Woe is Jerusalem

The 10 plagues afflicting today's capital are not supernatural (we'll give you the positives next week!)

poor in garbage 298 AJ (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
poor in garbage 298 AJ
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
In biblical times, when Pharaoh would not allow the Jews their freedom, God visited 10 plagues on Egypt to force his hand. The plagues were supernatural, unlike the modern-day plagues, which are mostly a result of man's failings. Thankfully, we have not had to endure wild beasts or swarms of locusts, though when it comes to removing today's plagues, Jerusalemites are often kept in the dark by the powers that be. And in contrast to the biblical plagues, the city's problems seem anything but short-lived. While the list of afflictions is seemingly endless, in keeping with tradition In Jerusalem has selected 10. And for those who prefer to focus on the positive, fear not - next week IJ will publish the Four Expressions of Redemption. Burglaries During the past year, Jerusalem's residents have suffered less from terrorist attacks and a shaky security situation. Instead, they have dealt with a growing stream of burglaries in wealthier neighborhoods. Earlier this year, Jerusalem District police chief Cmdr. Ilan Franco established a new unit of 150 officers, headed by Supt. Avi Roiff, to handle this exceptional rash of burglaries. E., a former resident of the German Colony, had her house burglarized in mid-February while she was away for the weekend. "They entered through the back door and took my computer, some jewelry, clothing and cash I had there. The landlord had a safe attached to the wall. It was empty but they tore it off with a piece of the wall," says E., adding that the police came and did the regular drill of writing the details down and taking fingerprints. "I saw it as a sign and I moved from the house immediately. The policeman who came to report on the event told me he had five similar burglaries in the area." "There is a feeling that some sort of a gang is operating in Beit Hakerem, Talbiyeh and the German Colony. Our clients say they are in despair because this means financial and personal damages," says Yoni David of the security and protection company that operates in those areas. "I haven't heard about a single case that ended in the police catching the thieves and returning the stolen possessions to the owners." Jerusalem police spokesman Shmuel Ben-Ruby confirmed there was an increase in burglaries and break-ins in neighborhoods like Beit Hakerem, Rehavia, Katamon, Talbiyeh and the German Colony. He assumed it would take a few months to see real results of the new police unit's work. - Shelly Paz Poverty Many people associate Pessah with dreaded weight gain. For hundreds of Jerusalem families, however, the holiday serves as a stark reminder of the poverty with which they must grapple each day. "Jerusalem is the capital city, the holy city, yet it is also Israel's poorest city," says Moshe Lefkowitz, director of Meir Panim, an organization that does relief work for the needy both in Jerusalem and throughout the country. He says Jerusalem's poverty problem has multiple causes. The first is the sheer size of the city. With more than 715 000 people, Jerusalem has twice the population of Tel Aviv. In addition, "there are several segments of the population for whom poverty is particularly difficult. The incidence of poverty is high within the haredi community, where people tend to have larger families, as well as in traditionally disadvantaged neighborhoods, such as Kiryat Menahem and Kiryat Hayovel, as well as among the Arab population." Lefkowitz says the problem has gotten worse over the last few years because the government is not contributing as much as it should be. "There are more than 60,000 families who are registered with the welfare department but are not receiving services. In the past 10 years, the country has gone from a social welfare state to a country with limited services and... the burden of the government has been passed on to the nonprofit organizations." Aharon Cohen, head of Tachlit, another charitable organization, agrees. "The government is doing nothing," he says. "It allots half a dollar per family every Pessah." Like Lefkowitz, Cohen says that it's up to the charitable organizations to pick up the slack. "We give out cards for the minimarket so that families can buy matza, wine - the basics." In addition to its many year-round services, Meir Panim will distribute 12,000 dry food packages to needy families this year. They will also host 5,000 people at 20 group Seders throughout the country, three in Jerusalem. In addition, it is also setting up a hot line (*3656) for families willing to host others at their Seder. More information can be found at www.meirpanim.org. Donations to Tachlit can be made by phone, 651-6325, or by visiting www.tachlit.org. - Joshua Freeman Jerusalem Syndrome Tourism ministers never refer to it, and tour operators and hotel managers are careful not to hint at it. Yet in 1999 alone over 50 people were diagnosed with the disease known as Jerusalem Syndrome. It was first identified in the 1930s by Dr. Heinz Herman, one of the founders of