The master planner

‘Worthy of Jerusalem’ honoree Israel Kimhi looks back on his native city with reverence and looks ahead with optimism.

kimhi311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
On Tuesday, a traditional annual ceremony will conclude the festivities of the 43rd Jerusalem Day with the bestowing of the Worthy of Jerusalem (Yakir Yerushalayim) distinction. One of the 12 honorees is Dr. Israel “Lolik” Kimhi. Born and raised in the capital, Kimhi is a renowned scholar of urban issues specific to Jerusalem. After serving for years in the planning department at the municipality under mayor Teddy Kollek, Kimhi was invited to join the team that created the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies – another of  Kollek’s initiatives – where he still contributes his vast knowledge and understanding of the city’s needs.
Where did you grow up?
I was born and raised on Rehov Amos in Geula. I come from a traditional family. My father went to synagogue on Shabbat, but I remember that we also listened to the radio. It was a regular neighborhood in those days – religious and secular and traditional Jews all together. One of my friends was my neighbor Amos Oz.
Where does your love for Jerusalem stem from?
When I was in third grade, my father decided to send me to the Hebrew Gymnasium in Rehavia, which was quite a way from where we lived. In those days, kids weren’t driven to school by their parents. Every day I had to walk from Geula to Rehavia and back. I was a very curious little boy, so each day I would take a different route.
I always say that to really know Jerusalem, walking around the streets is not enough – one has to get inside the yards, meet the real people living there. That’s what I did. And so, slowly but surely, I fell in love with Jerusalem.
What kind of childhood did you have? Those were the days of the British Mandate – not particularly easy times.
I remember that period very well – the soldiers, the curfews. We, the children, were part of it. For example, we would tie hats to a transparent thread and set them up them on a street so they’d look like an explosive. When the British soldiers came to check, we’d pull the thread and run away. That was exciting.
We experienced the siege of the city, the lack of water and its distribution, and later the heavy shelling. Those were our childhood experiences and our daily life, but in my personal memories it was a happy childhood.
Still, you must have been close to some of the difficult events. How did you get through it?
Yes, of course. I remember the blast on Rehov Ben-Yehuda – I had passed there two minutes before the explosion. Or the blast inside the Jewish Agency compound on the corner of Keren Kayemet and King George [streets]. It was so close to our school that all the glass of the windows shattered. And the anxiety I experienced, as my father worked there. Or the news we heard on the radio about the fall of Gush Etzion and Atarot. Even we, the kids, felt some stress because we saw our parents’ anguish.
Later on, you fought for Jerusalem.
Yes, I was in the paratroopers first and then I joined the Jerusalem Brigade, which fought during the Six Day War. But before the war broke out, I began to study at the Hebrew University, where I graduated in urban studies. Jerusalem was still a very small and isolated city, so we based our studies mostly on examples from the big world outside. To earn a living, I worked in the periodicals room of the National Library.
My parents thought that I would become a great librarian, but I saw an advertisement that changed the course of my professional life: The municipality was looking for someone in the urban field to work on a master plan for the city. I was hired, and I remember – it was in 1964 – that we worked on it, on the assumption that Jerusalem would one day be reunited.
1964? Three years before the war? What made you think so?
Don’t forget that for us it had been one city until 1948. For many of us, it was obvious that the city would be reunified some day, so we worked on the plans on that basis. Later on, I was appointed head of the department for planning policy, with 30 people from various disciplines working with me.
The years pass, the Six Day War breaks out and the city is indeed reunited. We all know there was euphoria, but what was really the feeling toward the Arab population in those first years after the war?
We didn’t think [about it] too much. At first, the Arab residents were in a state of shock. They were merely 60,000, while the Jewish population was already more than 200,000. Arabs were always here, but we felt like we’re back and we’re going to have to live together, the way it had been in the past anyway. And indeed, that is exactly what happened during the first 20 years, and it wasn’t bad at all.
So what caused the deterioration in the relationship?
We made a lot of mistakes, but I think that the neglect was the worst. After a while, they realized that we just didn’t care. While the government began to invest huge sums of money to build and develop the new neighborhoods, nothing, or next to nothing, was done to improve the Arabs’ quality of life. We brought in telephone cables, we supplied water regularly (until then, in east Jerusalem water was delivered to the houses only three times a week) and things like that, but it wasn’t enough. Teddy [Kollek] knew, with his special charm, how to make them feel that he respected them at least. But after him, even that disappeared.
When was it decided to make Jerusalem the capital, and why? There are world capitals that are not the largest cities of their countries.
It was more a result of the demographic issue, which began to influence all the decisions. At first, in our master plan we made the limit a maximum of 600,000 residents; now we’re beyond 750,000. There is a feeling of emergency: If we don’t build more for Jewish residents, the Arabs might one day decide to vote and take over the municipality. Of course, we should invest in other domains – education, economics – but there is the sense of a close contest between us and them, so we build and build.
Are you still optimistic?
Yes, I’m a naturally optimistic person. And even more so when Ienvision what will happen here when we attain peace. I can foreseeincredible prosperity. I’d say, ‘Let’s all remember that Jerusalem isour capital, but we are also responsible for the rest of the world.’...I await some wise solution.
Is it a good feeling to become a Yakir Yerushalayim?
Definitely a good feeling, especially since there were about 800candidates, of whom only 12 were chosen! Something impressive to writeon my tombstone when the  time comes.