Demography in Jerusalem’s Old City

The hundreds of Jews who have made their homes in the Muslim and Christian Quarters since 1981 are almost insignificant compared to the growing Muslim population, estimated today at over 30,000.

Jewish Quater in the Old City of Jerusalem, 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/ The Jerusalem Post)
Jewish Quater in the Old City of Jerusalem, 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/ The Jerusalem Post)
Demography is not merely a matter of birth rates, positive or negative migration, work opportunities, real estate prices, and so on. It is also a matter of where people want to live, and why.
Government policies and politics may affect it, but so do people’s individual choices. In the case of the Old City of Jerusalem, explosive forces are building up.
In 1967, about 17,000 Muslims, 6,000 Christians, and no Jews were living within the Old City’s walls.
The Jewish Quarter was bombed out and its holy places desecrated. It was decided to renovate the Jewish Quarter immediately and to populate it with a Jewish community of 600-700 households (about 2,500 residents) plus another 1,500 (primarily yeshiva) students.
At the same time, it was hoped that the Muslim population of the Old City could be reduced to about 10,000 through amicable negotiation, compensation and relocation. The Armenian, Muslim and Christian Quarter infrastructure would be modernized and the many historic buildings would be restored and preserved.
Due to archeological excavations and unexpected technical difficulties, as well as to politics and unwieldy bureaucracy, population of the Jewish Quarter proceeded very slowly. By 1971, there were only 88 Jewish households in the quarter. When the Yom Kippur War broke out in 1973, there were several hundred yeshiva students and only about 300 Jews living in the Jewish Quarter, together (often in the same courtyard) with about 1,400 Muslims.
This, despite the fact that in 1967 the municipality had received 9,000 petitions from persons wishing to live in the Jewish Quarter.
Only in the late ’70s did the Jewish population increase to about 200 households, enough to warrant opening a first-grade class and other services. Residents themselves were active in establishing a civil defense headquarters, community center, schools, museums, and multilingual Jewish education programs.
Today, the Jewish Quarter population is estimated at almost 3,000 plus about 1,500 yeshiva students. In the latest elections, over 1,200 adults voted: 550 – a bit less than half – for the United Torah Judaism and Shas parties; over 600 for Bayit Yehudi, Likud and Otzmah LeYisrael; and almost 60 for the center to left, less religion-oriented parties such as Meretz, Yesh Atid, Hatnua, Labor and Kadima. These results belie the frequent description of today’s Jewish Quarter as overwhelmingly ultra-Orthodox, and express the eclectic, heterogeneous character of its residents, something not always apparent to outsiders.
MEANWHILE, RESISTANCE to Jewish sovereignty over Jerusalem has prevented serious renovation of the Muslim and Christian Quarters. From 1967 on, affluent Muslim families began fleeing the Old City.
Automobile access and parking were practically impossible, modern infrastructure was missing, and buildings were in a state of deterioration. In other words, it was “the world’s most historic slum,” (New York Times, May 7, 1969) and one of the most crowded areas in the world – back to back with the newly renovated Jewish Quarter.
Population density outside of the Jewish Quarter increased by 30 percent between 1967 and 1973, and, correspondingly, sanitary conditions and the level of social and educational services decreased. Increasing the Muslim population became a political priority, even at the expense of substandard housing lacking such basics as indoor plumbing. Acceptance of reparations or of new housing outside of the Old City implied acknowledgement of the State of Israel.
In 1975 architect David Kroyanker noted that the Jerusalem Municipality had planned to reduce the growing population density, but “the plan was regarded by the Arab community as intended dispossession, which led to a complete stoppage of all further action in the matter... without any possible solution being offered in the foreseeable future” (Developing Jerusalem 1967-1975, The Jerusalem Foundation). By 1977, the Muslim population had reached 18,000.
Faced with international refusal to recognize Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem, Israel refrained from enforcing requirements for planning and for building permits, leading to further worsening of slum conditions.
Partially successful attempts were made to narrow this gap through funds supplied by the Jerusalem Foundation and the treasury. However, improvements were limited to public spaces, and no attempt was made to relieve population density. As in Old Jaffa, the introduction of a bourgeois middle- to high-class population (in the Jewish Quarter) alongside a povertystricken area (in the Muslim Quarter) led to widening the gap between quarters, segregating the renovated area from the wider urban environment.
AN EXACERBATING factor was the government decision taken in 1967 to ignore Jewish property outside of the Jewish Quarter of the Mandate Period, effectively establishing the Old City of Jerusalem as a “divided city” from the start. Planners also followed British Mandate policy of freezing the Old City “as it looked in the days of Jesus” and isolating it from new, modern “Jewish Jerusalem.”
The lone voice in the wilderness was that of Minister of Religious Affairs Zerach Warhaftig, who called for creating a continuum of Jewish settlement west from Jaffa Gate to the New City (which the Mamila Mall effectively accomplished 40 years later), south through Mount Zion and Silwan (the City of David), and north through the Muslim Quarter to Damascus Gate and the Nisan Bak neighborhood.
In lieu of official policy, NGOs succeeded in establishing a small scale Jewish presence in these areas beginning in the late 1970s, and today Jewish settlement outside of the Jewish Quarter is accepted as status quo. Achievements are almost insignificant demographically, but they have increased personal security and promoted de facto coexistence throughout the Old City.
This is an excellent example of a political issue translated into a problematic socio-economic reality.
The government’s plans to renovate all four quarters failed for political reasons. Modern approaches, such as involvement of the local population from the first planning stages through to cultural, economic and tourism gains, have just begun to be adopted.
Thus the Jewish Quarter turned into a small “border settlement,” surrounded by a constantly increasing Muslim population. The hundreds of Jews who have made their homes in the Muslim and Christian Quarters since 1981 are almost insignificant compared to the growing Muslim population, estimated today at over 30,000.
In addition, affected by the same unsolved problems of isolation, lack of automobile access and parking, coupled with the noise and inconvenience of massive tourist entrepreneurism, long-time residents of the Jewish Quarter have been moving out, leaving in their place renters and vacation apartment owners, neither of whom have the same deep interest in the welfare of the neighborhood.
All the “culture” – festivals, bar mitzvah marches with trumpets and drums, and sports events around the walls may be bringing larger numbers of visitors to the Old City, but when planned and executed without including Old City residents, give them the message that they are a nuisance whom the powers that be could easily do without.
Has anyone in the city, the national government, or the tourism industry thought seriously about what the Old City will look like when it no longer has permanent Jewish residents? How will the yeshivot fare when they alone must face the tourists and play the part of “natives” in the local “live Jewish museum”? Will tourists feel comfortable, and will this “Disney Quarter” look authentic? Will vacationers and transient renters be willing to invest the time, effort and money that Jewish Quarter home-owners have invested over the years? Who will man the volunteer civil defense, local ambulance and medical care that have saved many lives in this isolated quarter?
It is time for all municipal and government agencies to take a long, hard look at the Old City – not at how many more festivals and tourism lures can be squeezed in, and not at how much more profit can be squeezed out of holy, historic and archeological sites by renting them out for “unique” affairs – but at how to retain the special character of the Old City, and how to respect and include its residents – in all four quarters – in planning and protecting this special place.
The writer is a veteran resident of the Old City and author and translator of books and articles on its history.