Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu received a standing ovation at the recent AIPAC conference when he declared, “Jerusalem is not a settlement. It’s our capital.” Pronouncements about Jerusalem as the united, eternal capital of Israel have long served as guaranteed applause lines in virtually every Jewish audience. Israel and world Jewry devote a great deal of attention to the city’s current and future political status.
But what of the day-to-day Jerusalem, a living, breathing entity, the country’s most populous city with almost 800,000 residents?
Here are some sobering facts, as we mark Jerusalem Day (May 12), commemorating the unification of the city in 1967.
Demography: In 1967, when Israeli jurisdiction was extended over greater Jerusalem following the Six-Day War, Jews made up 74 percent of the city’s population. As of 2009, the Jewish share had dropped to 66 percent. Given birthrates and migration flows out of city, assuming the city’s boundaries remain the same as today, it is projected that Arabs will comprise 50 percent of the city by the year 2035. The haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, percentage of the Jewish population is 34 percent, which means that 57 percent of Jerusalem’s population today is either Arab or haredi — if not already, there soon will be an anti- or non-Zionist majority.
Economy: According to the Jerusalem Center for Israel studies, the preeminent institution engaged in analytical analysis and data collection, Jerusalem is by far the poorest of Israel’s large cities. Twenty-nine percent of Jewish families and 67 percent of non-Jewish families live under the poverty line. This contrasts with Tel Aviv, where only 12 percent live under the poverty line.
Underlying these statistics are insufficient participation in the work force; young and educated Israelis leaving the city for employment opportunities and a different lifestyle in Tel Aviv and other parts of the country; a severe housing shortage, which, in part, is due to affluent Jews from outside the country buying expensive apartments that get used only sporadically; inadequate government aid, and the impact of the conflict with the Palestinians. Since 1967, there have been over 500 terrorist attacks in the city.
Infrastructure: There are both typical and unique transportation, water and environmental challenges — including the stagnant light rail line project in a torn up Jaffa Road and massive traffic snarls, which all visitors to the city experience first-hand.
Intergroup relations: Conflicts — including at times violent ones — both within the Jewish community as well as among Jews and non-Jews, are, unfortunately, fairly regular occurrences. In recent months, there has been an alarming increase in the number of incidents involving yeshiva students spitting at Christian clerics in and around the Old City, a sad phenomenon that has begun to elicit a serious response from Israeli authorities.
This is not to suggest that what has taken place in Jerusalem over the last several decades is all negative. On the contrary, many impressive institutions and museums have been created. Beautiful gardens and forests have been planted. Open access to the holy sites, which was denied during the Jordanian rule before 1967, has been restored. Another Jerusalem resource is the large number of young adults, close to 40,000 university students and participants in a variety of other educational programs and social change projects, advocating for pluralism and openness.
Generally, visitors who experience Jerusalem mostly from luxury air-conditioned buses and through carefully orchestrated tours and missions fail to encounter a more troubled and struggling city, which cries out for the Jewish people, from across the political and religious spectrum, to be engaged in a partnership with Israel to address its many challenges.
There are many interesting ideas for creating partnerships between Israel and world Jewry that would begin to address some of those challenges, such as systematically enriching people-to-people encounter opportunities for visiting tourists and mission participants; connecting world Jewry to Jerusalem’s art and culture scene; and expanding study, internship as well as volunteer and community service opportunities, including through a new organization Volunteer Jerusalem created by Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Naomi Tsur and local community activist Dr. Elan Ezrachi.
Concerned that the city’s pluralistic Jewish character is being eroded, my Jerusalem friend, journalist Yossi Klein Halevi, has urged recognition, visitation and cultivation of what he calls the city’s “Jewish pluralism basin,” which begins roughly on Agron Street with the Conservative yeshiva and continues to King David Street with Hebrew Union College, and then into the Moshava with Kolot, Elul, the Hartman Institute and Shalem Center, along with a number of innovative houses of worship.
But serious engagement with this agenda will only be possible if we first are committed to educate world Jewry about Jerusalem’s more mundane realities. When a decision is made to address an issue strategically and comprehensively, we find a way. In recent years, a professionally staffed inter-agency task force on Israel’s Arabs has been bringing together a broad coalition of Israeli government officials, Joint Distribution Committee, the Jewish Agency, federations, foundations, national organizations and the religious denominations, to join forces and resources to focus, appropriately, on this important issue.
The task force has sponsored missions, seminars and speaking tours; created a dedicated webpage; and is now engaged in outreach to individual congregations. Is the economic, environmental and social well-being of a city that we regard as the heart of the Jewish people of lesser importance than civic equality for Israel’s Arab citizens? Despite the obvious answer, no institution has yet come forward to facilitate such a strategically minded coalition to undertake these kinds of initiatives on Jerusalem’s behalf.
It is long overdue.
Martin J. Raffel is senior vice president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.
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