Editor's Notes: Capital comparisons

What Paris can teach Jerusalem.

By DAVID HOROVITZ
August 21, 2008 23:55

 
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The Adath Israel synagogue, not far from Place de la Bastille in central Paris, is clearly marked on the city's maps, but hard to physically track down. That's because the only hint of its presence on the outside of the unremarkable building that houses it is a tiny name reference in fading brown ink on a mailbox. Further down the same street, a second synagogue is hidden away with no outside identification at all. "Security," shrugs an employee at Adath Israel indifferently. "No need to call too much attention to ourselves. The Jews know where we are." The deliberate maintenance of so low a profile, he insists nonetheless, belies the relative comfort enjoyed by Paris's Jews. "Jewish life here is thriving," says the young haredi man, who grew up in Israel and lived in England for a few years. You walk around with your kippa on with no fear of attack, I ask him, knowing he wouldn't do that in non-Jewish neighborhoods of England? "Not just my kippa," he replies. "I walk around with these hanging out" - he twirls his tzitzit - "and nobody says a word. In England, I was shouted at by skinheads, even beaten up one time. Here, the skinheads wish me 'Good morning.'" Such a narrative sits oddly with occasional reports of vicious attacks on Jews in this city by young, disaffected Muslims from immigrant families. It also conflicts with anecdotes of anti-Semitism from French Jewish immigrants to Israel. But he is adamant: "There's no trouble here unless you go looking for it." Even the substantial Muslim presence in the capital, marked by a prevalent representation of women with (sometimes elaborate) hair covering, is all to the good, he claims. "Before, our women may have felt a little uncomfortable to be walking around with their heads covered," he says. "Nowadays, all these other women are doing it too. It's great." It's hard to gauge the accuracy of this insistently rosy assessment on the basis of a brief visit to the city, though other members of the Jewish community profess to share it. The Rue des Rosiers traditional Jewish area may have moved upmarket and feature fewer overtly Jewish shops than it did just a few years ago - about 20 have closed down in the last five years, including the landmark Goldenberg's restaurant - but word is that many of the classy new establishments are also Jewish-owned. And the remaining kosher bakeries and restaurants here are doing a roaring trade, with plenty of Hebrew spoken, as is the local "Do you want to put on tefillin?" Chabad establishment. BUT ONE aspect of Paris that does allow for a snap assessment - and a sorry comparison to our capital - is the degree to which the city is making the most of what it has to offer, to its locals and to visitors alike. The French capital is, of course, staggeringly blessed - with historic sites and astounding museums and glorious parklands and groundbreaking architecture and a variety of diverse and fascinating neighborhoods. But rather than bask in its glories, it continuously improves them, with the transformation of the Eiffel Tower in recent years - from familiar, hackneyed tourist draw, into a dazzlingly lit, after-dark highlight - only the tallest case in point. The parks are wonderful - two lungs of endless green in the Bois de Vincennes and the Bois de Boulogne on either side of the city, and hundreds upon hundreds of immaculately maintained smaller clearings of clean-aired tranquil green in every district. Even seemingly insurmountable deficiencies, such as the indisputable absence of a beach, have been conquered. For several years now, the indefatigable city planners have cleared that little obstacle by transporting sand to the banks of the Seine for the benefit of those Parisians who can't get to the coast for their summer holidays, transforming the riverside into a veritable beach resort, complete with deck chairs, sun umbrellas, fitness area, even a swimming pool to cool off. But one of the French capital's finest achievements - and here the comparison to Jerusalem is pointed and bitter indeed - concerns its accessibility. The Metro is magnificent - clean, safe, fast, ubiquitous. (Never mind the museums. Some of the platform art is gallery standard.) But it has lately been supplemented by another form of public transport, the bicycle. Throughout Paris, the city has set up bicycle stands - cheap and simple-to-use rental hubs. You pick up a bike at the start of your journey, pedal safely along designated cycle routes through the heart of the city to your destination, and give the bike back at a similar stand at the end. At a stroke, Paris has reduced traffic congestion, cut back on air pollution and gotten its people into shape. AND THEN we have Jerusalem, a city with millennia of history coursing through its golden veins, the center of the world's great religions, the awed focus of uncountable numbers of passionate admirers worldwide, divinely blessed with unique beauty - and nowadays dirty, impoverished and, increasingly, impassable. The city Israel has battled to keep and to liberate, the city whose future status is endlessly debated here and worldwide, the city of uniquely elevated symbolism, is, on the ground, at its most basic level, for the people who actually live here, grinding to a halt. While the spiritual Jerusalem may soar in prayer, the earthly Jerusalem is too expensive for most young families to make a home in, fails to attract sufficient employers for its current populace, and each year drives away 10,000-20,000 of those residents with the option to move, through a combination of high city taxes, inadequate education frameworks and intermittent haredi muscle-flexing. Currently, it seems intent on expediting that deterioration via the light rail project from hell - a well-intentioned rapid transport relief system that was plainly insufficiently researched, is being abysmally executed (laying the wrong tracks in one early section?!) and has long since spiraled beyond all control. It features a grandiose bridge to nowhere at the city's entrance and, deeper into town, the devastation of the road system in neighborhood after neighborhood. Far behind schedule, vastly over budget, it has seen the center of Jerusalem rendered inaccessible to the public as streets are systematically closed off to private vehicles, as though the light rail, rather than years from introduction, were up and running as a slick and speedy alternative. To walk along the central Jaffa Road artery and its environs, as the bulldozers batter ponderously, the traffic steams and the shopkeepers despair, is to witness a capital offense unfolding in pitiful slow-motion. "This morning they destroyed us," one downtown store owner, Shimon Malka, told Israel Radio on the morning the bulldozers arrived earlier this month. "There is nothing left for us to do here but pack up and go." One by one, stores along the city's main street are closing down. The buses cannot get through, and surrounding streets are hopelessly blocked by the overspill. And as the bulldozers encroach ever further, there is insufficient room even for pedestrians to make their way through our city center. It's hard to conceive how a deliberate attempt to bring Jerusalem to its knees could have achieved more devastation. And coming home after a few days in Paris, it's hard to imagine a greater contrast in city management. Perhaps the French capital will yet provide inspiration to ours, encouraging the effective governance of our extraordinary Jerusalem. But would that it were sooner rather than later. For who knows how many Jerusalemites will have left before intelligent oversight regenerates the capital? Who knows how many city center businesses will have foundered? Still, if biking is less practical in our hilly environs than in flattish Paris, and we lack a river to which to bring a beach, let's hope the light rail will yet reward its adherents. Let's press the planners to insist on widening our green spaces. Let's champion leaders who can attract investment, encourage employment and allocate resources effectively. Restoring the earthly Jerusalem will be an uphill, protracted battle. But as the French playwright and statesman Victor Hugo famously observed, the "secret of all triumphs" is "perseverance."

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