On the Way to Bnei Brak

Instead of trying to increase the number of Jews in J'lem, it would be better to focus on its attractiveness to a secular, young and productive population.

A signpost at the entrance to Jerusalem informs visitors what time the Sabbath begins and ends. Last Hanukkah, a giant menorah was placed at the city gates and touted as the biggest holiday emblem ever made.

The city's holiness used to radiate from within - powered by its history, its religious temples and the emotional attachment of the faithful of three religions. Now the capital preens itself with provincial symbols that look like some desperate assertion of Jewish possession. Political correctness prevents the conclusion from being spoken out loud - Jerusalem's problem is not the relative growth of the Arab population compared to the Jewish. It is the fact that it is becoming overwhelmingly ultra-Orthodox.

In 10 years, the number of pupils in Jerusalem's ultra-Orthodox elementary schools will reach some 80,000, while the number of pupils in non-ultra-Orthodox elementary schools (i.e. state-run religious and secular schools) will be only about 24,000. Today, only 31 percent of Jerusalem's Jewish population defines itself as secular, as compared to 76 percent in Tel Aviv and more than 74 percent in Haifa. Consequently, Jerusalem's workforce participation rate for men aged 25-54 is 12 percent lower than in Tel Aviv and Haifa, and the rate of women in this age group working outside the home is 22 percent lower than in the other two cities.

These figures appear in a memorandum compiled by researchers at the Hebrew University's economic department. The study was headed by professors Avi Ben-Bassat and Yoram Meishar as part of the objection process to the Safdie Plan to build new neighborhoods west of the city. They reflect a depressing reality: One by one, vital, blooming secular neighborhoods become ultra-Orthodox and usually turn into slums or closed residential forts. This process is taking place all over the city. Ultra-Orthodox institutions such as synagogues and yeshivas have opened up in secular neighborhoods or neighborhoods in which secular and moderately religious people would coexist tolerantly. This increased these neighborhoods' appeal to the ultra-Orthodox community.

The change was swift - the Mea Shearim lifestyle flooded all the neighborhoods around it and today stretches all the way to Jaffa Street. The same is taking place in the area surrounding the Sha'arei Hesed neighborhood and biting into Rehavia. This process is especially accelerated in neighborhoods that sprang up after the Six-Day War, such as Ramot Eshkol and Ramot - their original community was mainly secular, or knitted-kippa wearers. Today they are mostly ultra-Orthodox.

Jerusalem's becoming ultra-Orthodox has a critical impact on the city's economic power and hence on its status and image. The ultra-Orthodox community has numerous children and a limited income-earning capacity. Many ultra-Orthodox residents don't work. On the other hand, due to its political influence, this community enjoys benefits that are explained by the need to compensate for its economic situation. Consequently, the burden of maintaining and developing the city falls on a small and dwindling part of the secular and moderate religious population. Is it any wonder that Jerusalem's appeal is diminishing? In the 1980s, 15 percent of new immigrants picked Jerusalem as their first choice in terms of where they wanted to reside, compared to 4 percent for Haifa. By the 1990s, during the great immigration wave from the former Soviet Union, only 7 percent of the immigrants chose Jerusalem, while 10 percent opted for Haifa.

This trend is continuing, as the figures released last week by the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Study show. Last year 18,100 people abandoned Jerusalem - an all-time high. The memorandum issued by the Hebrew University economists concludes that this process is accelerating. The city's economically weak population is growing, and the economically strong are diminishing.

Instead of concentrating on the unrealistic effort of increasing the number of Jews in Jerusalem, it would be better to deal with increasing its attraction to a secular, young and productive population. Otherwise Jerusalem will become Bnei Brak, irrevocably changing the way Israelis view the city and undermining its international status.