Slichot at the Western Wall, Jerusalem, September 2018.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
In the interlude between outgoing Mayor Nir Barkat, and the incoming mayor, Moshe Lion, Jerusalem received a “wonderful gift.” The Central Bureau of Statistics published its Socio-Economic Index and announced a downgrading of the capital from socioeconomic cluster 3 to cluster 2. Jerusalem is now on a par with Bnei Brak, Beit Shemesh, Elad, Safed and Rechasim, and with Arab localities like Kafr Kana, Tamra and Kalansuwa. Another 11 localities remain one cluster below Israel’s capital. That is, Israel is not the most impoverished place in Israel, but close to it. We should recall that only two years ago, Jerusalem slipped from cluster 4 to cluster 3. This indicates that the city’s decline is steady and consistent. Jerusalem is deteriorating.
Most laughable and sad were the responses of municipal officials in Jerusalem. As in the previous downgrade, they celebrated: “Now Jerusalem will receive larger budget allocations.” Indeed, this is poor consolation. There is nothing to celebrate in the fact that Israel’s capital is nearing the bottom rung.
As those reading this column surely know, Jerusalem is the capital of Israel and its biggest city. In my eyes, it is also the country’s most important city. The government of Israel, and the prime minister in particular, invest enormous efforts in soliciting for international recognition of Jerusalem. Just several months ago, we celebrated the establishment of the American Embassy in Jerusalem. (Though the ambassador has moved his office to Jerusalem, the embassy building and most of its activity remains in Tel Aviv. Still, this was an important gesture.)
The president of the Czech Republic, Miloš Zeman, visited Israel this week and came under heavy pressure to follow the US lead in moving the country’s embassy to Jerusalem. He promised to make every effort, and even inaugurated the “Czech House” in Jerusalem – a small step, and not an embassy. Other countries have also been implored to move their embassies to Jerusalem, but these efforts have been in vain.
Everyone understands that transferring the embassy to Jerusalem – even to the western part of the city – conveys recognition of Israeli control over the entire city. Personally, I find this unfortunate because I believe that every country has the right to choose its capital and set up its official institutions there, just as Israel has done and just as every sovereign state does.
But the gap in regard to Jerusalem is between the lofty words (for example, “our eternal capital” or “Jerusalem will never be divided”) and the sad fact that Jerusalem is a poor city that lags behind most of the localities in the State of Israel and which offers its residents meager services. And this extends to education and even culture.
In recent years, there has been an illusion of major investment in Jerusalem. The municipality received substantial budgets from the government, but they primarily were used to cover the deficits. It is well-known that poor populations do not pay property taxes or pay only partial sums. The city’s revenues are saliently lower than other cities.
In the recent municipal elections, all of the candidates presented grand plans for the city’s future. But everyone knew the sad truth: The demographic composition of Jerusalem makes these plans impossible to fulfill, now and in the future. Over 900,000 people live in Israel’s largest city. Two of its communities – the Arab community, which comprises 40% of the population, and the ultra-Orthodox community, which accounts for 33% – are poor by any measure. Family size is above the Israeli average; unemployment (both voluntary and involuntary) is high; and the result is clear: Resources are limited, purchasing power is low, the commercial and cultural offerings are narrower and, of course, the services the residents receive are commensurate with this state of affairs. As the Arab and ultra-Orthodox communities grow, the Jewish secular and national-religious communities – that is, the Zionist communities – shrink. Recent data indicates that the proportion of secular and national-religious Jews in Jerusalem has dropped from 42% to 34%.
With this decline, the city loses a population of higher socioeconomic standing, and thus its financial resources dwindle. The election results confirm that the ultra-Orthodox have enormous political power in Jerusalem, while the Arabs do not participate in elections. The Arab boycott of municipal elections is a mistake in my view. They remain unrepresented in city politics, but need municipal services – and it is a known fact that the situation in east Jerusalem is inferior to that of the western side of the city.
Many Arabs from Judea and Samaria are also flocking to the city. They are not residents of Jerusalem and do not hold a blue Israeli ID card, yet make use of municipal services and rely on Jerusalem’s shaky infrastructure. They receive, but don’t contribute.
Now, after the dust has settled and a new chapter in Jerusalem’s history begins, there is no alternative: The government must invest billions in changing the situation in Jerusalem. Without major investments in infrastructure, housing, education and employment, the city’s future is not bright. I know that the government is torn between many needs and the government deficit already exceeds acceptable levels. But Israel must make a dramatic decision about Jerusalem: Does it truly want an undivided city? Does it really want the international community to recognize it? Does it really want Israel’s capital, the capital of the Jewish people, to fill the international and interfaith role that is so important?
An emergency plan should be presented for Jerusalem. A national effort is needed; the city cannot undertake these major investments on its own. At official events and ceremonies in Jerusalem, it is customary to sing Naomi Shemer’s song “Jerusalem of Gold.” We’ve already forgotten the gold, and the silver too. But bronze and lead remain – simpler metals. If we don’t make these investments in the city, Jerusalem’s value will continue to decline.
We have reached a critical stage, the moment of truth.The writer is an MK from the Zionist Camp and chairman of the Lobby for Strengthening the Jewish People and US-Israeli Relations.
Join Jerusalem Post Premium Plus now for just $5 and upgrade your experience with an ads-free website and exclusive content. Click here>>