A to-do and don’t-do list to reactivate the Jerusalem’s economy

Assuming the crisis would soon end, the core of the plan was to encourage Israelis to replace foreign tourists during that brief interval and visit Jerusalem.

BORDER POLICE patrol a nearly empty city center during a partial lockdown in early April (photo credit: NATI SHOHAT/FLASH90)
BORDER POLICE patrol a nearly empty city center during a partial lockdown in early April
(photo credit: NATI SHOHAT/FLASH90)
A few weeks after the coronavirus changed almost everything in our lives, the municipality publicized its plan to boost the city and its economy. Assuming the crisis would soon end, the core of the plan was to encourage Israelis to replace foreign tourists during that brief interval and visit Jerusalem.
The plan also assumed that despite the growing number of business failures and newly unemployed workers, there was still a large number of locals who could afford vacations. So a campaign was marketed that basically said, as long as you can’t travel abroad, visit Jerusalem.
Safra Square was abuzz with ideas. Hotels were asked to promote attractive prices, tour operators were contacted, package deals were offered, and optimism was high that the city and its tourist-based economy could weather the storm that was bound to pass quickly.
Israelis did come to Jerusalem, but not enough of them and not for a long enough time. Then the virus rebounded with a vengeance. The end no longer appeared to be in sight, and other municipal needs – human needs – began to multiply, along with their costs.
There were seniors who needed food delivered; families with special-needs children who required assistance; projects designed to inject life into struggling businesses that included significant discounts on a wide range of city taxes; transportation slowdowns and stoppages; a chunk of funding needed to enable schools to function; and a long list of increasingly urgent calls for help.
Needless to say, all that didn’t leave much money for tourism, and today the capital is virtually empty of tourists. Despite desperate actions – including a hunger strike staged in the shadows of the Knesset by longtime tour guides suddenly left without income – a desperate situation remains. 
Today, about a quarter of the small and medium-sized businesses in the city – restaurants, bars, cafés, galleries and souvenir shops, just to name a few – are closed, a majority of them probably forever. Emptied shops now feature little more than “For Sale” or “For Rent” signs in their front windows, with little expectation from their owners of reopening anytime in the foreseeable future.
One project – to turn a number of streets into malls two evenings a week, and to allow restaurants and coffee shops to place tables and chairs on the sidewalks to increase the number of clients – is slowly taking shape. However, no business seems to have reached anywhere its usual numbers for the season. The only thing growing greater with each passing day seem to be uncertainty.
Mayor Moshe Lion launched his plan with a well-publicized champagne toast in Mahaneh Yehuda, amid a round of back-slaps and handshakes in a sea of smiles – virtually none of which were covered by a mask in that brief, naive moment of magical thinking.
CITY COUNCIL opposition leader Ofer Berkovitch (Hitorerut), in a rare display of solidarity with Lion, soon appeared to be on the “back-to-normal” bandwagon, promoting a renewal of leisure life within limitations imposed by the Health Ministry. The basic difference is that Lion has the key to public monies; Berkovitch, who has no such access, can only make suggestions.
For example, the city approved a total of NIS 572,000 to be distributed (at NIS 4,000 per person) to 143 local artists in all fields, who are among those most harmed by the pandemic and the subsequent lockdown of venues.
The municipality also sponsored a series of performances by local artists, which took place in several senior homes in the city, where residents have been confined because of the virus.
A few dance and musical events budgeted by the municipality are still running at the First Station, attracting Jerusalemites who, despite the masks and the social distancing required, manage to fill the place on a regular basis.
Yet while none of these efforts to revive the city should be disregarded, none have brought a real change in the situation on the ground. Few eateries are back in business with anything close to the number of customers before the pandemic began.
Tourists are not expected back anytime soon. And despite a long list of good-faith measures like reductions in city taxes, the future, in the short-term at least, is far from encouraging.
Berkovitch’s proposal takes note of Jerusalem’s basic condition, being the largest and poorest city in Israel. The opposition leader has specifically requested that the city provide all small and medium-sized businesses harmed by government lockdowns with a significant safety net. In other words, he wants to compensate them with money and not only with discounts on taxes.
Berkovitch also wants special grants for increased COVID-19 testing, and to supplement lost income in various employment sectors in relation to their prevalence in the capital.
At the end of the day, access to the funds needed for either of these plans, or some mix of the two, is in the hands of the government. However, neither of these plans can be funded through the city’s budget, even after Jerusalem received a special grant for this year in the amount of NIS 900 million.
There is no question that Lion has greater access to the decision-makers at the Treasury and in the government than Berkovitch does. Nonetheless, for the sake of Jerusalem, both efforts and the people behind them are needed.