One city, many faces

As Israel marks Jerusalem Day, 'In Jerusalem' talks to one man who has worked tirelessly to establish grassroots connections among the city's various groups.

As usual, pomp and celebration marked Jerusalem Day, the anniversary of the capital's reunification. And, as usual, questions were raised as to whether Jerusalem is a unified city or if reunification is just an illusion maintained by politicians. One man who has rolled up his sleeves and delved into the issue from the ground up is Uri Amedi. While his official title is head of the inner city neighborhood administration, he also runs projects from Nahlaot and Mahaneh Yehuda through the city center to Musrara and, recently, Silwan in east Jerusalem. Dedicating many years and much effort to creating harmony in Jerusalem in both its external appearance and internal turmoil, Amedi takes pride in how far the city has come. But he knows that it still has a long way to go. "Jerusalem is made up of lots of pockets - secular pockets, haredi pockets, rich, poor, Arabs, Christians - that's how it has always been here," Amedi told In Jerusalem during a tour of the city this week to mark Jerusalem Day, the official celebration of the reunification of the city. "My job is to establish connections between all these pockets," explains Amedi, whose vision is considered slightly unusual. "Wherever I see a crisis, a failure, I also immediately see the opportunities to transform it into a success. In our Jewish tradition, we call it 'shever vetikkun,' meaning that when things seem lost, it is the right time to try to find a new solution." Amedi sees the reunification of the city as a turning point in its fortunes - and not necessarily for the better. "The Six Day War was a huge opportunity and an enormous danger," he says. "In fact, it is since then that I have started to look carefully at this city and tried to understand what it was undergoing. On one hand, Jerusalem all of a sudden turned from a forgotten little town into a big city. But at the same time, it began its process of disintegration as if the blessing was turning into a curse," he says. "The new neighborhoods added to the city (which grew to three times its original territory) in fact were the biggest threat to the city center, the heart and the soul of Jerusalem, which went through a total disintegration - socially, municipally, physically. The wealthy families moved to the new neighborhoods that offered better housing, and the city center was abandoned to the poor and the elderly. Not only did they leave the area, but the houses in the city center were more than a century old and in a state of disrepair. The poor and infirm could not take upon themselves the burden of maintaining those houses, so everything deteriorated. To the people in charge at the time, the city center, Nahlaot and the market area looked like a wasteland. Into that vacuum came the ethnic tensions, the religious-secular tensions, the wealthy-versus-the-poor tensions. It was clear to me that this was the place to start to work to salvage the city. The market, located in the heart of the city center, was the only platform that could facilitate a mingling of all sectors of society - Jews and Arabs, religious and secular, scholars and ordinary people. It was obvious that I should start there, the last location where we could still feel a remnant of what this city was before 1967," he explains. "I went to mayor Teddy Kollek. He had a plan to shut down the market and build something modern in its place; but out of his trust in me, he allowed me to start to work. I didn't have a clear idea of what should be done, but I was sure I had pinpointed the problem and understood that the purpose was not to work for ideologies but for people," he says. "I identified three pressure points in Jerusalem: social and ethnic; haredi and non-haredi; and national - Jews versus Arabs. Out of the distress and misery came the radical movements - the Black Panthers, the Ohalim and the like. The haredim tried to assert their dominance. In their view, there was no place for any other kind of true Judaism. That slowly led to a renunciation of that form of Judaism by a large part of the non-haredi population and, of course, the tension between Jews and Arabs on national and security issues. All these converged in the city center, which became the ugliest and most neglected place in the city. It looked as if Jerusalem had no hope of surviving or of being able to offer anything but dirt, neglect, poverty and fear of terrorist attacks. I chose to start my plan with the Mahaneh Yehuda market," says Amedi. "In those days, it was considered an ugly wound in the center of the city. Today, it is a prime example of what can be achieved here. We obtained the support of Keren Hayesod and the Jewish Agency and began upgrading the market. Committees, cultural events, cleaning, and embellishing were done by the vendors and the residents of the area, along with our logistical support. And during the entire process we were very careful to watch our step: not to go too quickly or too far, and making sure not to change the special character of this city," he says. "We didn't assure immediate economic improvement, but that came in time. The wave of terror attacks in the market was terrible: we thought it was the end of the project. But I was not ready to surrender, certainly not to violence. We went to the market, organized the vendors still stunned by the terror around them. We sent a team to stop the supporters of Meir Kahane from demonstrating and another team check houses in the area to see if anyone needed anything. Another team was sent to calm down the vendors, and another to deal with the tax representatives. The result was impressive: Things got back to normal relatively quickly, and we went on with our projects. The message conveyed by the vendors and the residents of the Mahaneh Yehuda neighborhood