A Strange Struggle for Jerusalem

Jerusalem is losing its productive backbone and is deepening its dependence on state handouts. Young, secular, educated wage earners are leaving it in droves, followed by their parents.

uzi benziman
Uzi Benziman
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uzi benziman
Uzi Benziman

On June 8, 1967, soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces entered Government House in Jerusalem and began emptying it of items left by United Nations observers who had fled the IDF's battles with the Arab Legion. The soldiers whooped with joy as they worked; the Israelis had perceived the UN as a hostile bastion and a reminder of the world's nonrecognition of the country's borders and Israel's decision to view Jerusalem as its capital.

The ruckus the IDF soldiers raised as they ran around the building came to the attention of the UN chief observer, Odd Bull, who had moved to the YMCA building in West Jerusalem. He called the U.N. secretary-general, U Thant, who told the American administration what was going on. A short time later, IDF chief of staff Yitzhak Rabin ordered his soldiers to withdraw from the complex. Israel's first attempt at populating East Jerusalem had failed.

The later initiatives to populate East Jerusalem were more successful, but the final result has remained a problem. Yehuda Tamir, who was put in charge of the task by prime minister Levi Eshkol, fulfilled it through large expropriations of land and rapid construction. He thus went against the opinion of a number of cabinet ministers, particularly Zerah Warhaftig and Menachem Begin, to "Judaize" the entire Old City.

Tamir argued that evacuating the Old City's Muslim and Christian residents and rebuilding it would take a long time and entangle Israel in the international arena. It would be better to quickly determine facts on the ground via new construction. The first area he chose was the seam between West and East Jerusalem in the north of the city, where the neighborhoods of Givat Hamivtar, Ramot Eshkol and French Hill would be built. But Tamir's ostensibly logical considerations did not meet the test of reality: 40 years after he began his project, the neighborhoods he built are becoming home to Palestinian Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews, populations that are rapidly changing Jerusalem's character and status.

French Hill is being conquered by Arab residents - some of them Palestinians and some of them Israeli citizens - and that is the tip of the iceberg: 250,000 out of 450,000 people living in East Jerusalem are Palestinians who want to improve their housing conditions. Givat Hamivtar, Ramot Eshkol and nearby Ramot are changing their image: The secular or tolerant religious middle class are moving out, replaced by the ultra-Orthodox.

Jerusalem as a whole is losing its productive backbone and is deepening its dependence on state handouts. Young, secular, educated people able to earn a wage are leaving it in droves, followed by their parents. The city leadership is in the hands of ultra-Orthodox elected officials who imbue their managerial style with concepts derived from their world and priorities. This process stems from demographics whose significance is highlighted by the following projection: In about eight years the number of students in Jerusalem's ultra-Orthodox elementary schools will be more than three times the number of students in secular and religious public schools.

That is the backdrop against which we should judge recent statements by groups that call on the public to keep Jerusalem united. A ludicrous gap exists between the organizations' rhetoric and the forces shaping the city. The fiery slogans the heads of these organizations spout, the noisy rallies they initiate, the poetic declarations by Knesset members when they try to hold the state to its obligation to keep Jerusalem unified are about a city looking more and more like Safed (with all due respect to that city). Some areas of Jerusalem are increasingly more reminiscent of Umm al-Fahm (with all due respect to that city).

Jerusalem of Gold is the site of a pitched battle between Israel, the Palestinians and the entire Arab world, and between Israelis and themselves. It is a city whose struggle for unity will soon be considered a strange endeavor.

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