Corridors of Power: Tale of a lost city

All sides in the struggle over the strike agree: We’re talking about Israel’s largest city, but first and foremost, also its poorest.

Priestly Blessing at The Western Wall (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Priestly Blessing at The Western Wall
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The duel between Mayor Nir Barkat and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon over the final funding grant for Jerusalem obviously attracted a lot of attention, but there might be another way to look at it in terms of what is good for the city.
Both sides, each with its own allies and lots of figures backing each position, are essentially talking about the same thing, which is how much money the city needs so as not to crumble into poverty and neglect, and fall below the minimum required to adjust its municipal services to those of a medium-sized and not very developed city.
When one remembers that we’re talking about the capital of the Start-up Nation, this may sound very strange.
A quick look at the issue at stake can tell the whole story, but from a very different perspective than the one reported on the news.
Basically, there is no argument between the Treasury and the municipality regarding the “special needs” of the city in terms of additional budgets – mostly grants. Basically, all agree that we’re talking about the largest city in the country, but first and foremost, the poorest city in Israel. And that is where the real problem lies: The tremendous sums of money at the center of this struggle are aimed at covering the extra expenses generated by the very reasons Jerusalem needs so much help in the first place.
To begin with, a Jerusalem resident receives about half the sum of money invested in them by the municipality, be it education, housing or any other municipal service. A Jerusalemite who needs the assistance of a social worker will have to wait three times as long as a fellow Israeli who lives in Tel Aviv or Rishon Lezion. A Jerusalemite who is entitled to social housing will have to wait about three times as long as a resident of Haifa or Tel Aviv. And the same goes for an educational psychologist, a teacher at an afternoon program and so on.
Moreover, Jerusalem has three times fewer street cleaners and sanitation workers than it should have according to local standards (which are lower than in Europe, for example). The list is long and applies to almost all aspects of residents’ life here.
Whether at the end of this struggle Barkat or Kahlon wins, the city of Jerusalem has already lost, again. Because what this city needs is not more money to try to answer the needs of an underprivileged population (they should get what they need, of course) but rather a radical, Marshall Plan-like program to move this city away from its continued curse – being a poor city in which two-thirds of its population is living below or close to the poverty line.
Impoverished residents means lower – if any – municipal taxes paid, a sluggish economy (just look at the rows of bazaar shops that line Jaffa Road), not enough tourists visiting (and even if they come, they rarely stay overnight, precisely because of the atmosphere of neglect) and so on.
What this city needs, urgently, is a massive influx of hi-tech enterprises, a massive surge of large businesses (not small businesses that will fold after the first terrorist attack in the city center) and a massive move to the capital of all the government and auxiliary companies that are still in Tel Aviv, or worse, have moved out of Jerusalem over the past few years. Two-thirds of the high-ranking officials at Safra Square – including the head of the Sanitation Department – don’t even live in Jerusalem! What this city needs is a New Deal on properties – large, affordable housing projects for young couples and singles, to buy or to rent, so that the most productive generation is not forced out of the city in search of a decent place to live (even if they finally choose one of the towns in the region).
And finally, what this city needs is a serious, honest and respectful understanding between the haredi sector and general society that the capital of the State of Israel should not look like a shtetl on Friday evenings, because there are residents who do not particularly disdain Jewish tradition but still want to enjoy some leisure time on Shabbat and should not be pushed out of their own city in order to do so.
And that the ongoing “Shabbat Wars” are not doing the city any good.
If NIS 800 million or NIS 600m. reached the municipal coffers within the next few days, it would prevent the dismissal of hundreds of employees and bring back some cleanliness to our streets, but it would certainly not solve Jerusalem’s most urgent problems.
Barkat should have asked not only Kahlon but also the prime minister himself why they aren’t doing anything to change the scenario here. The reason behind this situation is no secret at all.