Jerusalem in the Footsteps of Athens

A building being built on the corner of Emek Refaim Street and Bethlehem Road is a test case for how early modern Jerusalem will be remembered, if at all?

At the entrance to the German Colony in Jerusalem, on the corner between Emek Refaim Street and Bethlehem Road, there is a small church surrounded by a grove of pine trees and an old wall. To its right, a little way further down, is the ancient Ibn Ezra house. This is the gateway to Baka and the German Colony, Jerusalem's southern neighborhoods, which in the past 20 years have turned into a center of the new Jerusalem urbanism, which has escaped from the decaying center of the city and refuses to be part of the giant shopping mall at Malha. And, more importantly, this is the gateway to two neighborhoods that still jealously guard entire intimate alleyways and some of the most beautiful and special houses in Jerusalem ? Templar houses, Arab and Armenian homes, Greek and Jewish houses from 60, 80 and 120 years ago. This is the entrance to an urban area that is stunningly beautiful. There is none like it in Jerusalem or in other cities.

But these are the last days of this vista and the last days of these Jerusalem neighborhoods. In place of the little church with its ancient pine grove, as well as the plot behind it, the Colony Hotel is due to be built to a height more than ten times that of the church, and to its right, in an equivalent area south of Liberty Bell Park, the Four Seasons Hotel will be constructed, filling an even larger area with a gigantic edifice that would not look out of place even in the center of Manhattan.

Not only will the church be overrun completely (even if it is not destroyed), and not only will the area's character be completely changed, but in this place, where this vital vista can now still be seen - a place where people lived, died in suicide bombings, played and were buried, and in which people still live - even the sky is due to be covered. A giant shadow will be cast over the park from the south. Cliffs will be built there.

On the face of it, this is a common and oft-repeated confrontation, shopworn and exhausting, between residents and foreign entrepreneurs, between those who wish to "preserve the old" and those who wish to "bring progress," between feelings of belonging and love of money, between the inhabitants of a living city and the real estate sharks. In a country where the Herzliya Gymnasium was wiped off the face of the earth to be replaced by the Shalom Tower, who will cry out to save a small church and a grove of pine trees?

But it is neither the church nor even the German Colony that are at stake here. The corner of Emek Refaim and Bethlehem Road is the front line of a much more serious confrontation that is affecting the entire world in its contacts with its historical heritage. The confrontation is over the question: To whom does the city belong? Who owns history? Who has the right, and how do they obtain the right, to do with it what they wish? Who is the owner of the historical property that is also the city's economic property?

The German Colony, just like the Old City and its ancient walls and the other cultural and scenic treasures of Jerusalem, is not the property of the elders of the city, and they did not receive either the right or the authority to upset the already fragile fabric of this beloved place, this place which both they and the entire world consider beautiful and important. Neither its land nor its skyline. Moreover, anyone who believes that the confrontation is between economic greed and spiritual feelings is wrong. The elders of the city of Florence would not even think of upsetting their city's fabric, not because they are responsible to the entire world for its cultural treasures, but because they are aware that, were they to do so, they would be endangering their own livelihoods. The most valuable property of a historic city is its recorded tradition. It is the breathtaking and highly significant scene that travelers from all over the world absorb into their lives and pay to come to see. As for Jerusalem's elders, they appear pathetic even in their greed for money, since the new hotels will destroy the very treasure that they are trying to sell.

Everyone knows that the new Jerusalem, like the entire country, has damaged many of its assets and ruined many of its treasures. Not all of these are ancient; some are assets of a modern heritage. And everyone knows that even when Teddy Kollek and Ehud Olmert were mayors of the city, certain urban disasters came into being on Jerusalem's streets and in its skies, which will be mourned for generations to come, and which pushed Jerusalem to the threshold of where Athens and Naples find themselves today. These are places where surrender to the dictates of entrepreneurs and the temptations of real estate have caused the traditional fabric of the city to disintegrate. In its stead, there is a miserable, anonymous, supposedly modern city which in fact is backward, because it has strayed from its historic roots.

Thus what has opened on the corner of Emek Refaim Street and Bethlehem Road is a confrontation between the bygone era of this country's attitude toward its past and the prospect of a new era, in which national resources will no longer be abandoned to the hands of the city elders and the regional councils, because they are incapable of understanding what it is that they have in their hands. The era that must start today requires intervention by the prime minister and the education minister in these decisions, as well as the passage of up-to-date legislation aimed at preserving the last vestiges of historic Israel from different periods, legislation that will surpass that of the rest of the world rather than being dragged after blatant failures.

This is the last moment. The intrigues have already been plotted. The real estate deals have already been signed. The big, rather the enormous, quantities of money are already being flashed around. The bulldozers have been set in motion. The citizens of the city, and the country, are as usual the last to learn about the city's fate. But not one stone has yet fallen from the church's wall. The view of Jerusalem can still be seen, and it is still possible to understand that if this stone is touched, it will spell the end of Jerusalem, and an epilogue to Athens.