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O Jerusalem

Does Israel’s capital—with its large, activist, and growing ultra-Orthodox population—fairly represent Israel?

Liel Leibovitz
May 13, 2010
Ultra-Orthodox Jews protesting a planned 2006 gay-pride parade in Jerusalem, which was ultimately canceled.(Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)
Ultra-Orthodox Jews protesting a planned 2006 gay-pride parade in Jerusalem, which was ultimately canceled.(Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)

This week, as we celebrate Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem Day, the 43rd anniversary of the city’s reunification after the 1967 war, I have a confession to make: I can’t stand Jerusalem.

It’s a confession that would have saddened my great-great-grandfather, who left Slovakia for the Old City in the 19th century, as well as most of my family, who live there still. Out of respect for them, I have spent most of my life keeping my predilections to myself. My dislike for Jerusalem, I was sure, was predicated on all the wrong reasons: because its restaurants were not as chic as Tel Aviv’s, its stores not as trendy, or any number of superficial considerations. Jerusalem, I felt, just didn’t represent me.

Looking at newly released statistics this week, I was dismayed to find that the problem is deeper than that. Jerusalem, it is becoming more evident, doesn’t represent the majority of Israelis.

According to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, only 21 percent of Jerusalem’s 774,000 residents are secular, less than half the national average, and 32 percent are haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, nearly four times the national average. At a time when most Israelis look with great pride at the country’s booming high-tech industry and rising college graduation rates, 49 percent of Jerusalem’s students, enrolled in ultra-Orthodox institutions, will fail to receive high-school diplomas this year. This number is likely to continue to grow. And while Israelis in general are entering the workforce in greater numbers, Jerusalem is becoming increasingly impoverished: 60 percent of all Israelis currently participate in the workforce, but only 45 percent of Jerusalemites do. This number is likely to continue to drop.

The capital’s problems don’t end there. As has been widely reported for some years, vast swaths of its choicest real estate are being gobbled up by wealthy American Jews who, for the most part, either keep the property empty as a second or third home or, in the case of more religiously observant buyers, provide housing for ultra-Orthodox families. Lamenting this change, some of the city’s disgruntled residents told me in private conversations that Jerusalem was now Israel’s most international and yet least cosmopolitan city.

Ramot Eshkol is a case in point. In the 1970s and 1980s, the northern neighborhood was a bastion of secularism, home to authors like Amos Oz and Meir Shalev and numerous others in Israel’s cultural and intellectual elite. In 2004, an average three-bedroom apartment in the neighborhood cost $100,000. Today, in part because of the influence of American buyers, similar three-bedroom apartments sell for half a million dollars or more, and over 70 percent of the neighborhood’s 9,000 residents are ultra-Orthodox, many of them either American or supported by American charity organizations. As the ultra-Orthodox moved in, the neighborhood’s previous residents fled, grumbling that their old neighborhood was no longer an exclusive, secular community. And with prices in Ramot Eshkol skyrocketing, ultra-Orthodox families have started looking for homes in nearby neighborhoods, moving there and setting off similar population shifts in Ramot Alon, Bayit Va’Gan, Kerem Avraham, and neighborhoods all over the city.

In and of itself, this process is not unique. Cities, after all, change all the time, neighborhoods reinvent themselves, populations drift out and others settle in. But real estate in Jerusalem is more than just a series of transactions; it has become a contact sport.

In Sheikh Jarrah, an Arab neighborhood north of the Old City, American-backed settlers have successfully sued to retrieve property that, historically, belonged to Jewish families forced out by Arab violence in the 1930s and 1940s. Most Israelis found their efforts appalling: If Jews, after all, pushed prior ownership as an admissible reason to retrieve previously pilfered land, similar legal concessions would have to be made for Arabs who left Jerusalem and Jaffa and Haifa and Lod, a potential calamity for the Jewish state. Those concerned primarily with Jerusalem’s boundaries, however, paid no heed to the throngs of demonstrators—including authors, academics, and other members of Israel’s mainstream—now congregating in the neighborhood each Friday afternoon. They continued to build. With Florida millionaire Irving Moskowitz’s money, they erected another Jewish residential compound in Sheikh Jarrah and cheered on as Eli Yishai, Israel’s ultra-Orthodox minister of housing, announced a plan to build 1,600 units for Jews in the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramot Shlomo. Yishai’s announcement, timed to coincide with Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Jerusalem, sparked the most severe diplomatic crisis in U.S.-Israeli relations in at least two decades.

