The Korea Herald


[Uri Dromi] Jerusalem: A tale of three cities

By 류근하

Published : June 6, 2011 - 18:47

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Last week, tens of thousands of Israelis flocked to Jerusalem to celebrate the anniversary of the unification of the city in the Six-Day War. They gave us locals the usual traffic jams, they sang the praises of Jerusalem at the top of their lungs and then they went away, leaving us struggling with the realities of our city, which are becoming more complex every year.

Jerusalem has always invoked deep emotions, slogans and wishful thinking. When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, at AIPAC’s conference in Washington two weeks ago, repeated the mantra that “Jerusalem will always be united,” he received a standing ovation. I doubt whether those in the audience really knew what they were applauding for, and if in their short visits to Jerusalem they saw more than just the lobby of the King David Hotel.

Those of us who live here know that Jerusalem is actually divided into three cities: The Jewish nonreligious one; the Jewish religious one; and the Arab one.

Each of these is a big city in itself, with populations of 250,000, the size of Haifa, the third-biggest city in Israel. Theoretically, these three cities could have lived next to each other in harmony, under a joint metropolitan framework. The reality is different.

― Arab Jerusalem, on the east side, suffers from four decades of neglect of its infrastructure and services, and its population is poor.

― The inhabitants of the Jewish-religious (ultra-orthodox) city are poor as well. The number of people who actually go to work in these two cities of Jerusalem is relatively low ― because of a lack of jobs available for the Arabs, or unwillingness of the Jewish ultra-orthodox to work, because of religious reasons.

― We are left, then, with the third city of Jerusalem, the Jewish nonreligious one, where the middle class (me included) is paying taxes and basically carrying the city on its shoulders. Since the populations of the Arab city and the Jewish religious city are growing, while the population of the non-religious Jewish city is stagnating, if not shrinking, the conclusion is clear: In the future, a relatively smaller middle class will have to take care of bigger and poorer Arab and ultra-orthodox Jewish populations of Jerusalem.

Arab Jerusalem carries major political significance. Netanyahu in his speech said that the Palestinians will have to base their capital somewhere else. I wish they would choose Helsinki, but I doubt they would. So let’s leave Arab Jerusalem aside for a moment, and focus on the two Jewish cities ― the non-religious one and the religious (ultra-orthodox) one.

According to the Statistical Yearbook of Jerusalem for 2009-10, the average age in a nonreligious neighborhood is 40, while in a religious neighborhood it is 20 (in the ultra-orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim, the average age is 15!). In Jewish elementary schools in the city, the number of ultra-orthodox pupils is twice as big as the others. Again, it gives a clear idea of what the future holds for Jerusalem: more poor people leaning on a smaller middle class to support them.

The future, by the way, is already at our doorstep. Here is a small example from the area of leisure: Ultra-orthodox neighborhoods, which are densely populated, don’t have many public parks. Therefore, their residents tend to take their kids to play at the parks of nonreligious neighborhoods, like Beit HaKerem, where I live. There is nothing wrong with it, except that some ultra-orthodox parents don’t like the fact that our kids ― or young mothers ― are dressed in a liberal way, and they reprimand them for this. Our neighborhood paper already encouraged the local residents to stand up and answer that challenge “in a proper way.”

A culture war is the last thing the nonreligious middle class in Jerusalem needs. In another neighborhood, physical confrontations have occurred between nonreligious residents, who want to keep the liberal character of the neighborhood, and ultra-orthodox newcomers, who want to introduce their own way of life into the public sphere. Many nonreligious middle classers have kids and friends who have already left Jerusalem and moved elsewhere. This feeling of siege will encourage them to leave as well.

The Jerusalem challenge is awesome. Mayor Nir Barkat means well and tries hard, and the Jerusalem Foundation has been helping the city for four decades through philanthropy. However, this is a task for the Israeli government, and up until now all governments have failed to fulfill it.

Here is my summing up for Jerusalem. I apologize if it spoils the party for those who just celebrated Jerusalem Day: Arab Jerusalem should be handed over to the Palestinians, and the sooner the better; ultra-orthodox residents should be encouraged to join the workforce and their neighborhoods should get better services; and besides caring for the poor, the middle class in Jerusalem should be regarded as no less than a national strategic asset. If it falls, Jerusalem will fall as well.

By Uri Dromi

Uri Dromi writes about Israeli affairs for The Miami Herald. Readers may send him e-mail at ― Ed.

(McClatchy-Tribune Information Services)