We Jews regularly repeat the age-old prayer of ‘Next Year in Jerusalem.’ For many of us who call this city home, that entreaty is no longer self-evident. With the New Year upon us and municipal elections just weeks away, it’s fitting to examine different prospects for Jerusalem’s future.
Jerusalem is a city of contrasts. It has deep-rooted cultural institutions, spiritual wealth, and unequalled physical beauty, as well as being the country’s political hub. However, many people also consider it a complex city to live in, with continuing tensions between Arabs and Jews and their incumbent security implications, on the one hand, and between ultra-Orthodox haredim and other Israelis, on the other.
Far more Israelis are leaving the city than choosing it as their home. From 2000 to 2007 alone, 51,100 more people left the city than entered it. They were mainly Jews, both secular and religious (including many haredim).
There are several reasons for this exodus.
Jerusalem is a very poor city. In 2006, more than 40 per cent of its entire populace and 27 per cent of its Jews were statistically poor.
To add insult to injury, house prices in the city have skyrocketed – more than 20 per cent in 2006-7 alone – and continued to rise during this year’s early months. This increase was largely due to thousands of real estate purchases made by foreign residents, many of whom want a foothold in Jerusalem, but whose properties remain empty for most of the year.
As a result, many young people can no longer afford to live in the city. Haredim are moving to large ultra-Orthodox towns, such as Betar Illit, Emanuel and Kiryat Sefer in the West Bank, and to other places within the Green Line. Secular and modern Orthodox people are leaving for satellite communities around Jerusalem, like Mevasseret Zion and Ma’ale Adumim. Almost a third of all who’ve left since 2000 moved westward to the metropolitan Tel Aviv area.
Furthermore, some non-haredi Jewish Jerusalemites, mostly young, feel there’s no future for them and their like in the city. They feel stifled by its complexities and view it as a bland, parochial backwater, inhabited by government and university employees. They’re looking elsewhere for less weighty alternatives.
Much of the problem is image related. While it doesn’t have a beach or some of Tel Aviv’s flair and cosmopolitan sophistication, Jerusalem, with all its contradictions, is a wonderful place to live and bring up families. It has a great cultural life, excellent museums and galleries, terrific restaurants, clubs and bars (many open on Saturdays), an array of schools providing a good education for the city’s varied populations and demands, and employment opportunities, not limited to government and academia, in commerce and industry. All this with the obvious bonus of living in one of the world’s most beautiful and historical cities – juxtaposed as a crossroads for all three major western religions.
This brings us to the upcoming municipal elections. The previous vote, held in 2003, resulted in Jerusalem’s first haredi mayor, Uri Luplianski, and a city council with an Orthodox plurality. Luplianski received 51.4 per cent of the votes placed in the mayoral race, while the leading secular candidate, successful businessman Nir Barkat, received 42.5 per cent of the votes. Eighteen of 31 council seats went to Orthodox candidates.
Considering that roughly a third of Jerusalem’s population of 750,000 are Arabs who traditionally boycott these elections for ideological reasons, and that the haredim compose only 30 per cent of the remaining populace, these results were not a foregone conclusion. They were a product of secular apathy. While 70 per cent of haredim exercised their right to vote, only 50 per cent of others did so.
Non-haredim had no one to blame but themselves, but the results only added to the mood that the city is moving towards religious control. Since then, the rate of movement out of the city has grown. The number of pupils in secular primary and secondary schools is falling while the number of haredi pupils and schools is on a continual rise.
This time round, there finally seems to be a genuine air of urgency amongst the non-haredi voter base. Barkat, who’s running again for mayor, is ahead in all the polls and the haredim are still bickering about who’ll be their candidate. There’s an understanding among many Jerusalemites that another haredi victory will have serious long-term ramifications for the nature of our capital and that they can no longer stand idly by.
Leshanah Haba’ah B’Yerushalayim Habnuya!!
This column is dedicated to the memory of my cousin Barbara Meissner Fishbein, who passed away recently in Toronto.