city has to be turned into an arena in which all these forces converge. And then suddenly everyone will see what resources we have here—resources that no other city in the world has.”