Such developments are not just a matter of politics. As the reality in Jerusalem drifts further and further away from that of the rest of Israel, the very idea on which the modern Jewish state was founded, Zionism, is called into question.

No one, perhaps, represents classical Zionism better than Teddy Kollek, Jerusalem’s legendary mayor from 1965 to 1993. Like Theodor Herzl, after whom he was named, and David Ben Gurion, to whom he was a close friend and aide, Kollek believed that the Jewish people could only survive if they freed themselves of messianic mythologies and reintroduced themselves into history by building a viable, modern state, a normal nation that thrived alongside others, independent and proud. To that end, Kollek established a host of public institutions that reinvented Israel’s capital as a thriving, cosmopolitan, and modern city.

But Jerusalem, Kollek realized, would never be accepted as Israel’s legitimate capital unless it could demonstrate civility and grace toward all its citizens, Jews and Arabs alike. Less than a week after the end of the 1967 war, Kollek visited east Jerusalem’s defeated Arab mayor to pledge Jewish-Arab cooperation, a promise he largely kept throughout his tenure. Jerusalem, Kollek believed, was too important to serve as a battleground where politicians and activists could make grand ideological gestures. For the most part, Kollek kept the extremists at bay, preserving the delicate fabric of Jerusalem as a city sacred to all three monotheistic religions.

But the Jerusalem of today is one Kollek would hardly recognize. Its ultra-Orthodox residents, for the most part, negate Zionism altogether, believing that only prayer and mitzvot will bring about redemption. And its active settlers, those bent on Judaizing eastern Jerusalem, are similarly steeped in messianic zeal, committed to recapturing the alleyways and hilltops of biblical Israel even at the risk of alienating their fellow Israelis and the world at large. The old-school Zionists, those who voted for Kollek five times, have, for the most part, either died off or left town: In 2009, for example, 19,900 people left Jerusalem, the highest departure rate of any major Israeli city, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics. While some of these former Jerusalemites are ultra-Orthodox headed for nearby West Bank settlements, many are young secular Israelis who are exasperated by the changing nature of the city.

One, of course, may disagree that a capital must, or can, represent its nation. We may argue whether or not Washington, D.C., say, embodies the United States, or what is quintessentially Dutch about The Hague. But Jerusalem has always been special: While it is an earthly city, it is, unlike most of the world’s capitals, also a theological concept, the sum of all the Jewish people’s yearnings and beliefs. When Israeli paratroopers reunified the city 43 years ago, many, like Kollek, believed that now, finally, heaven and earth would move a little bit nearer together and that the actual city would come as close as any actual city can to resembling the idyll Jews have been praying for. Now, however, it is becoming increasingly clear that the opposite is true: Jerusalem represents a narrow portion of the Jewish population, highlighting the conflicts and the differences that plague Israel, never further from heaven.

So, it’s Teddy Kollek’s Jerusalem—a Jerusalem I never knew—I commemorated on Yom Yerushalayim this year. By the time I was old enough to learn to appreciate the city, Ehud Olmert and his ultra-Orthodox associates were already in power, and the secular exodus from Jerusalem had begun in full force. But like the many Jews who pine not for the earthly city of Jerusalem but for Jerusalem that’s in our prayers and in our minds and in our hearts, the eternal capital of the Jewish people, I, too, yearn. One day, I pray, Jews will once again return to Jerusalem and rebuild it, Jews who have faith in the ancient traditions but also in the promise of a better future, Jews who feel as comfortable with Twitter as they do with their tefillin, Jews who are confident enough in their birthright to treat others with dignity and respect. If they ever come back to Jerusalem, these Jews will make it the city Teddy Kollek fought for, both particularly Jewish and truly international, a city, in other words, I would very much love.

Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.

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