Why is Jerusalem planning a cable car at a holy site?

The cable car project was proposed by the Jerusalem Development Authority on behalf of the Tourism Ministry.

 An artist’s simulation of the planned cable car to Jerusalem’s Old City. The King David Hotel can be seen on the left (photo credit: EMEK SHAVEH)
An artist’s simulation of the planned cable car to Jerusalem’s Old City. The King David Hotel can be seen on the left
(photo credit: EMEK SHAVEH)

Jerusalem is not just another city. It is viewed as a spiritual center for the three monotheistic religions. As the late professor and Dominican monk, Marcel Dubois, observed, “It is the pinnacle of relations between the faiths, because it is the only place that we are sure that God touched.”

It is also, unfortunately, a cesspool of continuous conflicts, a mecca of mayhem, a den of disputes. These are rooted in religion, history, economics, politics and, in recent years, urban planning. On one level, Jerusalem is unique in that it is claimed by many people, most of whom do not reside in the city.

For this reason, one “solution” to its various problems has often been to internationalize it, in particular the Old City. This plan has never been realized, though it hasn’t prevented many attempts being made. In Jewish tradition, dating back to the Bible, Jerusalem was beyond the province of any tribe. The sages believed that it was forbidden to own property in the city. It belonged to everybody.

Since modern Israel was established in 1948, the question of Jerusalem has become even more complex. After 1967’s Six Day War, this complexity was sharpened exponentially. Subsequently, the Israeli government felt empowered, for example, to incorporate a number of outlying villages into the municipal boundaries, thus adding thousands of Arab citizens to Jerusalem’s ever-expanding population, which is now close to a million.

The international community felt the necessity of censuring the Israeli government against claiming exclusivity over the city. This did not prevent Israel from doing precisely that and, in 1980, passed the Basic Law: Jerusalem, Capital of Israel. This made the city indivisible as far as Israel was concerned, even though the law was considered illegal by almost everyone else. The Jordanian government nominated the Old City and its walls as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

As for planning, it could be said that there was little. There had been master plans drawn up under the British rule (1918-1947), but even the most realistic of these, drafted by Henry Kendall in 1944, were never fully implemented, although updated in 1959. After 1967, although the Jerusalem Master Plan of 1968 and a special conservation plan for the Old City and its environs were completed, a series of one-off plans were applied in such places as Ramot (in the north), Armon Hanatziv (in the east) and Gilo (in the south).

Since then, not much has been done to update it through the statutory processes, and the city has been left to the will of developers and politicians. This may be advantageous to them. If there were an official master plan, there would be no need to run to the municipality and ask for permission to build. Instead of rational criteria, we have witnessed power play between interested parties.

Apart from this general lack of direction in relation to planning, there are specific projects which appear with no proper supervision. Even when there are laws in place there is a way of circumventing them. Such is the situation in regard to the current plan to set up a cable car to transport people from outside the Old City to a location close to the Western Wall. On the surface it might seem like a good idea, a way of overcoming the lack of facilities for cars in and out of the venerable, but crowded city. But a closer look reveals the tremendous dangers that such a project could cause.

The cable car project was first proposed by the Jerusalem Development Authority on behalf of the Tourism Ministry after it failed to extend the local rail system to the Old City.

In order to circumnavigate the bureaucratic process that could hold up or even prevent such projects, the government drafted the National Infrastructures Plan 86, making it possible to shortcut the planning of infrastructure projects (mainly transportation) defined as “national.”

In the words of the highly-respected architect, David Cassuto, one of the most critical voices against the cable car project: “Circumventing the statutory procedure means that the public is deprived of the opportunity to file formal objections. In the case of the Western Wall cable car, this was no accident; the project’s sponsors understood that public opposition could sink the proposal. This evasion of the statutory process is an assault on democracy.” Cassuto was not the only professional to object to the plan. Prof. Elhanan Reiner, a historian, pointed out that holiness that surrounds such a sacred space includes the journey to the place and not just the site itself. This is true not only of Jerusalem, but of many other sacred places around the world. The cable car would destroy this aspect of the site, lowering its status to that of any other tourist site. It would lose its spirituality. By making the visitor come by way of the Elad’s Kedem Tourist center, it would “lessen absolutely the uniqueness of the place.” The Israel Association of Architects and Urban Planners (IAAUP) launched a blistering attack against the proposed plan. In an official meeting sponsored by the municipality on October 10, 2018, the IAA presented its case: “The Israel Association of Architects vigorously objects to the plan to build a cable car to the Old City of Jerusalem, which would detract from its status as a world city, diminish its heritage value, and wound its residents and friends the world over... The statutory process advancing the project is irregular, inappropriate and incompatible with the spatial and historic importance of the place and its central status in the world. The law does not permit a project to be classified as ‘tourist infrastructure’ in a national park that is surrounded by green space.

