What's in a capital?

Jerusalem mayor banks on tourism to revive city that nearly half of all Israelis rarely visit.

Jerusalem mayor cartoon 521 (photo credit: Avi Katz)
Jerusalem mayor cartoon 521
(photo credit: Avi Katz)
At the heart of the Zionist project lies Jerusalem.
It is the wistful final note of Israel’s national anthem and the axis mundi for the Jewish people. It also happens to be an axis mundi for Christianity and Islam, and a bloodstained battleground of history, where political violence continues daily.
Which Jerusalem do Israelis see when they look towards their disputed, beloved capital? Our Jerusalem Report survey shows figures as deeply divided as the city itself. When asked how often they visit the capital, from a representative sample of Jewish poll respondents, fully 46 percent of non-Jerusalem residents say they don’t even visit the city as much as once per year.
Another 43 percent report that they visit infrequently, between one and five times per year. Eleven percent of the Jewish public say they visit once a month or more.
Combined, 54 percent visit at least once a year.
Mayor Nir Barkat has made the economic and tourist revival of Jerusalem into the centerpiece of his leadership. But why did the object of two millennia of longing need reviving? Our poll shows that the city’s leaders face a challenge in changing the image of Jerusalem, which remains rooted in the troubled, politicized, intractable face of the city.
For many Israelis, Jerusalem is associated with dark forces. While committed Jerusalemites cherish the city’s beauty and mood, in the rest of the country it can be hard to find a good word. Israelis routinely complain of the pressure-cooker tension in a city filled with the most extreme elements of local life, not to mention the most explosive parts of the conflict. During the second intifada, there were no less than 30 suicide bombings in Jerusalem, and more than 600 terror attacks in total.
On a more mundane level, the high concentration of ultra-Orthodox residents (about one-third of Jerusalem’s population) and the proximity of the Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem (another one-third of the population) – has driven many residents to leave.
Many have migrated to other parts of the country, seeking less “intensity,” they will often say, and more normalcy. The city has seen a negative migration balance fairly consistently since the mid-1980s, including a 10 percent drop in the secular population since 2003, according to the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies. In 2001, Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) data showed that only eight percent of Israelis went there as a tourist destination – ranking it fourth out of seven regions for internal tourism.
The political problems don’t help. In a 2008 survey for the Israeli NGO Ir Amim, which tracks political developments in Jerusalem, I found that nearly 80 percent of Israeli Jews believed that the city is, de facto, already divided between East and West – four decades after the emotional reunification in the 1967 Six Day War.
The CBS data about tourism shows total numbers, but is also divided between East and West Jerusalem. For a country whose Jewish population consistently shows a majority in polls that resists dividing the city in a peace agreement, it doesn’t seem that Israelis view unified Jerusalem as much of a meaningful reality.
Ask anyone close to the municipality – the Jerusalem Development Authority, the Mayor’s advisors – and the situation is reversible. Vast efforts are being made to power the city’s reputation as an international tourist destination and crank up the numbers of foreign visitors, including the now annual Jerusalem Marathon; beer, wine, food, book, film, opera and music festivals; and new nighttime attractions in the Old City.
Barak Cohen, a media advisor to the Mayor, says these efforts are clearly directed at the domestic audience as well: “If the regular tourist options aren’t appealing, like the pilgrimage role that Jerusalem plays for most of the world, this is a way to attract them – so it’s not just a place for them to visit the kotel and the City of David, but to become reintroduced through culture and sports.”
A Jerusalem Development Authority spokesperson says the new focus on sports, culture, and nightlife are all intended to generate “massively modern and new images of Jerusalem.” When Israelis think about their cultural options, “Jerusalem is now in that mix.”
With so much focus on all the new aspects, there’s a strong feeling that the ancient holiness of Jerusalem isn’t particularly attractive right now to Israeli Jews. Clearly, the municipality feels that reconnecting Israelis with their eternal, indivisible, already divided, dangerous and tense city means shifting the focus much more to the figurative Athens than Jerusalem. Is it working?
The number of foreign visitors has indeed rebounded since the crisis years of the intifada, but it has mainly stabilized over the last five years, according to hotel stays measured by the Central Bureau of Statistics. The number of Israelis who stay in Jerusalem hotels has been remarkably consistent over the last decade at 300,000- 400,000, except for a sharp rise in 2006 to 413,000. Pnina Ben-David of the Israel Hotel Association – whose figures of overnight stays were significantly higher than the CBS – explained that the sharp rise that year was due to the Second Lebanon War, when large numbers of Israelis came from the north, fleeing rocket fire.
Hotel stays may hide the numbers of those coming in for day trips. But our Jerusalem Report survey shows some analysis of which Jewish Israelis are visiting. Among the small Haredi and religious sample of respondents, 82 percent and 67 percent, respectively, visit once per year or more, compared to just half of the traditional and secular respondents.
Sixty-two percent of young (18-34) people visit frequently, compared to 52 percent of those in the 34-55 age range, and just 48 percent of those above 55. Past surveys have shown that young people in Israel are disproportionately religious and associated with more right-leaning views.
It seems that religion and politics remain a compelling force.
In Jerusalem, roots tend to run deep.