Asaf Zamir’s appointment as tourism minister is raising messianic hopes in everyone who fears the megalomaniac plans imposed on Jerusalem in recent years. These plans completely ignore the city’s uniqueness.
Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Leon and municipal engineer Yoel Even are continuing down this path by pushing not only for a cable car, but also for construction of an amusement park overlooking the landscape of the Old City. This saddles Zamir with a responsibility that could prove fateful for the city’s future appearance.
Zamir, who served as deputy to Mayor Ron Huldai in Tel Aviv, is presumably very familiar with the dubious wheeling and dealing that lies concealed behind many municipal planning decisions. This is a nationwide problem, but Jerusalem is particularly noted for it, having even racked up the “achievement” of sending a prime minister to jail for his conduct when he served as its mayor.
Yet aside from the fact that Jerusalem is Israel’s principal city for tourism, which is supposed to be the minister’s main concern, there’s another powerful factor at work – political considerations. If Zamir’s tenure isn’t cut short due to an election, he will presumably become very familiar with the modus operandi of Elad, a settler organization known in English as the Ir David Foundation, and the enormous influence it wields over Jerusalem’s planning decisions.
Zamir comes from Tel Aviv, whose flourishing culture and rigorous historical preservation have made it one of the world’s most popular cities to visit. He is expected to bring a new spirit to his ministry, which until recently was headed by a minister for whom culture and esthetics were not primary concerns. Yariv Levin’s extremist political views and his close ties with Elad largely determined his decisions with respect to Jerusalem’s future character as a historical gem.
The principle of preserving the Old City’s appearance, which has been the starting point for every plan proposed since the days of the pre-state British Mandate, has become insignificant. Thanks in part to political pressure from the right, Elad has managed to get permission to build a seven-story visitor center stretching over 12,000 square meters that will be located only around 20 meters from the Old City’s walls. And with Levin’s encouragement, the organization has continued to expand.
Levin was also an enthusiastic proponent of building a cable car to the Old City, which violates the principles of preservation. The cable car is intended to bring its passengers directly to the visitor center, where Elad can spread its doctrine of Judaizing Jerusalem – its main field of activity.
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Nir Hasson’s book “Urshalim” (Yedioth Books – Books in the Attic, 2017) analyzes the situation in Jerusalem since the city was “united” 50 years ago, and documents Elad’s actions over the years. Judging by this book, the organization can be said to function as a kind of deep state in Jerusalem.
It began as a group of radical settlers who set up an outpost in the heart of East Jerusalem’s Silwan neighborhood. But over time, it became an octopus that manages to operate under the state’s auspices while covering itself in a hypocritical façade of culture.
Since it was founded in 1986, Elad has been headed by David Be’eri, a master of pulling strings behind the scenes. Be’eri doesn’t often make media appearances, but he has managed to spin a web of ties within the Jerusalem municipality and government offices. He has even persuaded public agencies, including the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, the Antiquities Authority, Jewish National Fund (Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael) and even Tel Aviv University, to cooperate with Elad. Thanks to its system-wide backing, this settlers’ organization has become a powerful public body that has a great impact on Jerusalem’s touristic character.
If Zamir studies in depth what has happened in Jerusalem, he will discover that the empire established by Elad has long since expanded beyond the City of David, where it began. It’s not just that it has continued taking over homes in Silwan. It’s not only that it obtained permission to build the Kedem visitor center even though professionals both in Israel and abroad fiercely opposed erecting such a huge building near the Western Wall, or the fact that it’s now being joined by a cable car meant to serve it.
It’s also the fact that with the help of government and municipal funding – as well as donations, some of which are from unknown sources – Elad has now sent its long tentacles into the promenade in Jerusalem’s Armon Hanetziv neighborhood, the Peace Forest that lies below it and even the Valley of Gehenna that separates the Cinematheque from Silwan.
The organization recently managed to take over an abandoned building near the promenade that overlooks the Old City and intends to turn it into a visitor center. It will be part of an amusement park and sports complex (including an 800-meter zipline) that will help fund Elad’s activities. On the other side of the promenade, a giant Ferris wheel will be erected. All this is a complete contravention of the area’s character, which is supposed to preserve the glory of these ancient landscapes.
But Elad’s biggest success is the City of David complex, which has become the heart of a new Jewish “empire.” Through this archaeological compound, Hasson wrote in his book, the organization seeks to determine the city’s historical national narrative and, as former Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat once said, to prove “who owns it.”
Moreover, the Judaization of Jerusalem isn’t only evident above the ground. It’s also visible underground. And here, the term “deep state” isn’t just a metaphor.
Despite vehement protests by archaeologists over the low professional level of its archaeological digs and the fact that they’re being used for blatantly political purposes, Elad’s excavations are moving ahead energetically, in the hope of erasing evidence of the existence of other peoples and other faiths. These digs are slated to turn all of Silwan and the whole area along the Old City walls into a symbol of Jewish sovereignty.
Thus a network of tunnels is being dug to connect the Pool of Siloam to the Western Wall. Together with the planned cable car, these tunnels will enable visitors to ignore the history of other nations whose relics have remained as testimony under the earth, as well as the residents of Silwan living above it today.
So far, hopes that Kahol Lavan’s entry into the government would mark a turning point in the Tourism Ministry have been disappointed. Zamir was expected to bring the ministry not just a different political viewpoint, but also cultural baggage and an esthetic sensibility that has been hard to find in Jerusalem since the days when Teddy Kollek was mayor.
Stopping Elad’s destructive activities has importance that goes behind the political dimension. Preserving the unique beauty of Jerusalem’s landscapes is not merely a way of positioning the city as a supremely important tourism site; Israel’s image is also in the balance.
Turning a historic city into a risible Disneyland while abandoning all esthetic standards would put Israel at the bottom of the list of countries where culture is a source of pride, and therefore also a magnet for tourists.