Interview with Moshe Lion: The mayor faces the coronavirus threat

Of all the problems and difficulties facing us now, what would you point to as Jerusalem being most affected?

Moshe Lion (photo credit: JERUSALEM MUNICIPALITY)
Moshe Lion
(photo credit: JERUSALEM MUNICIPALITY)
Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion has spent most of the past three weeks in his office as Safra Square. In addition to speaking with officials, because his personal phone number is not unlisted, he hears from worried residents all day long until late at night, calls which Lion makes a point to answer himself. His major concerns these days involve two parallel tracks: one for immediate needs arising from the pandemic, and a second for plans after the crisis is over.
In line with Health Ministry restrictions, this interview was conducted by phone, as Lion spoke with In Jerusalem regarding the current situation in the city as well as expectations and preparations for the future.

Of all the problems and difficulties facing us now, what would you point to as Jerusalem being most affected?
There is no such thing as [only] Jerusalem is affected. The whole world is affected. This is not like anything we’ve been through in all our lives. When we had security issues or wars, we knew what we faced. But it was local… with the coronavirus, we are with all mankind in the same situation.

What societal aspects could face the greatest losses? Tourism, for example, has become nonexistent.
Yes, but again, it is not only in Jerusalem where we don’t see any tourists. It’s the same all over the world. I am not too concerned about that [temporary loss]. I know that when we overcome this pandemic, people will come back to Jerusalem

What makes you sure? Aren’t you concerned that after this crisis people will just avoid taking any risks?
No, on the contrary, we will see an unprecedented boost in the number of tourists across the world, and particularly in Jerusalem. I have absolutely no doubt about that.

What are you doing to be ready for those more fortunate days?
Quite a lot. First, I have requested that the Jerusalem Development Authority prepare a complete plan of what we are going to do to get tourists to come back as soon as possible. We are preparing a wide range of events that will attract even more tourists than in the past. We will boost the city’s major attractions.

What will this plan include?
Cultural events everywhere, outdoor and in various venues. Festivals, music, theater – anything you can imagine so the city can live through a few months – starting from as soon as we can until the end of October, at least, in an ongoing series of events. I know for sure that the tourists will come back. We are getting ready to welcome them back with a tremendous number of events that will make a trip to Jerusalem the best idea. And of course, it will help all the arts and cultural institutions in the city. The main idea is to give the city a big boost so we can grow from this crisis.

We don’t know how long this crisis will go on. Meanwhile, theaters are closed, and musicians and artists are staying home with no income whatsoever. What makes you so sure things will improve once the coronavirus is defeated?
I am absolutely sure and I have no worry about that. Let me ask you, what do you think people here and all over the world will do once the pandemic is over? I’ll tell you: They will travel, go out to coffee shops and bars and restaurants, even more than before. And that will happen here, too. Millions of tourists will come back to Jerusalem, I have no doubt, and the Jerusalemites will be part of this, too.

How are you going to help Jerusalemites hold on until the crisis is over, and in the days after the coronavirus?
First of all, let’s talk about the medical aspects. I have launched a large drive-in testing site on the seam of Jebel Mukaber, one of the largest Arab neighborhoods here, so Arab residents feel comfortable to go and get checked for the virus. Within the first hours, over 300 residents came for checking. My next step is to move persons with symptoms of the virus to one of the hotels so they do not become a threat to their families. Generally speaking, I am in the midst of a significant change of attitude of the municipality toward these residents. I meet with residents, organized in committees or on a personal basis, every day. I listen to them and to their demands and we are doing our utmost to meet these needs. They tell me that for the first time in many years they feel that someone is listening to them at Safra Square.

What needs are you helping with?
All kinds of needs, from infrastructure to construction, and above all in this period, welfare needs. The level of poverty in these neighborhoods is heartbreaking. The municipality supplies food baskets and warm meals, especially for seniors who are homebound now. Hundreds of volunteers make phone calls and answer their requests. For half a century, this part of the city has been abandoned, neglected. Well, I tell you: no more. This era of disregard is over. We are one city and the Arab residents of Jerusalem are part of this city. I’m taking this endeavor under my personal responsibility.

What about small and medium-sized businesses that have been hit so hard?
We work according to the government’s instructions. They won’t have to pay arnona (city taxes) for two months, perhaps we will add one more month. This is a significant help. I expect landlords who receive rent from business owners to act generously. I can’t force them, but I think this should be the rule: If a restaurant is closed, the restaurant owner should not have to pay rent. I expect solidarity here to take over, as much as can be.

What about private residents, not business owners, who lost their jobs – they can hardly survive on unemployment insurance. Will you also consider releasing them from city taxes for a while?
I am bound by the government’s rules. I can’t decide on my own to cancel city taxes for people in financial difficulty, although I have decided that all tickets given in the last few weeks will not be pursued – this is also a help for residents. We will listen and take into account all personal cases that the welfare administration of the municipality informs us about. Every case will be checked. I will see to it personally that no one will be abandoned in cases of serious need.

How do you explain what happened in Mea She'arim?
I do not explain. My role is to solve problems. I have at my side representatives of the haredi communities, we all work shoulder to shoulder to find solutions and prevent the worst.

On a practical basis, what are you doing?
Let’s first remember that the riots were perpetrated by a small minority, while the large majority of the haredim in the city strictly observe the rules. But there is also a lot of misinformation, for example, while all the eyes are aimed at Mea She'arim, we already know that the highest figures of coronavirus ill are in other neighborhoods – like Romema and Har Nof. Our first concern is to provide them with all their needs, especially toward Passover, and this is what the municipality is doing, with the help of thousands of volunteers.

Will you recommend a lockdown of haredi neighborhoods?
Lion I am not in favor of this step; it is extreme in my eyes, but if the government decides so, we will of course do our part, and see that no one remains without help and support.
At press time, the government decided on a seven-day lockdown for 15 Jerusalem haredi and Arab neighborhoods.