Even those of us not inclined to messianic yearnings cannot help but be wonder-struck by the rebuilt Jerusalem. Forty-seven years after the city was reunited, the capital has become a bustling metropolis.
It is very possible that Jerusalem is bigger today – both in population and in built-up area – than ever before in history, even after taking into consideration relative population sizes between then and now.
As writer Cynthia Ozick has noted, Jerusalem is a “phoenix city” with a “history of histories.” Like the phoenix, it has been reborn on the ashes of the previous Jerusalem repeatedly over the millennia. But no previous rebirth can quite compare to the present one.
According to tradition, Abraham nearly sacrificed his son Isaac in Jerusalem. Seven hundred years later – around 1000 BCE – King David turned the city into the capital of a united Jewish state and his son Solomon built the first Temple here. Jerusalem has been sacked and razed and rebuilt and destroyed all over again for dozens of centuries. Assyrians, Babylonians, Seleucids and Romans have come and gone. In the past millennium, Muslims and Christians – each with their own ideas about Jerusalem’s meaning – have killed each other for the right to rule the city.
Throughout this long history, the Jewish people never stopped praying for a rebuilt Jerusalem, often conceived of not principally as a physical place but as an ideal, a symbol of Jewish spirituality and of hope for peace in a more perfect era.
But Jerusalem was never so completely spiritualized that it became nothing more than a metaphor. Jews never lost sight of Yerushalayim shel mata – the earthly, material city of brick and mortar. Except for exceptional periods, there has been an unbroken Jewish presence in Jerusalem throughout the long years of exile.
In the 1930s, the Jewish population exceeded 50,000. By 1948, it had doubled. And 19 years later in 1967, it had nearly doubled again to 295,000.
But it was not until the reunification of Jerusalem 47 year ago, on the 28th of the Hebrew month of Iyar, that the city truly began to flourish. No longer shackled by oppressive Jordanian rule over its eastern half, it could thrive and develop. And it has. Today Jerusalem is home to some 815,000 people.
The light rail has transformed the city, as have the satellite neighborhoods of Pisgat Ze’ev, Har Homa and Gilo. Just wander the streets around Mamilla and Ben-Yehuda and witness the diversity. Jews and non-Jews, both locals and tourists, rub shoulders, a Babel of languages can be heard.
This is not to say that Jerusalem as a city does not face challenges. Perhaps the most formidable is the integration of Arab residents, who make up 37 percent of the population.
A large proportion of the Arab population is impoverished, with 82.2% of east Jerusalem’s children living under the poverty line. There is a severe shortage of classrooms in Arab schools. No large housing project has been completed for the growing Arab population for some time. Just last month, a group of east Jerusalem residents petitioned the High Court of Justice demanding that the municipality take steps to advance building plans completed in 2008 for the a-Sawahara neighborhood.
Tens of thousands of residents of Arab neighborhoods have been cut off from the rest of Jerusalem by the security barrier. Though they live within the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem, they do not receive basic services such as garbage collection and sewerage and water services. Law enforcement is lax because police do not venture into these areas.
Integral to the Jewish people’s return to Jerusalem is the need to grapple with the nitty-gritty endeavor of shaping reality in the image of the idea. We should feel thankful for living in a generation that has witnessed a rebuilt Jerusalem without losing sight of the many challenges that yerushalayim shel mata presents.