Having just marked Jerusalem Day, commemorating 51 years since the unification of the city, and having seen the opening of a “US Embassy” in town, I’m reminded yet again that the “capital of the Jewish people,” the place I’ve called home for close to four decades, once beckoned like Homer’s sirens.
Come to me! Gaze upon my beauty! Pay no attention to the dangers, the jealousies, the enmities! Let me envelop you in my exotic aromas and ethnic resonances! Allow me to dazzle you with my golden afternoon light! Permit me to warm you in my dry summer heat and then refresh you in cool breezes as my twilight and evening descend! Today, though, the place does little more than get on my nerves.
JERUSALEM DAY and unification? Meh. Unity? None at all. The main attraction of the day has become the flag march, with many of the country’s version of Brownshirts thrusting poles tipped with blue and white into the faces of Old City Arabs. It’s become a symbol of Israeli strength and – apparently more important – superiority rather than the Hebrew name of Jerusalem, Yerushalayim: City of Peace.
The “embassy”? Don’t read much into it. It’s barely a sign – and a sign that US President Donald Trump has his Evangelical base in mind a lot more than he does the feelings of American Jews or anyone here, including his Orthodox Jewish Ambassador, David Friedman, he of “kapos” fame.
So much for my political disaffection. At a more prosaic level, the city is now downright ugly, what with so much of the new yet hideous architecture dwarfing buildings that can only be described as decrepit and even crumbling. (I’m not talking about Calatrava’s soaring string bridge; still, does it have to burst heavenward from the middle of a blocky, stocky area whose dumpy structures squat on their haunches?) Notice, too, the omnipresent litter, where each trash bin runneth over and municipal inspectors look the other way as contractors dump their detritus in vacant lots.
Notice the grime left to accumulate on the beautiful Jerusalem stone mandated by municipal law to be the façade for all buildings. (And since I brought up Calatrava, would someone please tell me why no one thought about the desert/urban grunge that accumulates on its white steel surface when the nighttime dew dries each morning?)
Then there’s the traffic. Jerusalem is a city whose cars have long outgrown its roads, and when new roads are built or old roads are widened, asphalt and sidewalks are ripped up and repaved ad nauseam due to poor design and poorer planning. Traffic is snarled even when there are no major dignitaries in town – and when there are, you might as well stay home. The light rail is a good start, but when you absolutely need parking downtown? Rim shot, eye roll.
I don’t even want to bring up our city’s vaunted “social mosaic.” Some of the individual tiles think only of themselves and how they can impose their values on everyone else or obtain services while playing the poverty card and avoiding municipal taxes, leaving the tab to you and me. (Yeah, you know who I’m talking about.) If you stop to think about it, Jerusalem is a microcosm of the country’s major social gulfs: the secular-religious divide, JewishArab rifts and the ever-deepening gap between the haves and have-nots.
When I feel absolutely overcome, I just close my eyes and ears and say the city’s name. It’s a soothing sound, a sequence of letters and syllables that, while not quite as silky, flowing or elegant as those in words like mellifluous, zephyr or luminescence, nevertheless wrap me in a sense of serenity, both physical and emotional – and even, on that rare occasion, spiritual.
But I can’t keep my eyes and ears closed forever. So as I near retirement age, the minute I have no further work ties to the city I’m outta here. Unless… unless someone who sees this place as his or her life’s work and understands that it needs real peace and unity as well as a solid secular base – if only to make up for all the freeloaders – becomes mayor later this year.
THE LAST mayor who thought in such terms was Teddy Kollek, who left office at age 82. In his close to three decades at the helm, he became the city’s greatest builder since Herod (and with relatively decent taste). He also oversaw Jerusalem’s reunification and did the best he could to keep it from devouring itself. He even made it flourish from the backwater it had become. Teddy is buried on Mount Herzl in the “Great Leaders of the Nation” section, the final resting place of presidents, prime ministers and speakers of the Knesset. No other political personality who peaked at mayor is buried there, so you have to admit that this says a lot.
Nir Barkat? Don’t make me laugh. He, like Ehud Olmert before him, views the city solely as a stepping stone to bigger and better things. He knows that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu won’t be around forever and he wants to be in the right place at the right time. Perhaps the only thing he has going for him is the fact that he’s so rich, he reportedly draws no salary as mayor. If it’s true, you can bet his wife won’t be hoarding state-funded bottles for the deposits (and for that alone he might be worth a look).
Jerusalem, when all is said and done, has to be the be-all and end-all for the right person to lead it. After all, this microcosm of Israel will probably be the linchpin of any peace agreement that, if you’re a believer in miracles, might actually come to be. And to achieve this, you have to think outside the box. Way outside the box.
Let’s get real: It’s not. And the thing we all seem to forget when we talk about our “eternal capital” is the fact that so much of the city was not even part of Jerusalem prior to 1967.
Back in 1948, the last time before the Six Day War that Jerusalem was a single entity, today’s “neighborhood” of Sur Bahir was a sleepy Arab hamlet outside the city limits. It, together with many other local Arab villages, was enveloped by post-1967 municipal boundaries broadened to create Jewish neighborhoods that would ring the city in an effort to stave off re-division. If the Americans were smart (I won’t even bother opining about us), they’d make contingency plans for the construction of an additional embassy right across the valley outside Sur Bahir, which – let’s face reality again – was never part of the Jerusalem to which our grandparents and their grandparents yearned to return.
This would further signal what Trump the Dealmaker has already said: He does not necessarily consider today’s geopolitical Jerusalem to be the ultimate outcome. While again drawing lines (even if only figuratively) through the city, a semi-contiguous compound of separate embassies, one for each of two states, would be a fine symbol of the unity that truly counts.
Now that, too, might be something worth sticking around for.