The Jerusalem light rail.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Some Jerusalem snapshots:
FLASH: Last Tuesday, dozens of residents and shopkeepers in the capital’s charming, historic German Colony protested the city’s kamikaze plan to run an unnecessary offshoot of the proposed Light Rail Blue Line down Emek Refaim. They emphasized that the silly plan dictates 11 traffic lights – 11! – for this 1,200-meter strip. They noted trains would pass every three-and-ahalf minutes, which, with the metal separation barrier dividing the street, would impose a Metal Wall ripping apart the neighborhood. They explained that at one point the street is so narrow – 12 meters wide – that two trains on one track will take turns going in opposite directions.
They asked how ambulances and police cars would pass. They wondered how children, the elderly, in fact, all pedestrians, would survive with cars cramming the side streets. They mourned the city’s insensitivity to the struggling shopkeepers and restauranteurs who will be bankrupted during years of construction. They lamented Mayor Nir Barkat’s abandonment of loyal residents who pay their taxes, voted for him, and now face unnecessary misery. And they bemoaned the potential destruction of this irreplaceable urban treasure, a warm, bustling community established in 1873. We [I’m a resident] should be preparing to celebrate the German Colony’s 145th anniversary in 2018 – instead, we’re fighting for its survival.
FLASH: The speakers at the rally put Barkat’s Bungle in broader context. The Israel-Prize-winning performance artist Hadas Ophrat framed this initiative as part of a barbaric assault on Jerusalem’s aesthetic, the city’s quality of life that cannot be measured in shekels. The city councilor-turned-Knesset member Rachel Azaria warned that plans that look logical in the mayor’s office or on the Knesset floor don’t always make sense in reality. A true democrat, trying to teach Consent of the Governed 101 to a technocratic mayor, Azaria urged Barkat: “When your citizens keep telling you something, pay attention.”
Most dismaying, Mordechai Avraham, a Sabra and German Colony resident for 45 years, who along with my wife, Linda Adams, and two dozen other activists are leading this fight, exposed the trail of government incompetence behind the dictatorial approach.
The cost benefit analysis hasn’t been done. The impact assessment justifying its worth has been skipped. And no formal timetable for construction has been proffered – because the planners admit the planning simply hasn’t been done. They plan to wing it – as if the old slapdash Israel of “yiheh be’seder,” “it’ll work out,” still rules. City Hall’s bureaucrats didn’t consider alternatives – violating their legal responsibility – and have dismissed the eight experts, hired by citizens who raised over half a million shekels, that tunneling under the road adjoining the nearby Park Hamesila is the safest, easiest, smartest, least disruptive and even the cheapest solution.
I take Barkat’s folly here personally. When he ran for reelection, my wife and I donated to his campaign, and hosted a salon with nearly 50 people. He spoke convincingly about pulling Jerusalem out of the bureaucratic dark ages, modernizing systems to prevent future “fashlot,” mess-ups, like the train-building disaster that afflicted Jaffa Road for years. To see him pushing this Chelm-like plan with Kremlinesque tactics feels like a personal betrayal.
FLASH: Former Jerusalem police chief Mickey Levy – the hero-turned-MK who knows something about traffic and about protecting Jerusalemites, our heritage, and our delicate urban ecosphere, visited Emek Refaim Street at the activists’ invitation on October 2. Appalled, he immediately requested that the Knesset’s Interior Committee chair, the formidable David Amsalem, bring this potential debacle to an “urgent debate.”
FLASH: The rally triggered two groups of opponents.
Kol Ha’Ir, a local newspaper, pretended the residents oppose the entire Blue Line – not just one over-priced, superfluous offshoot because a parallel train will run nearby on Derech Hevron. Then, in typical hack style, the paper gave “equal time” to one critic who’s been marginalized in the neighborhood for opposing the opponents – and repeatedly undermining them. The biased reporting masquerading as objective is like balancing a story about a mass march for Israel by featuring five Palestinian counter-protestors.
Other rally-skeptics agreed that Barkat’s unnecessary Train of Pain will destroy their neighborhood but wanted violent protests. “Look at the disabled protests” they barked. “If you don’t block traffic day after day, snarling the whole city, they won’t take you seriously.”
Here’s the real test, that goes far beyond our little historic green oasis – where I stood, politely, with our butcher, bakers and ice cream maker – all of whom will suffer far worse than I. Do only bullies win in the City of Peace and in Israeli politics? Do the efforts of 70 volunteers, 3,400 signed supporters over two years who nabbed 90,000 Facebook views, filed 1,700 formal court objections – and ended up forging an even stronger neighborhood community – count for nothing? Is that what City Hall and Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz want to teach? Residents are ready to block traffic and risk arrest. But is this really necessary? How many times must residents prove bureaucratic incompetence, champion a better – cheaper – alternative, and file convincing reports – before our leaders in what is supposed to be a democracy respond? Finally, who else is ready to join the effort, donate money, volunteer time – or convince the key people who need convincing – not just to save this neighborhood, but to reassure our fellow Israelis – and the world – that even in a shrill, corrupt and partisan era, civility, civil society and civil politics can triumph?
The writer is the author of The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s. His forthcoming book, The Zionist Ideas, which updates Arthur Hertzberg’s classic work, will be published by The Jewish Publication Society in Spring 2018. He is a Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University. Follow on Twitter @GilTroy.