Jerusalem isn’t united. But it can be

Jerusalem Day is an opportunity to reflect on our capital’s past, take stock of its present and plan for its future.

 A LIGHT rail train stops at Damascus Gate. The service connects the eastern and western parts of Jerusalem. But is the city united? (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
A LIGHT rail train stops at Damascus Gate. The service connects the eastern and western parts of Jerusalem. But is the city united?
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

The reunification of Jerusalem under Israeli rule in 1967 was a moment viewed as nothing short of miraculous by millions of Jews around the world.

Plucky little Israel, all of 19 years old, fended off the combined armed forces of its much larger neighbors – which had threatened the Jewish state with annihilation just days earlier – and expanded its frontiers, tripling the territory under its control.

Images of awestruck soldiers gazing up at the ancient stones of the Western Wall became instantly iconic; in the days after the area in front of the wall was opened up, hundreds of thousands of Jews flocked to the site, reconnecting to the last remnant of their holy temples’ retaining wall. For the first time in nearly two millennia, after countless conquests and expulsions, the most sacred sites of the Jewish people were back in Jewish hands.

On June 27, 1967, barely two weeks after the end of the war, the government of prime minister Levi Eshkol passed three bills that effectively expanded Jerusalem’s municipal boundaries to incorporate those parts of the city that had been under Jordanian occupation.

Eleven months later, on May 12, 1968, the government declared the 28th of the Hebrew month of Iyar – the day on which the Western Wall was liberated – Jerusalem Day, celebrating the Jewish people’s longstanding connection to the city; the holiday was enshrined in law 30 years later, in 1998. On July 30, 1980, the Knesset passed Basic Law: Jerusalem, Capital of Israel, formally declaring Jerusalem, “complete and united,” the country’s capital.

IDF Paratroopers relax after liberating the Western Wall during the Six Day War (credit: IDF SPOKESMAN’S UNIT)IDF Paratroopers relax after liberating the Western Wall during the Six Day War (credit: IDF SPOKESMAN’S UNIT)

Over the past half-century, Jerusalem Day has become a day to celebrate the centrality of the city to Israel and the Jewish people. Synagogues hold festive prayer services; children participate in joyous school assemblies. Israeli leaders deliver speeches lauding the city’s reunification and pledging that it will never again be divided. As I write these words, teenagers clad in blue and white are streaming past this paper’s Jerusalem offices, singing Jerusalem-themed songs at the top of their lungs as they make their way toward the Old City.

But while Jerusalem is indeed united according to Israeli law, the reality on the ground tells another story.

Jerusalem: A city united by law but divided on the ground

Earlier this week, in advance of Jerusalem Day, the Jerusalem Institute for Policy Research released its annual Statistical Yearbook of Jerusalem. The picture that emerges is of a city divided along pretty much the exact lines that were supposedly erased 56 years ago.

Despite efforts to encourage Jewish Israelis to move to eastern Jerusalem, most of the city’s neighborhoods have retained the ethnic makeup they had before reunification, with the notable exception of those built since 1967, like Ramot, Pisgat Ze’ev and Neve Ya’acov. Jews, for the most part, live in western Jerusalem and Arabs largely live in eastern Jerusalem. The two halves of the city have distinctly different characters and feel, at times, like two very different cities.

Jerusalem is one of the poorest cities in Israel and some 42% of the city’s residents live under the poverty line – double the national level of 21%. The poverty, however, is not equally distributed. A stunning 60% of the city’s Arab residents live under the poverty line, compared to 31% of Jewish residents (the Jewish poverty rate is driven in large part by poverty in the city’s haredi community, which is at 43% – still significantly below the rate among Arab Jerusalemites).

Municipal services, too, are not equally distributed. While streets are paved and cleaned, garbage is collected and hazards are cleared away in a timely manner in the western part of the city, the same cannot always be said of the city’s eastern half.

Walking around Arab-majority areas in eastern Jerusalem, and particularly neighborhoods further from the pre-1967 demarcation line, one encounters dirt roads strewn with litter, unregulated junkyards and garbage heaps, and damaged infrastructure that can take weeks, months or years to be repaired. Schools, clinics, and other institutions in the eastern half of Jerusalem lag behind their counterparts in the western part of the city.

It is easy to blame the Jerusalem municipality or the Israeli authorities for neglecting the city’s Arab-majority eastern half and ascribing negative motives for that neglect. But the reality is more complicated than that.

When Israel reunited Jerusalem in 1967, it granted the Arab residents of the city’s eastern half permanent residency, rather than citizenship. While they are eligible to apply for citizenship, relatively few have, largely for nationalist reasons: the acquisition of Israeli citizenship is viewed by many as an acknowledgment of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem and a betrayal of the Palestinian cause.

They are nevertheless entitled to vote in municipal elections, which determine the identity of the city’s mayor and the makeup of the city council. But virtually none do: in the most recent municipal elections, in 2018, less than 1% of eligible voters in eastern Jerusalem cast their votes. Consequently, of the city council’s 32 members, not a single one is Arab.

There is a direct and obvious connection between the absence of Arab voices from Jerusalem’s top decision-making body and the sorry state of the city’s eastern half; Arab Jerusalemites will benefit immensely from greater involvement in municipal affairs. But that does not absolve municipal authorities of their responsibility to address the needs of all the city’s residents, regardless of where they live.

Jerusalem receives special government grants, enshrined in law, to reinforce its status as Israel’s capital and help address needs not covered by municipal taxes and other revenue sources. Those resources and others sought by the city government should go toward strengthening eastern Jerusalem, expanding opportunities in that part of the city, and improving both its residents’ standard of living and the quality of the municipal services they receive.

The benefits of such an effort will redound to the city as a whole. Poverty levels will fall, Jerusalem’s socioeconomic strength will rise and eastern Jerusalem’s residents will be more fully integrated into the city’s fabric. It won’t happen overnight, but it will happen, and it will have a dramatic effect on both the perception and the reality of Jerusalem’s indivisibility.

Jerusalem Day is an opportunity to reflect on our capital’s past, take stock of its present and plan for its future. Israel’s conquest of the eastern part of the city in 1967 was a momentous occasion that rightly and justly brought the beating heart of the Jewish people under the Jewish state’s control. The current state of affairs in the city, however, is contrary to Israel’s national interest and to Jerusalem’s status as a unified city. The residents of eastern Jerusalem deserve better and so do all who wish to see the city truly united.