Panel on life in Jerusalem reveals city’s many divisions

"No one is going to leave," says city councilor at President’s Conference, stressing need to work together.

June 23, 2011 02:57
3 minute read.
New Housing in J'lem's Har Homa

Housing Har 311. (photo credit: REUTERS)

A wide range of Jerusalemite leaders gathered at the President’s Conference at the International Convention Center on Wednesday to examine the complicated reality of life in the capital.

The panel discussion, titled “My Visions of Jerusalem,” featured Mayor Nir Barkat, former Palestinian Authority Minister Ziad AbuZayyad, City Councilor Rachel Azaria, Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Jerusalem Venture Partners founder Erel Margalit, the Franciscan Order’s Custodian of the Holy Land Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa and haredi leader and journalist Dudi Zilbershlag.

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Eretz Acheret editor Bambi Sheleg moderated the panel.

Most of the panelists agreed that Jerusalem should draw strength from its many conflicts rather than allow the disagreements to consume the city.

“Living on the extreme is exhausting,” Azaria said. “In Jerusalem, you can’t just wake up, take the kids to school, and fall asleep in front of Channel 2 at night.

“All of us go to sleep and hope they’ll wake up and someone will flee the city. It could be that we want the Palestinians or the haredim or the secular people to flee,” she said. “Here’s a secret: It’s not going to happen. No one’s going anywhere. We all love this city, it calls to so many people, and no one is going anywhere.”

Pizzaballa stressed the importance of respecting all religious streams in the city amid a rapidly shrinking Christian population.

“The two sides need to figure out their problems, but remember that there is a universal profile to the city,” he said.

A passionate Hoenlein stressed that Diaspora Jewry deserved to have a role in the discussion about the future of Jerusalem, because of its spiritual importance to Judaism.

“I’m more confused now than when I arrived,” said Barbara Ford, the president of ARZA, the Australian Reform Zionist Association, who attended the panel. “From the outside [of Israel], we don’t understand the complexities of the relationships between all of those who are involved in these processes,” she said.

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“The idea of Jerusalem that we understand is the religious part and its cultural part,” said Anthony Arkin, president of Arzenu South Africa, part of the international umbrella organization of Reform and Progressive Zionists.

“We forget it’s a living, vibrant city with normal urban problems that also have to be addressed, and that can’t be done on a theoretical basis.”

Moderator Sheleg called the panel a way to “get closer to reality. Now, we’re not just proprietors of our dreams, we’re also proprietors of reality.”

She stressed that the panel gave her hope. “Jerusalem is not an impossible situation, it’s not a simple solution, but it’s not impossible... but the problems can only be solved if you invest in them,” she said, adding that the only way to start fixing the problems in the city was to concentrate on the neglected areas, such as east Jerusalem, the educational system, sanitation and the “less sexy” areas of urban development.

Zilbershlag emphasized the importance of understanding people on the opposite side of the conflict, and added that the haredi segment of the population had no illusions of taking over Jerusalem.

“Tel Aviv will never be capital of Israel, the same way Jerusalem will never be a haredi city, because Jerusalem needs to be a mix,” he said.

The three-day Presidential Conference, under the banner “Facing Tomorrow,” brought hundreds of people to the capital to discuss topics ranging from economics, nuclear proliferation, international relations, technological advancements and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Big names such as comedienne Sarah Silverman, pop star Shakira and Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales also spoke to large plenary sessions.

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