Jerusalem for everyone? Tensions simmer in Israel's divided capital

While Lion tries his best to convey that the city belongs to everyone, including non-Jews who live here, the main struggles in recent days have centered around this issue.

 ACTS SUCH as spitting on Armenian priests in the Old City have become routine: A young clergyman takes part in Sunday mass. (photo credit: FLASH90)
ACTS SUCH as spitting on Armenian priests in the Old City have become routine: A young clergyman takes part in Sunday mass.
(photo credit: FLASH90)

Since he was elected four and a half years ago, Mayor Moshe Lion has demonstrated impressive skills in maneuvering among the various factions of his difficult coalition.

Without his own personal representatives on the city council but with representatives from the city’s haredi community (“Lithuanians,” hassidim and Shas) on one side, and three representatives under the slightly expanded definition of secular pluralists on the other, Lion has managed to survive politically – at least until now.

In terms of the law, a mayor does not have to head a faction on the city council. His position is based on other achievements – for example, his ability to bring money into the city and to keep his campaign promises. Unlike iconic mayor Teddy Kollek, Lion has not attracted money from foundations and big foreign donors. However, in the years since taking office, he has managed to secure sizable checks from the government. This year alone, the amount that will be received under the Jerusalem Regulation will cross the billion shekels mark – a significant achievement.

But not everything depends on budgets. In recent weeks, it seems that certain tension among the factions that make up this coalition is beginning to surface.

Tensions among the Jerusalem City Council factions are beginning to surface

Officially, nothing has happened, and it’s “business as usual” at Safra Square. But from below ground, the buds are beginning to appear before the elections. Although the atmosphere on the Jerusalem street in relation to the upcoming municipal elections remains calm, tensions are beginning to rise to the surface.

 THE JERUSALEM Pride Parade (credit: FLASH90)
THE JERUSALEM Pride Parade (credit: FLASH90)

With the Pride Parade set to take place yesterday, the struggle for control over those parts of certain neighborhoods which until recently were considered secular or pluralistic is gaining momentum, thus causing strife. But the most striking thing is the lack of coordination among the factions of the coalition. And it is no longer just about the struggles between the ultra-Orthodox wing on the Right and the pluralists on the Left.

While Lion tries his best to convey is that the city belongs to everyone, including non-Jews who live here, the main struggles in recent days have centered around this issue. This has led to some very embarrassing scenes being broadcast to the outside world. Two events in particular stand out that underscore these tensions.

THE FLAG March, which took place on Jerusalem Day, revealed that although the city council celebrates the unification of the city, it is powerless to prevent what some see as the more problematic aspect of the event – – the defiant presence of the nationalistic Right in the Muslim Quarter. The interesting thing is that most members of the ultra-Orthodox factions, especially members of United Torah Judaism, are not enthusiastic about the parade to say the least, yet did nothing to calm the atmosphere.

“The rabbis don’t like to see bnei Torah, yeshiva students, joining an event of a nationalist nature – it’s not appropriate,” a faction member told In Jerusalem. When asked why nothing was done regarding this issue, the city council member remained silent.

But the list of potentially problematic events goes on. Next week, the Pride Parade will take place in the city. Although the harsh reactions of the ultra-Orthodox in the first years of the parade no longer occur – no one burns trash cans or blocks the road in Mea She’arim or Geula anymore – the ritual of trying to stymie the budget that funds the parade repeats itself every year.

First, the haredi representatives announce that they will not approve the budget. Representatives from the secularist and the pluralist sectors, with the help of the media, mobilize public opinion to make sure the budget is approved. In the end, the mayor – every mayor, by the way – reminds everyone that a decision was made in the High Court on the matter and that it is impossible to prevent the budget from going through. Predictably, the budget is approved, and the ultra-Orthodox return home with the feeling that they played their part against forces greater than themselves.

On the other side of the coalition on the city council, there is satisfaction that they once again proved that they are a force to be reckoned with, and they also return home with a sense of satisfaction. And so on, until next time.

But this week, two things happened, seemingly unrelated to each other, which left both sides with an uneasy feeling.

First, an issue that is apparently still on the government’s table: the decision about the renewal of the five-year budget to improve the infrastructure in east Jerusalem. Resolution 3790, which allocated the unprecedented amount of NIS 2.3 billion for this purpose, was supposed to be renewed this year, and an official announcement confirming this was expected to be made on Jerusalem Day.

For several weeks, however, from both Safra Square and the Jerusalem Ministry, contradictory and evasive messages came out, leaving everyone guessing whether the renewal would go ahead and, if so, what the amount would be. At the time of writing, there has been no official announcement.

THE EXISTENCE of the project, which in a sense has become the flagship of the current mayor, is unclear. At Safra Square, some claim that for now the whole idea of improving the infrastructure of the eastern part of the city has been shelved until further notice.

While the mayor has again pledged not to let the matter go, not one member of the city council from either side has put out a single tweet on the subject. And this, despite the fact that these funds are intended to improve the condition of the city that is so dear to all the members of the council.

The official word is that it has only been postponed until the contents, scope and cost of the projects included in the 3790 plan are clarified.

The second issue, while not related to the budget but is no less important, concerns the delicate nature of relations between the Jewish residents of the city and the residents in the eastern neighborhoods. The fragile nature of this relationship and the tensions that exist in other areas, such as between the ultra-Orthodox community and the Christian population, has reached a crisis point in some areas.

Spitting on Armenian priests in the Old City and writing graffiti on the walls of Christian institutions have already become routine. Last week, these tensions almost led to a brawl between National Religious youths and evangelical Christians at the Davidson Center next to the Western Wall.

At the head of the protest was Deputy Mayor Aryeh King, eliciting a swift response from Laura Wharton (Meretz) and Deputy Mayor Yossi Havilio. Both demanded King’s dismissal due to the shame he brought the city by his participation in the event. On the sixth floor of Safra Square (the mayor’s office), this step is not even being considered. But once again, it has become clear how great the distance is among the various factions of Lion’s difficult coalition. ❖