Zeev Elkin, Israel’s minister of Jerusalem and heritage, and of environmental protection, apologized for being a bit tired on the recent morning we had breakfast in New York City. He explained that he had been awakened unexpectedly at 4 a.m. for an urgent Knesset vote related to drafting charedim into the army. (He opposed the legislation.) A native of Ukraine, Elkin, who turns 47 this month, became a religious Zionist as a teenager, taught himself Hebrew and made aliyah in 1990. He is a member of Likud who reflects Israel’s right-leaning coalition, having recently criticized President Trump for cautioning against increased West Bank settlement development. Elkin was in New York for a five-day exhibit at the United Nations on the Jewish history of Jerusalem for the last 3,000 years. The exhibit included artifacts dating back 2,700 years to the First Temple era, underscoring the Jewish connection to the land.
How was the Jerusalem exhibit received in the UN, not known as a welcoming environment for Israel?
The exhibit was part of an international program on Jerusalem that we undertook with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and it received favorable attention from many people at the UN, allowing them to literally touch pieces of history. Obviously, there were complaints as well because after the exhibit opened, the UN put up a sign near the exhibit pointing out that it had been organized by Israel and not by the UN.
What other programs has your ministry promoted to emphasize the Jewish people’s roots in Jerusalem?
We’ve sponsored a number of trips for foreign officials and dignitaries, artists, performers and a wide range of professions, from French chefs to NFL football players, to visit Jerusalem and see for themselves its unique history and its entrepreneurial spirit. We show them the sites but also visit start-ups. Israel is now the only country besides the U.S. and China that has two cities among the top 50 start-up cities in the world, with Jerusalem joining Tel Aviv in that category. Our government has more than doubled its budget for Jerusalem in its five-year strategic plan, with an emphasis on supporting start-ups.
Some say the Trump administration’s decisions to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move its embassy there from Tel Aviv is hurting efforts to re-start the peace process. What is your view?
We are very happy with the U.S. decisions. That doesn’t mean we are taking sides in American politics, though. For example, as minister of environmental protection, I have called for reducing our use of coal and also differ with the U.S. administration on climate change. Israel approved the Paris agreement after President Trump came out against it. We feel the agreement is important for Israel and for the world, and we are a leader in water issues, with many countries adapting our programs.
Are you concerned that the majority of American Jews, who are not Orthodox, have voiced strong complaints about the collapse of the Kotel agreement and other efforts for religious equality in Israel?
It’s alright for American Jews to criticize us. We are all part of the same family. On the Kotel issue, I had proposed that the Jewish Agency for Israel be in charge of making those decisions [as opposed to the Chief Rabbinate or any particular religious movement], and I am hopeful that will happen in the end. That way everyone could work through the Jewish Agency. [Natan Sharansky, who heads the agency, has been a strong advocate for the pluralistic approach.]