As Israel's Governments Get Bigger, Are Its Leaders Getting Smaller?

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As 120 members of Knesset were preparing to be sworn in on Tuesday, I found myself with a slightly different view of Israel’s legislative house. Away from the fanfare and flashing cameras, I hopped on a Knesset-to-Knesset walk with Gadi Wexler, a man who knows a thing or two about Jerusalem.

Wexler is a native-born guide and lecturer who has worked at Jerusalem’s Yad Ben Zvi Institute for some 30 years, and the walk from the old Knesset – which housed Israel’s electoral body from 1950 to 1966 - to the “new” is one of his most beloved city routes.

We started at the old building on King George Street, also known as Beit Frumin (Frumin House), named for the family that commissioned the building’s construction, though never with the intention that it would house the old-new land’s national legislature. Beit Frumin was chosen as a temporary home, in part for its spacious ground-floor lobby and balcony, which was meant to house a bank, and in part for its central location.

At some point, a wooden annex was added to the top of the three-story building so crowded Knesset members could have a bit of office space. The rickety wood structure on the roof still stands, looking almost like an illegal extension one expects the municipality to come and demolish at any moment.

Today, the building houses the Jerusalem Rabbinical Court – and has been saved from a developer’s plans to replace it with a residential tower, after Knesset members passed a bill in 2010 to preserve the site and turn it into a yet-to-be realized “Museum of the Knesset.”

The walk down to the current Knesset is embedded with hyperlinks to modern Israeli political history, and Wexler is the walking encyclopedia who makes sure that people like me don’t miss them.

Just steps away from the old parliamentary building, is Gan Hasus (Garden of the Horse) where rowdy demonstrations in front of the Knesset were held in the 1950s, mostly over reparations from Germany. In those days the square was known as Gan Hamenora, named for the giant bronze menora - a gift from Great Britain - which would eventually be moved to the Wohl Rose Park, across from today’s Knesset.

“These trees are from the time of the British Mandate,” he says, pointing to the large palm and cedar trees outside what’s now the Gerard Behar Center, a popular performing arts center. The courtyard in front of the center had replaced Gan Hasus as the go-to space for rallies, and was a place where Menachem Begin gave many a fiery speech and young couples had their marriage canopies.

Wexler leads us down Betzalel Street, past the densely packed, colorful neighborhoods that today’s Jerusalemites thinks of as Nachlaot, but are really Nachalat Achim. Here were the Kurds, there were the Yemenites, the Syrians were over there – distinct communities that are no longer so distinct and have folded into the fabric of the city. Most interesting is what lay at the bottom of the hill – Sheikh Badr, a small Palestinian village.

Indeed, the joy of his jaunts is that Wexler doesn’t candycoat.

“This whole area was Sheikh Badr, of which every resident left on April 11th, 1948,” Wexler says, gesturing towards the valley below, near what is now Gan Sacher. Two days earlier, the Irgun and Lehi Zionist militias attacked Deir Yassin, a nearby village which today is Givat Shaul. The disputed events of Deir Yassin - some would come to call it a battle, others, a massacre - caused the residents of Sheikh Badr to flee in fear that the same would happen to them.

Gan Sacher, now the largest public park in the center of Jerusalem, was just open space, Wexler explains. The Palmach used the field as a secret landing strip for airplanes spiriting supplies by night to Jerusalem’s residents cut off during the battle for the city, between November 1947 and June 1948. Wexler, who was six years old at the time of the war, has a few fuzzy memories of it: by day, his mother picking edible greens in these fields to survive the food shortages; by night, the sounds of bombardment.

We work our way up the hill, past a hidden cemetery tucked behind the trees and skateboarding rinks, where 3,000 people were buried during the time when Jewish Jerusalemites couldn’t reach the Mount of Olives, and before the cemetery at Givat Shaul came to be. Though I’ve crossed this park hundreds of times over the years - in running shoes, on roller blades or on bicycle - I’d never noticed it; Wexler says few do. Just above the cemetery, Wexler is surprised to come upon a site surrounded by a corrugated metal barrier. The sign tells us a new Palmach monument, this one for the Harel Brigade, is being erected here. “Another Palmach monument?” he wonders. “There’s already one in Jerusalem and other in Har Adar.”

As we finish the ascent to the Knesset, the feeling of unnecessary spending at the taxpayers expense swells. Wexler looks at today’s building, with the recent extensions that carpet the hillside to the left of the main building, with a bit of dismay.

“They had to expand, because every Knesset member needs three assistants and two secretaries and a private coffee machine,” he quips. “We taxpayers have to foot the bill for all of these extensions. I think it would have been appropriate to show a little more modesty.” Similarly, he’s hoping that this government will not be like the last one, which had 31 ministers – the largest ever, at a cost of an extra 100 million shekels. “Every minister needs a driver, extra security, a big staff,” he adds. “These are things that puff up the bureaucracy, and if we had few ministers, we’d clearly spend less.”

He’s hopeful that the new cabinet will be smaller – Yesh Atid chair Yair Lapid insists on it as a condition for joining the government. Wexler himself voted for Hatnuah, hoping that Tzipi Livni could fulfill her promises of returning to negotiations with the Palestinians. But Wexler wonders whether a leader of the caliber he remembers from his youth is a thing of the past - as antiquated as a wooden annex on the roof. “We don’t have many leaders today on the par of a Begin or a Ben Gurion,” he says. “It’s a bit of a pity.”

Note: Gadi Wexler has two free Jerusalem walking tours coming up, given on behalf of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel: March 14 (Nachalat Achim and Shaarei Hesed) and April 2 (the President’s House to San Simon). Wexler can be reached at 052-5951810, or by email: gadi7@zahav.net.il

Jerusalem tour guide Gadi Wexler. Credit: Ilene Prusher
Beit Frumin, Jerusalem, July 23, 2003. Credit: Eyal Warshavsky
The Knesset. Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Knesset's assembly hall in Frumin House, 1952.Credit: Wikipedia
Sacher Park, Jerusalem.Credit: Shiran Granot

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