“There is no place for a process in the National Infrastructures Committee that sets aside the important stages of professional scrutiny, such as urban analysis, full preservation documentation, and an environmental impact statement. Any procedure to build a cable car in this location displays contempt for the status of Jerusalem and its sites that are holy to the three religions. Scenic and cultural values that have been preserved for hundreds of years would be irrevocably damaged by gross technical elements: a series of gigantic pillars, stations and auxiliary infrastructure, adjacent parking lots, and more.

“The IAAUP calls for a broad and serious public discussion of the Old City cable car plan, as required by the historic uniqueness of the site, and honoring the values that the Planning and Building Law is meant to protect.”

Similar words of condemnation came from Cassuto. After presenting a historical overview of the area, Cassuto detailed his objections, having observed that “the agency behind the cable car project is the Tourism Ministry, not the Transportation Ministry.... It is the Tourism Ministry that is in a great hurry to get it going, clearly demonstrating the reason for bypassing the normal planning processes provided for by law.” Among Cassuto’s reasons for opposing the plan is that fact that “the cable car would destroy irrevocably the national park that surrounds the Old City, containing within it a wealth of archaeological finds, sacred places of worship and holy places, the Southern Wall excavations, Mount Zion with its many churches, and Akeldama at the junction of the Kidron and Hinnom valleys. Within the park boundaries there are a number of tourist attractions that charge for admission, run by the Elad organization under contract from the Nature Reserves and National Parks Authority. These include the Siloam Tunnel and the City of David excavations.

“The cable car project would involve 15 pylons, 11 of them erected within the national park, which, as noted, is supposed to be strictly protected against development and construction. The pylons are to rise to a height of five to eight stories (26 meters). Pylon C would stand right next to David’s Tomb and the Coenaculum (The Room of the Last Supper) – a true eyesore.” Cassuto also quoted the outgoing British High Commissioner who wrote in the preface to the Jerusalem City Plan in 1948 he hoped that ”the accomplishments and labors of the years covered in this book may be considered worthy to act as an inspiration and an example to the future generations in whose care our Holy City must rest.”

Besides these historical and environmental issues, Cassuto also cites problems for tour guides (who also sent objectors to this meeting) in that cable cars will split up their groups into smaller units making an integrated tour near impossible. “Guides will not be able to address their entire group while they are using the cable car.

“Jerusalem,” Cassuto says, “and especially its holy places, ought to be ‘conquered’ by means of a physical effort that expresses the yearnings for this holy place. To descend as if on ‘angel’s wings’ would contradict the essential Jewish concept of the ‘earthly Jerusalem’ and of pilgrimage as an ‘ascent by foot’ – the need to exercise one’s limbs in order to reach the lofty goal.” On a more practical note, he believes that, “in light of Jerusalem’s large, observant population and the status of the Temple Mount for our people, the cable car is highly unlikely to run on Sabbaths and Jewish festivals.... On the Sabbath and festivals, a state-owned transportation system would not operate – and if it did, it would produce no end of additional friction and could even bring down national governments.” Another practical point would be the location of the pickup/drop-off point, which would be at the not-so nearby First Station. “There simply is no room there for so many vehicles,” he says. “The result would be a massive bottleneck on a major urban thoroughfare, due to the traffic jam outside the First Station.”

The deemed goal of the project, access to the Western Wall, creates major problems of numbers. “The entire Western Wall Plaza can hold a maximum of 5,600 men and women,” Cassuto says. “The cable car could bring 3,000 persons an hour (according to its sponsors) – in addition to those who reach the plaza by other means. The terrible crush produced would require the addition of police posts, emergency vehicles, and security personnel. At times it might be necessary to shut other access routes to keep the pressure from becoming intolerable. But the entries that would be blocked are precisely those used by religious Jews who come to the Western Wall not as tourists, but to pray.

