Jerusalem, Forgotten


By Uri Dromi

Published October 30, 2008, issue of November 07, 2008.
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Anyone coming to Jerusalem these days cannot help but notice the mayoral election campaign going on in the city. The buses carry images of the candidates alongside promises ranging from affordable housing to religious freedom — and, of course, the vow never to divide Jerusalem.

This is all well and good, except that Jerusalem was never really united — and it is doubtful that it can ever be truly united — and the next mayor is unlikely to be of the caliber this difficult city deserves.

Jerusalem is in demographic flux. In 1967, there were some 200,000 Jews and 68,000 Arabs living in the city — or 74% Jewish to 26% Arab. In 2005, the numbers were 475,000 Jews and 245,000 Arabs — 66% to 34%. Since the Arab birth rate is higher than the Jewish one, it is predicted that by 2020 the city will be 61% Jewish and 39% Arab. Indeed, among children age 14 and younger, there are already more Arabs than Jews in the city.

Arab Jerusalemites are overwhelmingly concentrated in East Jerusalem, which Israel annexed after the 1967 Six-Day War. Their average standard of living is much lower than that of the city’s Jews. As a general rule, Jerusalem’s Arab residents have chosen not to participate in Israeli and municipal elections, and they often feel disenfranchised and alienated.

Within the city’s Jewish population, the number of ultra-Orthodox Jews is rising. Jerusalem neighborhoods that were once predominantly secular or religiously mixed have been taken over by the ultra-Orthodox.

The middle class, meanwhile, is leaving Jerusalem. In Tel Aviv, real estate agents already joke about the ex-Jerusalemites, who desperately search the coastal plain for the breathtaking views and great weather they enjoyed in the city they have left forever.

A look at the education system gives a clear idea of what the future holds for the city. While there are 120,000 Jewish pupils in the state school system — including both general and religious Zionist schools — and 85,000 in the ultra-Orthodox schools, there are only 33,000 children in state kindergartens and elementary schools, compared to 59,000 in the ultra-Orthodox ones.

Jerusalem, already one of Israel’s poorest cities, is becoming even poorer. The average monthly income in Jerusalem in 2004 was only 76% of the national average and less than 60% of the average for Tel Aviv. One out of every three families in Jerusalem lives under the poverty line. When it comes to children, the situation is much worse: 56% of Jerusalem’s children live in families that are considered poor.

Unfortunately, things may get worse before they get better. The two populations that are growing — Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews — are not participating in the labor force in the same numbers as other Jerusalemites. In other words, as these demographic trends continue, there will be fewer people to work, pay taxes and carry the burden of this difficult city on their shoulders.

As if all this weren’t enough, there is also the feuding over Jerusalem’s holy sites. Since 1967, Israel has managed to maintain the religious status quo over the holy places with great sensitivity, but Jerusalem’s city government always has the potential to rock the boat — and even to spark a religious war.

In light of all these problems, one would expect that candidates seeking a position as challenging as mayor of Jerusalem would be outstanding leaders, like the city’s late mayor Teddy Kollek. He was broad-minded, politically savvy, charismatic enough to boost the morale of Jerusalemites, persuasive enough to steer funds from the government and the Jewish people to the city and, last but not least, a good manager.

Alas, today’s batch of candidates is a far cry from Teddy Kollek.

Leading the pack is Nir Barkat, a successful high-tech entrepreneur. Although he has no experience running any big operation, many Jerusalemites seem willing to entrust the city to his hands for the simple reason that he isn’t ultra-Orthodox. The problem with Barkat is that he has positioned himself at the far right end of the political spectrum: Recently, he announced that once elected he would build affordable housing for students in the middle of an Arab neighborhood in East Jerusalem — a sure recipe for trouble.

Immediately behind Barkat in the polls is Meir Porush, an old-time ultra-Orthodox politician. Unlike Barkat, Porush has a long record in city politics, which includes, inter alia, running, together with his father, the Bikur Cholim hospital, and bringing this respected institution to the brink of bankruptcy. If the present mayor, also an ultra-Orthodox Jew, is soft-spoken and occasionally tries to reassure secular Jerusalemites, Porush makes little secret of his desire to privilege the interests of the ultra-Orthodox population.

Next comes Russian-born tycoon Arkadi Gaydamak, who doesn’t speak Hebrew very well but seems to know how to buy friends and influence people. He purchased the city’s popular Beitar Jerusalem soccer team in 2005, a smart move in advance of a mayoral run. If Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi managed to become prime minister thanks, in part, to the success of his soccer team, why can’t Gaydamak use sports to climb Israel’s political letter? Alas, even as he faces Jerusalem’s voters, he is facing charges of illegal arms trading in France.

The field is rounded out by Dan Biron of the pro-marijuana Green Leaf Party. His mayoral hopes, though, are little more than a pipe dream.

This is all very sad. While the rhetoric touting a “united Jerusalem” is still running high, in reality Israelis seem to have given up on the city. Jerusalem, not only the capital of Israel but the capital of the Jewish world, deserves a better fate.

Uri Dromi served as a spokesman for prime ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres. He lives in Jerusalem.

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