My Word: Jerusalem’s contradictions and blessings

Jerusalem is the country’s heart and soul. Without it, there would be no Israel

 AN AERIAL view of the ever-growing Jerusalem, above the Yemin Moshe neighborhood. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
AN AERIAL view of the ever-growing Jerusalem, above the Yemin Moshe neighborhood.

I consider myself lucky to live in Jerusalem – blessed, even. Although at times it seems to be a mixed blessing. It is not always an easy place but there is nowhere like it.

Twice this week, I stopped to help accidental tourists find their way. In both cases, this was not their first visit to the Israeli capital, but the entrance to the city had changed so much that they had lost their bearings. I could sympathize. Although I travel to work at The Jerusalem Post building almost daily, I also find it hard to keep track of the new roads, tunnels, tracks and buildings near the Central Bus Station.

Post photographer Marc Israel Sellem, who flew above the city in a helicopter during the Independence Day flyby last month, was impressed by both its beauty and its size. “From above, it looks much bigger than I thought,” he said.

“From above, it looks much bigger than I thought.”

Marc Israel Sellem

Jerusalem’s growth and glory are a prayer come true. Jerusalem rebuilt.

How has Israel's capital of Jerusalem been rebuilt?

The city is growing both on the ground and upwards. Skyscrapers, once a rarity in Jerusalem, are increasingly common. Recently, I chided an architect who insisted on referring to a 15-floor apartment block as “a low building.” The construction work – creating homes and offices, for those who can afford them – is accompanied by a lot of noise. Some sounds, however – like some parts of the capital – carry holy reminders of how special this city is to so many people: Church bells, calls of the muezzin and singing emanating from synagogues and homes on Friday nights.

The Temple Mount in Jerusalem. (credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)The Temple Mount in Jerusalem. (credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

Jerusalem has always been a city of contradictions. It is both heavenly and very down-to-earth. Profound spirituality seems to be built within its stone walls, yet if cleanliness is next to godliness, Jerusalem would have to forgo its name as the Holy City, despite Mayor Moshe Lion’s best efforts.

Weighed down by millennia of history, Jerusalem suffers from a certain type of pressure  – and unlike Tel Avivians, Jerusalemites can’t just go to the beach to escape. But Jerusalem is the country’s heart and soul. Tel Aviv might be the commercial center, but Jerusalem is the eternal capital. Without Jerusalem, there would be no Israel.

The Temple Mount might be hotly contested by those who refuse to recognize Jewish and Israeli ties to the holy place where the First and Second Temples once stood, but it is Judaism’s holiest site. The ties are binding. Only the Jews have ever made Jerusalem their capital.

That’s why I believe official visits to Jerusalem should start with the archaeological finds of the City of David rather than Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum. Jewish history did not start with the Shoah. Neither did Israel’s story. Through exile and return, exile and return, Jews have always turned to Jerusalem when they prayed. And they have always prayed for Jerusalem, both the physical and the metaphysical; the Jerusalem of above and the Jerusalem below.

AHEAD OF Jerusalem Day, the Central Bureau of Statistics this week released pertinent data on the city. The Israeli capital is the country’s largest city with some 984,500 residents. At the end of 2022, 60.8% of Jerusalem residents were Jews and other non-Muslims, while 39.2% were Muslim; some 29% of the city’s population were ultra-Orthodox (half of the “Jewish and others” category.) During 2022, Jerusalem’s population grew overall by 13,200. Some 20,000 Jerusalemites were born last year, but some 15,500 people left the city. Indeed, more people moved out of the city than moved to it. I suspect the fact that housing costs are heading sky-high like the buildings has something to do with it. Jerusalem continues to be the poorest city in the country – at least in terms of economic poverty.

Among the dry statistics, there were also some uplifting findings. According to the CBS, 89% of Jerusalemites aged 20 and above describe themselves as “satisfied with life”: 93% of the Jewish residents and 82% of the Arabs. And a whopping 93% of working Jerusalemites are “satisfied” with their jobs.

For all Israelis love to complain – and it’s a national pastime – there’s a reason why Israel is in the fourth spot in the UN-sponsored 2023 World Happiness Report. There are intense social and security problems but also immense charitable efforts and compassion.

No Western city today can consider itself immune to terrorism, but not every capital boasts streets that are bustling and safe, well into the night. Every war, rocket, or terror attack takes its toll on all of Jerusalem’s communities. It’s a tragedy because it’s a city where the sky’s the limit. For example, on Saturdays, when most restaurants and shops close in Jewish neighborhoods, the eateries and stores in Arab communities should be extra attractive as tourist destinations, benefiting all. But for that, you need more trust and cooperation.

There are, of course, many oases of coexistence within the city – the Hebrew University, the Tisch Family Biblical Zoo, the museums, the shopping malls and the hospitals, among other places. Critics who talk of an apartheid policy have obviously never been hospitalized here. Medical centers are full of Jewish and Arab doctors, nurses and other staff who work to help Jewish and Arab patients, without differentiation.

Everyone can agree that the traffic is a nightmare – I favor public transport, where the drivers and passengers also reflect a social and religious mix.

Writing this column midweek, I have no idea of how the events of Jerusalem Day on Thursday night and Friday will turn out: I’m an ordinary Jerusalemite, not a prophet. But I do believe that the reunification of the city in the 1967 Six Day War is cause for celebration. It marks the end of 19 years of Jordanian rule during which Jews had no access to the Temple Mount, the ancient Mount of Olives cemetery and the Kotel – the Western Wall – among other places. The city was whole once more.

Nothing demonstrates the problems and paradoxes of Jerusalem’s status and situation as the annual Jerusalem Day Flag March. Over time, the march – also known as the Flag Dance – became identified largely with Israel’s right-wing and national religious public. But this year, when the protests for and against the government’s judicial reform plan were all dominated by the Israeli flags, something has changed.

Similarly, heading to Jerusalem Day after yet another round of hostilities in which more than a thousand rockets were launched on Israel in five days also affects the mood. Fortunately, or out of necessity, resilience is part of the country’s DNA.

Incidentally, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other Palestinian terrorist organizations can claim their undying love for Jerusalem all they like, but they have a strange way of showing it. Threatening to target it with rocket fire is not a normal – or acceptable – way of expressing devotion.

Jerusalem can literally drive you crazy. No other city inspires its own medically recognized psychosis – Jerusalem Syndrome. Those afflicted, usually tourists or pilgrims, suddenly believe they are a biblical figure and pronounce either messages of peace or dire warnings. Jerusalem is larger than life and just as complicated; it is truly unique. So, I continue to count my blessings.

The reappearance of tourists – lost and found – is one of those blessings, especially after the tough years of the COVID-19 crisis. In Israel, like elsewhere, there is a new mark in history: BC, Before Corona.

Writing a column in honor of Jerusalem Day I could end with a prayer or a psalm. But those visitors I bumped into earlier this week reminded me of the last lines of a poem, “Tourists” by Jerusalemite poet Yehuda Amichai. It seems fitting to let Amichai have the last word:

“Once I sat on the steps by a gate at David’s Tower,

I placed my two heavy baskets by my side. A group of tourists

was standing around their guide and I became their target marker. ‘You see

that man with the baskets? Just right of his head there’s an arch

from the Roman period... 

I said to myself: Redemption will come only if they are told,

‘You see that arch from the Roman period? It’s not important: but next to it,

left a bit and further down, there sits a man who’s bought fruit and vegetables for his family.’”