modern psychiatric research in Israel, and later researched by Dr. Yair (Carlos) Bar-El, former district head of psychiatry for the Health Ministry. The disease is characterized by sudden and intense religious delusions, which are triggered by visiting Jerusalem. According to Bar-El's research, the encounter with the Holy City, particularly for those with deep religious convictions, convinces syndrome victims that they must do something in connection with specific major events such as Armageddon, the resurrection of Christ and the coming of the Messiah. The syndrome begins with an extremely intense excitement, followed by a strong sense of mission. Some of the afflicted adopt biblical clothing and instruments - usually a harp or a lyre, merging their personality with a biblical character, such as King David or Jesus. Bar-El's studies revealed that most people who suffer from the syndrome have no prior history of psychiatric illness and won't have any once the "crisis" passes. Afflicted tourists have been found wandering the streets of the city, wrapped in their hotel sheets, or lying by the Church of the Holy Sepulchre , some convinced that they are going to give birth (again) to Jesus and thus save the world. - Peggy Cidor Traffic jams Veteran Jerusalemites remember the days when they would travel to Tel Aviv to gawk at the traffic lights, and getting across town was a 10-minute drive. Jerusalem has since grown considerably, both in area and population, since those pre-unification days. Today, it can take as long to get across town as to drive to Tel Aviv, and traffic jams have become the norm rather than the exception, even at non-peak hours. Elizabeth Greenman, a Givat Mordechai resident, says it can take anywhere between 10 minutes to an hour to get to her work near the entrance to the city. "I could walk in that time," she says. "The worst part is that there's no way of knowing how long it will take." According to municipal spokesman Gideon Schmerling, the three most problematic intersections are French Hill, the entrance to the city and Golomb/Begin. The municipality has plans for alleviating these problem spots. At French Hill, it intends to route east-west traffic through a tunnel under the intersection, leaving north-south traffic at street level. At Golomb/Begin, an interchange will be constructed for part of Begin South. At the western entrance to the city, a number of additional roads are planned to divert traffic. Route 9 will facilitate traffic flow to the city's northern neighborhoods (Ramot, Ramat Shlomo, Har Hotzvim, Pisgat Ze'ev, Neveh Ya'acov, Mount Scopus). Route 16 will connect Motza with Rehov Beyth and facilitate traffic flow to the city's southern neighborhoods (Givat Mordechai, Bayit Vagan, Kiryat Hayovel, etc.). Route 39 will connect from west of Malha to the zoo and from there directly to the city's southwestern neighborhoods (Gilo, Malha, Massua). "All these roads will divert traffic that today flows through the entrance to alternative routes and will alleviate traffic jams at the entrance to the city. In addition, the light rail bridge will also contribute to alleviating jams because the light rail will travel on the bridge and not at street level," Schmerling said. - Gail Lichtman A load of garbage Walking the litter-strewn streets of Silwan, it is easy to see why one resident, Ahmed, declares with such conviction, "It's as though we don't exist to the municipality." Vast piles of discarded detritus sit unattended by the side of the road, burned-out cars are left in the middle of scorched fields, and even the residents don't bat an eyelid anymore. "It's the same all over east Jerusalem," claims Ahmed, who maintains that the lack of basic services, such as garbage collection, is a symbolic act of racism by City Hall. Naturally, the municipality takes a rather different view. According to spokesman Gideon Schmerling, "The streets of eastern Jerusalem receive the exact same treatment as the streets in the western part, including garbage pickup three times a week and sweeping two to four times." He also maintains that the streets of the commercial district in east Jerusalem are cleaned "daily, on top of [the other refuse collection]." A brief stroll through the area. however, reveals residential and commercial streets in various states of disrepair, and the ramshackle buildings are matched by the mess that lines the grass verges and pathways in front of them. However, Schmerling says that "the difference in the level of cleanliness may be attributed to lack of awareness of this issue among the residents of eastern Jerusalem." Ahmed retorts, "Are we any dirtier in our habits than those in the west of the city? No - we just happen to be ignored by those who are supposed to serve us." - Seth Freedman Disabled access The lack of disabled access is a problem in the nation generally, and in Jerusalem in particular, but I'd hesitate to call it a plague. A plague, at least in the context of Pessah, implies intent, and I simply refuse to believe that Israelis are deliberately making life for the disabled more difficult than it already is. As I see it, the problem is, rather, one of simple thoughtlessness or, where thought has been given to, say, making a bathroom