Anshel Pfeffer / Jerusalem Needs to Become More Fun

Holy City needs serious government plan to revitalize its economy, housing market and cultural life.

A couple of weeks ago, I was driving down to the Negev to visit family in Yeruham. We were a bit early so I decided to take a short detour and show my children what I thought would be an informative lesson in Middle East politics. Just south of Dimona, I roused them from their stupor and bid them to look eastward. There, across many kilometers of restricted area, was the gleaming dome of the nuclear reactor that to many is the fundamental cornerstone of Israel's defense policy.

Later, I told my brother-in-law about our sightseeing trip and he told me that on more than one occasion, he had guided school groups around the area, and when asking children if they knew what they were looking at, was answered - Jerusalem. Under the circumstances, this is not such an unreasonable answer. The reactor's setting in the distance does lend it a feeling of awe, and for many Israelis, the enduring image of Jerusalem is that of the not-dissimilar Dome of the Rock mosque.

And besides, how should they know that Jerusalem isn't bang in the middle of the Negev? According to the latest data compiled by the Education Ministry, half the nation's school children have never been to the capital. The new education minister, Gideon Sa'ar, has announced that he plans to do something about this and that in future, every school will be mandated to take its students to Jerusalem, to visit the Western Wall, Yad Vashem, the Knesset, the Supreme Court and Ammunition Hill, scene of the most disastrous battle of the Six Day War.

All this begs the question: Why is there a need at all for a ministerial edict for schools to do this in the first place? Why have so many schools never thought that a field trip to Jerusalem is an integral part of their students' education, and why have those children's parents not done anything about it either?

Five or six years ago, when suicide bombings were still an almost weekly occurrence in the capital, perhaps parental concerns for their offsprings' safety might have been understandable - I know there were certainly at least a few school principals who preferred not to get into trouble with parents over exactly this issue. But since then, terror in the city has all but been eradicated, and is certainly not something threatening well-organized school trips.

I think there is a deeper reason that Jerusalem has become so alien to most Israelis, and it is specifically due to the itinerary that Sa'ar is proposing. The Western Wall, Knesset, Yad Vashem and Ammunition Hill are all very important sites by any yardstick, but I can understand why they don't appeal to most teenagers, or grown-ups either. Religion, corrupt politicians, Holocaust and war make a heady mixture - not exactly the ingredients of a fun school trip.

Don't get me wrong, I think all these places are important, and with the proper guidance, could supply valuable experiences to high school students, but as someone who has lived in Jerusalem for the last 27 years, I understand the sense of boredom and even foreboding the city projects to many Israelis.

For me, Jerusalem is the most interesting city in the world, certainly much more than Tel Aviv, but then I'm a journalist. I have just flown to Mexico City, because the ground-zero of the swine flu epidemic is a compelling story. But I certainly don't expect tourists to be flocking here right now for a fun holiday.

And it's the same with Jerusalem. Heritage, religion and history are all very important, but for too many Israelis, Jerusalem represents the dark side of all these things. You can make all the teenagers in the country come here, but you can't make them have fun. And I don't think that after their first, school-chaperoned trip, they will be rushing to come back for more.

Sa'ar gave an interesting interview to one of last weekend's newspapers. He revealed himself as quite a party animal, frequenting the trendiest music venues in his home-town of Tel Aviv. He spends most of his week in Jerusalem, at the Knesset and now at the ministry, but has he ever gone out in Jerusalem? Is he aware of the valiant theater groups, art galleries and night clubs struggling to survive in the city?

Tel Aviv is celebrating its centenary by throwing itself a fantastic year-long extravaganza. In a hundred years, the city has invented Israeli culture and it well deserves its party. Jerusalem, in comparison, is looking as musty and down-at-the-heels as ever, and the new secular mayor, Nir Barkat, doesn't seem to be getting anywhere in changing that.

Sa'ar's Jerusalem heritage tours are a worthy initiative, but what the city really needs is a serious government plan to revitalize its economy and housing market, its cultural life, its crumbling architecture and infrastructure. As long as the government carries on only paying lip service to its capital, then all that will remain of it will be the Knesset, Yad Vashem, the Supreme Court, the trenches on Ammunition Hill and a 2,000-year-old wall.