Analysis |

How Can Israel Keep Neglecting One of the Most Important Cities in the World?

The government has abandoned Jerusalem’s historic buildings, which could have drawn huge numbers of tourists. That demonstrates not love of the land, but hatred

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“Zion, my innocent one, Zion, my beloved, My soul yearns for you from afar. May my right hand forget its skill, If I forget thee, my beautiful one. Until the day my grave closes over me,” wrote the Jewish poet Menachem Mendel Dolitsky in the 19th century. Reading the state comptroller’s report on conservation in Jerusalem, which was released on Sunday for Jerusalem Day, there is no doubt that the capital was forgotten long ago.

Since 1967 the city has not had an orderly preservation plan. As a result, buildings are being partially or totally destroyed, and even those designated for conservation are being threatened by development plans that would destroy parts of them or create monsters of varying sizes that either overwhelm the historic buildings and make the sections meant for preservation look ridiculous, or hide them or make them look ugly.

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The value of loving the land has lost all meaning when it comes to Jerusalem, which is being demolished, neglected and abandoned. As long as the prime minister is getting foreign embassies to move to Jerusalem. The question is what he is doing to preserve the city’s historic sites, which could help increase tourism to the city.

Political motives

The state comptroller’s report only confirmed what any frequent visitor to the city already knows. The city government, which merited a similar comptroller’s report 15 years ago, attributes the lack of preservation mainly to a lack of funds. The money is there, just not for the purpose of preservation.

In recent years Jerusalem has been blanketed with tourist attractions that cost a fortune to build. One of the most superfluous of all that is in the works is a cable car to the Old City that is being billed as an antidote to the heavy bus traffic at the entrance to the Old City.

A simulation of the cable car project for Jerusalem's Old City. Credit: No credit

Opponents claim that the cable car is being erected there for political reasons – to allow easy access to the visitors’ center of the Elad organization, which promotes Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem.

The cable car will cost the government 200 million shekels ($55 million). Its massive supporting towers will scar the ancient landscape. It would be better to put the funds into restoring and maintaining the dozens, if not hundreds, of important historic structures in the city that have been neglected and are on the verge of collapse.

At the very least, the money could be used to complete the list of buildings for preservation, get it approved it and guarantee the regular upkeep that is so desperately needed. Oversight may not be as glamorous as cutting the ribbon on a new cable car, but over the long term it could bring more tourists to the city.

Cable cars are a sensitive issue in historic cities built on a mountain. Generally, when there is any kind of vertical transportation element an effort is made to dig it into the mountain, like the funicular railway at Mount Lycabettus mountain in Athens. Enclosed entirely in a tunnel, like Haifa’s Carmelit funicular, it does not mar the landscape.

Hansen House in Jerusalem, June 25, 2018. Credit: Kobi Sharvit and Giti Silver

Jerusalem, like most of Israel’s local governments, is incapable of carrying out building conservation and relies on developers and owners to do it in its stead.

City Hall should take a lesson from the successful preservation projects in the capital, some of public buildings. A good example is the Hansen House, a former leper hospital near the Jerusalem Theater that underwent preservation and restoration that did not turn it into a fossil.

Successful restorations

Ticho House in downtown Jerusalem, now a part of the Israel Museum, is another example of a successful restoration – if we ignore the ugly new construction that surrounds the complex.

The Alliance House complex near the Mahane Yehuda market, which is being used temporarily by the New Spirit nonprofit organization and other groups, has been successfully put back into use.

Jerusalem has a number of other examples of historic buildings that underwent conservation and were converted into hotels.

Some of the projects have drawn criticism, such as the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in the center of town, which was completely gutted on the inside but the façade preserved, and the Orient Hotel at one end beginning of Emek Refa’im Street in the German Colony, where the original buildings were preserved at the front and the additions were built behind it.

Despite the reservations, the hotel owners – who see the economic potential in preservation – are preferable to residential real estate developers who only see preservation as a burden.

There is a lot to do in Jerusalem as far as conservation is concerned. The city and the new mayor, Moshe Leon, must put the issue at the top of the municipal agenda.

The government must understand that in contrast to other cities, in which preservation is the responsibility of the municipality alone, in the capital the national government must be more active in the matter.

It is worth starting with expanding the municipal staff in city hall that deals with the issue. This professional staff must include historians, art staff, geographers and architects. Then the list of buildings to be preserved must be completed and released to the public in a transparent way on the city website.

The list must be informative and include information on every site, and not just be a shopping list of names. In short, the city and government planning bodies must increase awareness among their employees on the matter. One of the most important cities in the world can no longer be neglected this way. It is not loving the land, but hating it.