accessible, laziness; no effort has been made to get the input of a disabled person. Anyone in a wheelchair, for example, will tell you that a bathroom stall intended for the disabled must be big enough to turn around in, especially if the door opens only inward. The alternative, where space is simply not available, is to install a door that swings both ways. In either case, the stall must be large enough to hold a wheelchair with the door closed. Obvious, you say? You'd be surprised! Similarly, while it's clear that a street-side curb is insurmountable by someone in a wheelchair - thus making many of the few accessible buildings in the city impossible to get to - a makeshift asphalt "ramp" is little better if it's too steep to negotiate without tipping over backward, or if a car is parked over it. And yes, a ramp is better than stairs, but not if it's too steep, or has no handrails with which a paraplegic can pull him or herself up. Ironically, ramps are often less expensive to build than stairs. Recent news stories have pointed out that 94 percent of the nation's synagogues are not wheelchair accessible. Have those in wheelchairs lost the privilege of joining their fellow Jews in prayer? Surely they haven't lost the need! And what can one say about a health-fund building whose physical rehabilitation department is at the bottom of a flight of stairs? Or a government building offering services for the disabled, the front door of which is at the top of a flight of stairs? Both can be found in Jerusalem. The disabled don't want to be a burden to the nation we love, any more than we want to be a burden to those who love us, but why does our government play cruel games? Why claim to offer benefits or subsidies, and then make them impossible to actually receive? Is the money saved so much greater than the amount paid to the army of bureaucrats who hold the hoops? Or does the government think it can fool its citizens by declaring "look at all the special services and devices we've made available" while hoping no one notices that most disabled Israelis are still kept imprisoned in their own homes? Apparently so. If you want to help draw attention to the fact that many of our "public" buildings are inaccessible, contact gershomgale@yahoo.com for a "Not Handicapped Accessible" sign. - Gershom Gale Car accidents This year is not shaping up as a good one with respect to traffic fatalities in the greater Jerusalem area. According to the Accident Division of Jerusalem Police, between January 1 and March 21, 10 Jerusalem-area residents were killed in traffic accidents, almost 50 percent of the total of 22 fatalities for 2006. The encouraging news is that the overall number of traffic accidents involving bodily injuries seems to be going down. "It is good that the overall accident rate is down but not so good that the number of fatalities has risen," says Dani Benichou, head of the Accident Division, which keeps data on traffic accidents involving bodily injury for the greater Jerusalem region (including Beit Shemesh, Mevaseret and Givat Ze'ev). Even more discouraging is the rate of pedestrian fatalities. In 2006, 12 of the 22 fatalities were pedestrians. This year, of the 10 fatalities so far, nine were pedestrians. The most dangerous roads in the city in 2006 were Derech Hebron with 29 accidents, the old road to Ma'aleh Adumim with 19 and Sderot Herzl with 17. So far for 2007, the most dangerous roads are Emek Refaim with five accidents, Haim Bar-Lev and Derech Hebron, both with four. Asked if there was a connection between the high accident rates on both Derech Hebron and Herzl and construction for public transportation improvements taking place on both these roads, Benichou said he did not think so. - Gail Lichtman Movie theaters While fans of art house movies have the options of Lev Smadar and the large-scale Cinematheque complex (now undergoing renovation), both of which make for pleasant viewing experiences, those looking to enjoy mainstream movie releases are faced with the less appealing choice between the Globus theater at the Malha mall and Talpiot's Rav Chen. In an article appearing in In Jerusalem in January 2006 ("Showdown at showtime"), then managing director of Globus Group, Yigal Galai, apologized for the problems experienced by audiences at Malha, the worse maintained of the two, claiming that better service would be provided in the future. However, according to recent visitors, conditions at Globus have yet to improve. "At a screening last week the picture was out of focus and fuzzy lines appeared on the screen," one movie-goer said. Another complained about the "filthy state of the floors both in the lobby and the theater itself," as well as the "dirty bathrooms." A spokesman for Globus Group said these grievances would be investigated. Audiences at Rav Chen are forced to contend with lights being left on until after the movie has begun as well as late starting times. "The doors to the theater are often locked up until 10 minutes after the movie is scheduled to begin," one Rav Chen regular said. Rav Chen spokesman Arye Barak argued that while it was possible that films "occasionally ran behind schedule," the theater screens 2,000 movies a week "and has never