Looking ahead to Jerusalem’s future

No city around the world can truly copy Jerusalem.

Mayor Nir Barkat (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Mayor Nir Barkat
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat announced his decision to enter national politics and not seek a third term as mayor last month.
Barkat’s departure set off immediate speculation regarding who could replace him and run Israel’s complex capital. It is far too early to say whether Barkat’s successor will come from among the current candidates or whether someone not yet the subject of speculation will sweep the holy city off its feet.
But with all due respect to politics, there has been far less speculation about what vision will be adopted for the future of the city.
Barkat’s vision was clear and transparent. He was a hi-tech-focused venture capitalist. In May 2015, he unveiled Jerusalem 2020, a five-year plan written by Harvard professor Michael Porter.
The plan focuses on creating more jobs, culture, and public transportation. Its main recommendations were to build a hi-tech park around Hebrew University’s Givat Ram campus and an international center for in-vitro fertilization at Jerusalem’s hospitals.
While the initiators of such ideas clearly meant well, this cookie-cutter kind of plan could be implemented on any continent, and it was not built for the special character of the birthplace of the world’s three leading religions. Jerusalem’s development will not come from another office building that could fit well in Cincinnati, Sydney, or Stockholm.
Jerusalem Affairs Minister Ze’ev Elkin also has a plan. It calls for abandoning all Arab neighborhoods located over the security barrier and creating a new municipal council to govern them. Residents of such neighborhoods would no longer be able to vote in municipal elections, which would preserve the Jewish majority of Israel’s capital.
That plan, too, has flaws. Politics aside, shrinking the city makes less sense than building it into a larger metropolis by taking over the administration of adjacent successful communities.
Perhaps the most far-thinking vision presented in recent years is the Jerusalem 5800 plan, a private initiative of Australian Jewish philanthropist and businessman Kevin Bermeister. It focuses on what the city could look like in 2050, corresponding to 5800 in the Jewish calendar.
This intriguing and ambitious plan calls for focusing on the 3,000 years of history in the holy city to draw in 10 million tourists annually from around the world and two million from inside Israel. That would be a massive rise over the current 1.5 million.
To that end, Jerusalem would need to at least quadruple its current 10,000 hotel rooms by building new hotels throughout the city and the wider metropolis that extends to the Dead Sea. Tourism in the city would focus on its biblical heritage, preserving archaeological sites, developing historic Emek Refaim as a biblical-themed park, and recreating Jerusalem’s biblical areas.
The plan also calls for building a major airport just outside the city. Jerusalem is one of the few capital cities in the world that lacks an airport, and it will need a large one to handle the massive influx of tourists, who with all due respect did not read about Tel Aviv or Lod in the Bible.
Tel Aviv recently unveiled a historic trail that takes visitors back to the city’s beginnings ahead of the founding of the state. Jerusalem has a head start of nearly 4,000 years on Tel Aviv, going back to the binding of Isaac on the future site of the Holy Temples.
There are more than 67 million Christians in China, who can be attracted to walk in the path of Abraham. Special emphasis should be put on accommodating tourists from the Far East, which would require training those involved in the tourist industry in Jerusalem and drafting guides and other professionals who speak Chinese, Japanese and Korean. In 2016, a Chinese airline began direct service to Israel for the first time, and Air India’s new ability to travel over Saudi Arabia is a revolutionary development.
A recent report revealed plans to build a Disneyland park in the southern development town of Dimona. Jerusalem does not need Mickey and Donald, because it has David and Solomon.
What is even more special about that is that no city around the world can truly copy Jerusalem. You cannot replicate where Jesus walked or Joseph had his dreams, and the 2,000-year-old exhibits throughout the city live on longer than any museum.
And while politics has held the city back for decades, the move of America’s embassy to Israel’s capital could signal a new wave of international recognition of Jerusalem that could give it a huge boost.
Let’s hope that whoever wins the mayor’s race realizes the potential of the city and implements the kind of winning, long-term vision that will allow its future residents to look back fondly not only on days of old but also on decisions made in our times.

The author is co-president of the Religious Zionists of America and chairman of the Center for Righteousness and Integrity. He can be reached at martinoliner@gmail.com.