was very important: All is not lost and, above all, things are in the residents' hands, as long as financial support is assured," he says. After the market and the Nahlaot neighborhood, Amedi continued to salvage other problem neighborhoods. Today, thanks to a grant and support from the Jerusalem Foundation and collaboration with the authority for the development of Jerusalem, Amedi supervises - still with a relatively small staff - the city center, from Makor Baruch and Mahaneh Yehuda, through Nahlaot, Jaffa Road, Musrara and, most recently, Silwan in east Jerusalem. "Once again," says Amedi, "I used the crisis as a crane with which to raise the situation toward a solution. After the huge project of Youth in the Center we created in the Clal Building, we're working with the residents of Musrara to make the neighborhood into a promising environment for youngsters: art schools, galleries, a counseling center for youth who want to find out about their choices and rights. After all, that is precisely the new mayor's vision - we are just bringing in the tools, the means, the reality of his dream." Amedi admits that things are moving slowly. He is familiar with the statistics, which still show an average of 6,000 people leaving the city each year, many of them the strongest and youngest of its population. "I am aware of the situation and am working to change this trend." The meeting with Amedi takes place in his small office in the Lev Ha'ir center where, among other projects, he created the Place for Poetry center, the Barbur Art Gallery and the Picture in a Stone project (pictures depicting the history of the neighborhoods as a means of telling its story). Vendors from the market, neighbors, people who use the neighborhood administration services - pop in and ask questions, inquire about new projects or register complaints But nothing compares to the atmosphere that surrounds Amedi when he goes to a meeting in the Old City, first with representatives of the Armenian community and then with a new committee of young residents of Silwan. "I do not believe in power and coercion," he says. "I know that the non-Jewish residents of this city have met us Israelis on three negative tracks: we threaten them with our power; we buy them with money - like the people who agree to work for the secret services; or they meet Israelis who are ashamed of being Jews and Israelis and apologize. I propose another kind of encounter: empathy and respect, avoiding any kind of judging. I, for example, never hide my kippa when I go to Silwan. They know what Jerusalem and the Holy Basin mean to me, but it doesn't interfere in the dialogue. I go to listen and to help. That's all. And by the way, I don't speak Arabic. Besides the fact that here they all speak Hebrew, I turn my inferiority into an advantage. I use other ways of communication to express my feelings, my empathy - and it works. Otherwise. I wouldn't be able to work here," he says. Regarding the Christian communities, Amedi says that here, too, he has met people who suffer from neglect and indifference and who, in general, "only wish to get their rights and live in peace." On the way to meet the committee of Silwan, we stop by the Armenian Patriarchate. Naro Bulghourij, who owns a bar/restaurant in the Armenian Quarter and is close to the head of the Armenian community, shows us inside. The little museum of the community is still closed to visitors for lack of funding. The priests' school is almost empty for lack of permits to allow Armenian students from Arab countries to register there. The general feeling is that "We are not welcome here, as if the authorities would like to see us out," he says with deep sadness - but in perfect Hebrew. The meeting at Silwan takes place at the new mukhtar's house. Siam Ahmed, aged 27 (he says he is the youngest mukhtar in the world), lives on the second floor of a building, part of which has been demolished for lack of a building permit. Four other members of the new committee, created some six months ago in the village, are in attendance. They all speak perfect Hebrew. "The Shin Bet [Israel's Security Agency] uses a collaborator as mukhtar, but the residents here do not recognize him. He has all the permits necessary to build, but here they destroyed the roof we built to allow some shelter from the rain and the sun. Here in Silwan, only collaborators with the Shin Bet and the people from Elad have permits to build," says Ahmed. His brother, Wassim Siam, adds "All we want is to live here peacefully and to obtain our rights. After all, we pay our taxes." "We are all young, well educated, we work, we earn a living and we want a better life for ourselves and our children," adds the the mukhtar. "We have no sidewalks, not even one playground, despite the fact that we are 55,000 residents here. We have no health fund, no post office, no bank, no baby clinic and, of course, no building permits. Why? Every time there is an event at the Western Wall, we are closed up in the villages - we can't get in or go out. But the residents of David's City pass through without any problem. It's the same with the archeological digs. We are not against archeology, but we want the authorities to take us seriously when we complain that the digging endangers our houses," he says. "Since Uri [Amedi] came to talk to us, we have decided to give it a chance. We met Yakir Segev [the city council member in charge of east Jerusalem] twice. He came with Uri and listened to us. We trust Uri, so we listen to Segev and give him a chance. We'll see if he is able to fulfill our requests. We'll see if he can build at least one playground here for our children. We are against violence. It doesn't pay. We have already understood that." Amedi seems touched. He agrees only to say that he is aware of the onerous task he has taken on his shoulders. "If we fail here, I'm afraid this time everything will explode," he says.