“The cable car, moreover, will pass over neighborhoods typical of historical Jerusalem. But the residents of these neighborhoods are likely to move away because of the frightening shadow of the cable car that passes over them, close to mosques, churches, and synagogues. The safety of the residents and institutions would be undermined, and they would be victimized by physical, acoustic, and visual blight.” In summation, Cassuto states: “I wonder if the true aim of the cable car is not to facilitate access to the Western Wall, but rather to bring crowds to Elad’s disproportionate Kedem tourist center. With a total area of 16,000 sq.m. and rising to a height of seven stories (even higher with the cable car), the center will conceal the Old City walls. It is hard to imagine what the sponsors plan to do with all that floor space.” Elad, an acronymy for the Ir David Foundation, is an association that aims to strengthen the Jewish connection to Jerusalem and renew the Jewish community in the City of David, adjacent to the Arab neighborhood of Silwan.

“The euphoria of winning back the city in 1967, went too far, and Israelis lost their sense of proportion,” says Cassuot. “But now that Jerusalem is ours, why should we turn it into a poor imitation of New York, Las Vegas or even Paris? We forget that now we are Jerusalem. It is up to our cultural and professional conscience to make sure that it remains the Jerusalem we saw in our dreams.” To realize his objectives, Cassuto announced the formation of the Public Council for Jerusalem. The body will serve as a professional and public forum for discussion and criticism of planning and development in Jerusalem as well as an address for communities to express their opinions about the plans advanced by the planning authorities. It will promote a long-term contemporary vision for the city, one that reflects both its local and universal values and the obligation to its present and future residents.

When The Jerusalem Report inquired of Elad what its response was to these objections, its vice chairman, Doron Spillman, wrote: “The Cable Car Project is solely a project of the Government of the State of Israel. We are not involved in the fine details of this initiative. We do realize that the issue of transportation to the area of the Old City and the City of David is a major challenge that needs to be addressed. There has been a lot of discussion about the project and I would suggest that you speak with the government agencies involved, city planners and architects.” The Report then approached the Tourism Ministry, now under Asaf Zamir from the Blue and White party. The ministry remains stalwart in its stand in favor of the cable car: “The Tourism Ministry weighed the relevant aspects before coming to a decision that balanced the importance of the cable car as part of the national infrastructure that will help create a usefulness for the general public, against the claims raised against it. The usefulness of the project overcomes the deficiencies of it.

“The great importance of accessibility, and the generation of a development of tourism in the area of the Old City, the historic heart of Jerusalem, will create jobs for hundreds of thousands of people. The ministry does not disregard the claims made my various bodies and understands the feelings that are raised, but however the public interest is greater.

“It must be stressed that the program for the cable car was passed by the former government in 2018 with a budget of 100 million shekels to expedite the project, and already approved by the Treasury. This sum is in addition to the 100 million shekels budgeted by the Tourism Ministry in 2019. Issues surrounding the project and the claims brought against it were brought before the High Court, which will discuss it in detail in the future.” It would appear that the ministry has no interest in detailing what the objections are, or addressing them. Indeed, it says the cable car project will generate an astonishing number of jobs. This is beside the more obvious fact that the issue has been taken up by tourism ministers, and not transportation ministers. All of this suggests that the cable car is another project whose full impact has not been taken into consideration before it is too late.

The High Court of Justice is still out and maybe it is the last resort to save the day. As we wait with bated breath for its ruling, one question seems to be unanswered: Why, with so much professional opinion against it, does the tourism ministry still feel the urge to erect what would seem to be a white elephant in the middle of one of the most iconic sites in Israel, if not beyond? All the history, theology, beauty, all the awesomeness of the place would be wiped away for the sake of a bunch of tourist dollars, of tourists, who are here today and gone tomorrow.

There must be a missing link here that ties all these issues together; a link which can be provided only by the few people inside the ministry or the municipality who think that this scheme could work for anyone’s benefit. It is for them to come clean and show their hand before it is too late.

The planning saga does not end here. If the cable car is not enough, the municipality recently announced plans to erect a large Ferris wheel – some 40 to 60 meters in height – in the area below the promenade of East Talpiot, and in view of the Old City. In addition, the same source envisions the building of six hotels, bicycle tracks, an 800-meter omega, a music center, a sculpture garden all in the same area – as well as a suspension bridge running across the Hinnom Valley.

The donors who built the promenade, Messrs. Haas and Goldman, have already expressed their sorrow over the planned developments. They are supported by archaeologists who are afraid that a historic landscape will be ruined forever.