Middle Israel: How the Diaspora can help Jerusalem

Those who care for the capital's pluralism and beauty should resist its takeover by ultra-Orthodoxy.

September 4, 2008 12:36
Middle Israel: How the Diaspora can help Jerusalem

haredim 88. (photo credit: )


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Jews across the Diaspora are angry, and with good reason. Jerusalem, they hear, one of the few causes behind which they can rally regardless of their disparate locations and beliefs, is being negotiated away, and by Ehud Olmert of all people. Can it really be, they ask, that a man in the last few weeks of a horrendous premiership will compromise the apple of our eye? Well first of all, sure it can happen. Ask Shas chairman Eli Yishai, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu, all of whom were astonished to learn from the press this week that Olmert had raised with Mahmoud Abbas and Condoleezza Rice the idea that Jerusalem's fate be negotiated in the presence of, among others, Russia, Morocco, Egypt, Jordan and the Vatican. Now Olmert's urge to steer the wheel wildly just one last time before being removed from it is as understandable as the alarm it evoked. If one spends years serving a succession of prime ministers, it is only to be expected that once finally at the helm, he would be driven by a quest to match his alter-egos' historical imprints. You and I might wonder about the gravitas gap between him and them, but he clearly doesn't. Equally understandable, if debatable, is the willingness among Israelis across the political spectrum to draw the Diaspora into the struggle over Jerusalem's future. Some, for instance, advocate opening a future referendum on Jerusalem's borders to the entire Jewish people. Others of course cringe at this thought, fearing the Right will deploy thousands between Brooklyn's shtiebels and California's country clubs; then again, the same Left will happily accept Diaspora contributions to its cause. Others, also understandably, say the only way Diaspora Jews can take part in a decision on Jerusalem is by moving here and joining the citizenry that will, for better or worse, face the consequences of a deal involving the city. What is less understandable is how the same Diaspora Jews who are obsessed with the political borders of Jewish Jerusalem rarely care for its Zionist character, which faces a crisis almost as alarming as the threat to its size. This is all the more intriguing considering that on this sorry front the Diaspora can actually interfere with minimum controversy and maximum effect. WHEN VISITING Jerusalem, Diaspora Jews are usually too euphoric, blinded and ill-equipped to detect this, but those of us who have been living in the city long enough to compare, feel that Zionism has already lost the battle for Jerusalem, not to Arab nationalism but to Jewish ultra-Orthodoxy. Zionist tourists seldom get there, but should they stray from their usual paths between the Wall, David's Citadel, the Israel Museum, Yad Vashem and the Rehov Ben-Yehuda pedestrian mall to unsung neighborhoods like Mattersdorf, Romema, Tel Arza, Shmuel Hanavi, Ramat Shlomo and Ramot, to mention but a few of them, they will get a visual impression of the ultra-Orthodox urban sprawl and demographic explosion that increasingly dominates Jerusalem. The numbers are staggering. According to the Jerusalem metro weekly Kol Ha'ir, the combined overall number of secular and modern Orthodox pupils is declining annually by at least 300, and this decade alone plunged from nearly 30,000 to just over 25,000. The student body of the Gymnasia Rehavia high school, once the wellspring of Israel's elite, has dwindled since 2000 from nearly 1,300 to fewer than 900. In Ramot, three of four secular elementary schools have shut down, and the sole surviving one may have to fold as well due to its borderline student body of 200 - a fifth of its original enrollment. Meanwhile, the ultra-Orthodox schools are brimming with kids, many of whom are often stuffed into makeshift cabins, basements and caravans. In all, ultra-Orthodox schools already serve more than 40 percent of Jerusalem's students. Add to that the Arabs' 28%, and you get a Zion that is fast losing touch with Zionism. One can, of course, attribute all this to social processes that happen "by themselves." That would be conniving. The municipality is ruled by United Torah Judaism and Shas, and they manipulate the budgets according to their sectarian priorities, say secular and modern Orthodox school principals who have recently resigned in exasperation. This ultra-Orthodox municipal administration has an aim, to de-modernize Jerusalem, and if the rest of us don't do something soon, they will achieve their aim. NOW SOME will find this kind of alarmism reminiscent of the worst anti-Semitism. Well, ha; let ultra-Orthodoxy thrive and proliferate, provided it sends its boys to the army, its girls to National Service and its young adults to universities, so they can make the most of themselves and help build this country and keep it going. For now, as the ultra-Orthodox generally refrain from doing all this, they are not only in no moral position to shape a swathe of the public domain, they have no idea how to do that. As any accidental tourist can tell, the current management has turned the capital into a hick town, a dump and a mess. Five years ago ultra-Orthodoxy won its first-ever chance to do something other than milk the budget for its narrow interests, a chance to shape a major part of the national arena, to display vision, administration and magnanimity. It failed the test. Jerusalem is visibly filthy; many places actually stink; the city's commercial base is a laughingstock, its historic sites are falling into disrepair. The light-railway project, with its scandalously missed deadlines, miscalculated costs and endless paralysis of the downtown area, is a monument to ultra-Orthodox politicians' cluelessness when expected to rise above the ghetto walls and act nationally, if even merely in the sense of carrying out other people's vision and financing, which is what this project has been about. WHAT, THEN, can the Diaspora do in the face of all this? Simple: Invest in Jerusalem's modernity, tolerance and pluralism. Every penny a Jew from New York, London, Toronto or Melbourne these days puts in a Jerusalem-based start-up, museum, park, theater, conservatory, university, library or modern synagogue will help restore Zion to Zionism. True, there would be in such a crusading spirit an element of foreign interference in Israel's domestic affairs, but ultra-Orthodoxy is itself a citizenry that is encouraged to take more than it gives; it is therefore in no position to speak in the name of civic fairness. The fact is it is disgracing Jerusalem and undermining the Zionist enterprise. It's time Zionism responded in kind, deploying any Jew for whom keeping Jerusalem Zionist is no less important than keeping it Jewish. www.MiddleIsrael.com

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