I have attended countless Jewish conferences in the last several decades. The only guaranteed applause line has been: “Jerusalem, the eternal capital of the Jewish people, will forever remain undivided under Israel’s sovereignty.” Never mind that in past negotiations two Israeli prime ministers were prepared to cede Arab neighborhoods of east Jerusalem to a future Palestinian state.
American Jews care passionately about Jerusalem — at least on a symbolic level. The brouhaha that erupted in recent days surrounding the Israeli government’s suspension of an agreement to upgrade the egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall is one manifestation.
Yet, Jerusalem is not only a symbol. It is a living, breathing metropolis of some 900,000 inhabitants. And it is a city with severe socio-economic challenges. At the official ceremony held on Ammunition Hill marking the 50th anniversary of Jerusalem’s reunification, the refreshingly honest and blunt president of Israel, Reuven Rivlin, said, “We can’t sing the praises of a united Jerusalem in which 40 percent of the population live in what is the most impoverished urban area in Israel.”
The question of how Jerusalem, the city, is doing seems to be of less concern to American Jews. This has always troubled me, and over the years I found a kindred spirit, Dr. Elan Ezrachi, a lifetime Jerusalemite. An expert in the field of Israel-diaspora relations and Jewish peoplehood, he is author of a new book in Hebrew, “Awakened Dream — 50 years of Complex Unification of Jerusalem.” (Hopefully, the book will soon be translated into English so that it will be accessible to a wide audience.)
I presented Ezrachi with a set of questions to elicit his observations on the present and future of Jerusalem and the role of American Jews in the evolution of the city:
Raffel: Why is Jerusalem sociologically and economically depressed?
Ezrachi: The demography of Jerusalem reflects trends that date to the Ottoman period, as well as developments that occurred in the past 50 years. In June 1967, as the city was united by Israel, there were approximately 200,000 Jews in west Jerusalem and 70,000 Palestinians in the newly added areas in east Jerusalem. Both populations were socio-economically modest to poor. West Jerusalem was a service government town associated with a large population of new immigrants who came to Israel in the 1950s and ’60s. East Jerusalem Palestinians were even worse off, as the Jordanians had little interest in developing the city.
When Israel created the newly expanded boundaries of Jerusalem [in 1967, shortly after the Six-Day War], there was an economic infusion of resources that came from multiple government sources, as well as from private sources such as tourism, new industries, and real estate developments. Still, the population remained relatively poor. The poverty of Jerusalem is a built-in feature comprised of the following components: the (charedi) ultra-Orthodox population with large families and a low rate of male participation in the work force; the Arab population that also has large families, but in addition suffers from neglect and discrimination in education and professional development; and the economically vulnerable Jewish populations of new immigrants, newcomers, and veterans alike. Jerusalem does have several engines of growth and excellence, in the form of high-tech industries, medical centers, first-rate tourism attractions, and multiple academic and research institutes.
Raffel: What trends affect the lives of Jerusalem residents?
Ezrachi: I suggest we do not read the trends of Jerusalem simply through demographic economic data. To understand what is going on in this complex city we should expand our inquiry into the qualitative domain. Once we do that, we will find that Jerusalem is full of innovative, creative, and vital expressions in areas such as social entrepreneurship; Jewish renaissance; environmental projects; dialogue and collaboration between Jews and Arabs and new charedi leadership; and business initiatives. There is a Jerusalem paradox here. The formal data paint a difficult picture, but the reality is full of expressions that show otherwise.
Raffel: How should Jerusalem’s leadership respond to these challenges?
Ezrachi: Jerusalem is a city that is extremely hard to manage. The poet Yehuda Amichai once said, that Jerusalem does not need a mayor, but rather a “ring master.” The city indeed is a sort of a circus full of extreme and creative performers. Therefore, the leadership of Jerusalem needs to identify these creative sources and provide conditions for them to thrive. But above all, the city needs to function based on equality, fairness, and tolerance. Every Jerusalemite deserves equal and fair treatment (not the situation today) while at the same time, every community needs to have the capacity to preserve its lifestyle while realizing that there are other communities with distinct beliefs and lifestyles. All communities should participate in defining the character of the shared public sphere.
Raffel: Does the political uncertainty of Jerusalem’s status hamper efforts to address the socio-economic and other quality of life issues?
Ezrachi: There is no foreseeable scenario of a political settlement in the Middle East that will include Jerusalem. This means that the residents are left to continue their lives under political uncertainty regarding the future of their city. The residents of Jerusalem must not use a wait-and-see strategy; they should be proactive, work on the grassroots level, and build local networks of collaboration and action-oriented projects. The narrative should be: We (Jews and Arab, charedi and liberals) are all residents of Jerusalem, we love our city, and we are all here to stay. Our government has failed to solve regional disputes, but we are determined to keep Jerusalem as a vibrant and inclusive city for all.
Raffel: What role should diaspora Jews play regarding Jerusalem?
Ezrachi: Jerusalem cannot continue to be a kind of romantic Jewish Disneyland. Diaspora Jews should learn about the issues of Jerusalem, take a stand, and connect with initiatives and affinity groups that speak their language. We need to rethink the paradigm of the visit to Jerusalem, including how much time is spent there, the kinds of experiences that need to be added, the way in which Jerusalem is taught and guided, and what narratives we are promoting.
Jewish federations, as well as other organizations and foundations, have made significant contributions to the quality of life in Jerusalem. Sandy Green, Global Connections Coordinator at the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest, told me that her community’s flagship pluralism program, Rashut Ha’Rabim, is based in Jerusalem. This program, she explained, is a network of 32 Jerusalem-based organizations working to create a sustainable, collaborative working relationship among local groups of varying religious, cultural, and political affiliations.
Hindy Poupko, deputy chief planning officer of UJA-Federation of New York, said that her federation has a long history of supporting Jerusalem as a vibrant pluralistic city. For example, as part of UJA’s centennial celebration, the organization has undertaken a $20 million capital campaign to help develop the Jerusalem Arts Campus that would bring four premier arts schools to the center of the city.
These diverse efforts certainly have value. But I have long believed that what we need is an international Israel-diaspora initiative. This past February, the International Office of Jerusalem Partnerships of the Jerusalem municipality and the California-based Leichtag Foundation jointly launched an International Council of Advisors for the City of Jerusalem, which already has representatives from major foundations such as the Jewish Funders Network, UJA-Federation of New York, and the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, among others.
The press release announcing the council’s creation noted that it is intended to serve as a vehicle for “new partnerships and opportunities in sustaining the city’s growth and vibrancy.”
Perhaps it will evolve into the kind of Israel-diaspora strategic initiative addressing economic and other quality of life issues in Jerusalem, which the eternal capital of the Jewish people needs and deserves.