received complaints about lateness." Barak also maintained that "lights are always switched off in time for the movie to begin," although he acknowledged that they may be left on during pre-movie commercials. - Esti Keller Property prices Foreign purchasing of holiday homes in Jerusalem is a perennial reason given for the sky-high price of property in the capital. But why is this year different from all other years? One reason is the drop in the dollar's value against other major currencies, meaning that sellers try to recoup their losses in real terms by hiking the minimum price they are willing to accept for their homes. As long as the dollar continues to be the currency in which property is traded, the market will always be susceptible to fluctuations in its value. Another factor is the propensity for foreign investors to switch out of equities and into real estate. Last year, Merrill Lynch recommended its clients have at least a small exposure to Israeli property, successfully predicting that the market would continue to reap dividends for investors. One prominent developer told In Jerusalem that "the rate of increase [in Jerusalem property prices] in no way seems set to slow down in the short term." He claimed there was "a long way to go" until investors shied away from entering the market, although he was quick to point out that those driving the market higher are mostly foreign buyers, "while Israelis are priced out of the equation." This disparity between natives leaving the city and those buying up property as second homes has led to the "ghost town" phenomenon. Whole apartment blocks stand empty for much of the year in certain neighborhoods, and there are "many streets where the residents appear for no more than a couple of weeks around holiday time," according to the developer. He pointed out the detrimental effect that this has on community life, but "the free market being what it is, there is precious little that can be done to change the status quo." - Seth Freedman The PM's residence Everyone knows that private contractors have greater access to financing for various projects than the government, which is why new and expanded residential projects in my neighborhood are being completed at such a fast pace. On almost every street within a five minute walk of my home, there are apartment complexes in various stages of completion. Whole apartment blocks have gone up in just a matter of months, and most have been sold or rented. Yet the construction of a permanent official residence for the prime minister that began long before Ariel Sharon took ill, is still dragging on. The upshot is that the prime minister's neighbors on Smolenskin and Balfour streets have to suffer the ongoing de-beautification of what was once one of the prettiest areas in Jerusalem. The prime minister's residence, at the intersection of these two streets, is constantly targeted for improved security by the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency). As a result, it has become a total fortress, with built-in concrete barriers on the pavements surrounding the house, a tall, steel gate at the entrance and a high, spiked fence, which has grown with a succession of prime ministers. As if all this was not bad enough, additional barriers have been set up on both streets to prevent the free entry of cars and to control pedestrian traffic. These are in the form of accordion fences with sliding gates on either side - plus automated barriers beyond. Sometimes both gates are open, sometimes only one gate in any or all of these structures is open - and it's usually the gate which is most inconvenient to the pedestrian. The area is manned by border policemen, who for the most part don't seem to care about hygiene or aesthetics. They leave their food remains in the street or on the fences of residential properties, where the cats get to them and fight over the contents. On patrol, members of the Shin Bet trample people's gardens, and sometimes break into their cars. To add insult to injury, the prime minister's security detail makes a tremendous amount of noise to herald his comings and goings, and thinks nothing of driving in the wrong direction along one-way streets. The security concerns also apply to pedestrians. When the prime minister is scheduled to be coming or going, pedestrians are ordered to wait or to go back to Rehov Keren Hayesod and take the long way around. No one denies that the prime minister needs to be protected, but the house that he lives in was never intended as his official residence. Positioned squarely in a residential neighborhood, it was originally a private family home, and later the home of the foreign minister. It was taken over by prime minister Yitzhak Rabin more than 30 years ago, simply because the house that Golda Meir had lived in was in a terrible state of neglect. All in all, it's an unhappy situation. Some of my neighbors seem to have become accustomed to it and say they are not affected. Personally, I can't understand how they can turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to what's going on, but then again the snob value of living near the prime minister may outweigh other considerations. As far as I'm concerned: Dayeinu! - Greer Fay Cashman