Jerusalem Foundation’s new president discusses challenges on its 50th anniversary

Our main mission is to create hope for a better future, says new president Johanna Arbib-Perugia.

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December 31, 2015 05:05
Marc Israel Sellem

Coexistence in Jerusalem’s Old City. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

As the vaunted Jerusalem Foundation celebrates its 50th year, newly appointed president Yohanna Arbib-Peruja said she hopes to continue galvanizing international support for the capital to engender a unified, economically sound, and culturally vibrant city.

Founded by Teddy Kollek, Jerusalem’s celebrated former mayor, JF was created to “build a multicultural city where all of its people could live together equally – religious and secular, veteran and new immigrant, rich and poor, Muslim, Christian and Jew,” its website says.

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Fifty years later, via support from benefactors across the globe, JF has invested more than $1 billion into over 4,000 initiatives designed to strengthen “every population in every neighborhood of the city.”

Born and raised in Italy, Arbib-Peruja, whose father is the former chairman of Keren Hayesod United Israel Appeal Rome, is a married mother of three daughters, who divides her time between Rome and Jerusalem.

“I get the best of both worlds,” she said during an interview at the capital’s David Citadel Hotel on Tuesday evening: “Jerusalem, the capital of the world, and Rome, a beautiful city.”

Arbib-Peruja, 46, was appointed to her new post by JF’s board of directors in July. She has extensive leadership experience as an activist at notable international Jewish organizations, beginning at Keren Hayesod in 1985, when she was only16.

Four years later, she founded Rome’s Young Leadership group, and in 1999, following in her father’s footsteps, Arbib-Peruja became chairwoman of UIA Rome. In 2007 she was elected to the Jewish Agency Board of Governors, where she chaired its Board Development Committee.

In 2009, she was elected as chairwoman of UIA’s World Board of Trustees, becoming the youngest person to ever hold the position.

Jewish activism, Arbib-Peruja said, “has always been my passion in life.”

“I think that each one of us in life has a mission which follows a passion,” she said. “My passion is the State of Israel, the Jewish people, and making the world a better place.” Noting the difficult period Jerusalem is undergoing amid a three-month-long terror wave, Arbib-Peruja said she hopes to present the Jewish capital as far more than an area of conflict.

“I think that what needs to be done now is to show the world Jerusalem beyond the conflict,” she said. “Jerusalem is not about the conflict, Jerusalem is about the capital of the State of Israel, it’s about the capital of the three main religions, and it’s about the only place in the [Middle East] where everybody can practice their religion.”

“So,” Arbib-Peruja continued, “I think we should show the world the democratic mission that Jerusalem plays internationally, and I will harness the support of Jews and non-Jews alike into Jerusalem because I think that Jerusalem is a symbol of Israeli democracy… and a place where human beings in general can live together peacefully.”

Arbib-Peruja lauded both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat for their handling of the protracted terror wave, as well as the people of Jerusalem, who she said have exemplified for the world how to proactively deal with deadly extremism.

“I think that we’re showing the world… how to [handle] it,” she said. “What is interesting is that people are now asking Israelis and the leadership in Israel: ‘How do you live through a situation of terrorism?’” she said.

Following the November terrorist attacks that rattled Paris, Arbib-Peruja contended that Israel, which has regularly dealt with the phenomenon for nearly 70 years, has become an international leader in humanely fighting a growing existential struggle.

“The way Israel has reacted to terrorism… is always preaching democracy… looking at the positive side… to live life normally,” she said. “It’s an important lesson that Jerusalem as a city, and Israel as a nation, teaches the rest of the world.”

“The resilience of the Israelis, and I think Jerusalemites in particular, is one of the aspects that makes us different to the rest of the world,” she continued.

Arbib-Peruja described JF’s primary responsibility as “taking care of the well being of all the citizens of Jerusalem,” including Arab residents.

“We believe in a united Jerusalem… and we think that we need to strengthen our activity in east Jerusalem because we feel that by making the life of all Jerusalem citizens better, we decrease the willingness of people to die for a cause that doesn’t exist,” she said, referring to “turning a religion of peace into a religion of war.”

Arbib-Peruja said improving Palestinian education “will play a key role” in diminishing Arab hostilities, while propagating hope.

“If we can educate these young children, these teenagers, with a good educational system – if they learn a profession and then go to work after finishing school – then I think we’re a good step ahead in making the situation better,” she said.

“Education creates hope… and I think the idea is to create hope for a better future, and that’s what the Jerusalem Foundation’s main mission is: Hope for a better future.”

And while Arbib-Peruja emphasized that the foundation is apolitical, she did assert that Palestinian leadership must also teach hope, self-improvement and tolerance instead of fundamentalism and hated for Jews.

“Clearly we can’t do everything, but we can do something, and we can be a catalyst for other people investing in education in east Jerusalem,” she said.

Moreover, Arbib-Peruja said a flagship project for the foundation is supporting young entrepreneurs through loans from its sizable endowment to improve the capital’s foundering economy, and reverse years of reverse-migration to Tel Aviv and other cities.

“We give loans to young entrepreneurs in order to build a business and be successful, and that, I think, is an important element,” she said. “I think that clearly economic sustainability in Jerusalem is going to be the future of Jerusalem.”

To that end, she said the Jerusalem Foundation is working “hand in hand” with Barkat and the Jerusalem Development Authority.

Asked how she envisions Jerusalem 10 years from now, Arbib-Peruja described “a unified city, a city of peace, a city of hope, a city of tourism from all over the world, a modern and vibrant capital.”

“A city that is home for humanity,” she added.


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