Editor's Notes: An interview with Jerusalem's mayor

Lupolianski sets out his view: easing traffic, bolstering Jewish values and watching Iran's bad apples.

david horovitz 224.88 (photo credit: )
david horovitz 224.88
(photo credit: )
With less than two years of his term left as Jerusalem's mayor, Uri Lupolianski is still not saying whether he intends to run again. He is, however, sounding more contented than in the past with the way the city is functioning under his leadership. There's a lot of negative "folklore" about the capital, he claims, speaking particularly about the notion that, under its haredi mayor, the city itself is becoming inexorably more haredi. Even though the figures would indicate that this is indeed the trend, Lupolianski will have none of it. Suggestions that the city is still far from clean are similarly contested - "There is certainly an improvement," he says - as are complaints about jammed streets. The mayor promises a public transport revolution that may mean inconvenience now, but will ease the traffic pressures dramatically in the near future. As for the lament that too much high-priced real estate is going up to serve "ghost neighborhoods" where owners make only infrequent visits to the city, Lupolianski is adamant that there are relatively few such homes, and no entire neighborhoods, and that those who buy a foothold in the holy city often ultimately get drawn to spend more time here, which benefits everybody. In brief comments from the mayor of one capital city to the former mayor of another, Lupolianski castigates Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's abuse of religion to incite genocide. All societies have their rotten apples, he notes, but they are usually confined to the margins. Even the Jews have such "corrupt" extremists, he adds sadly, referring to the Naturei Karta delegation to Ahmadinejad's Holocaust denial conference. Excerpts: Let's talk about construction - about where you are and aren't building, about providing the necessary infrastructure. You've halted the Safdie plan [for building to the West of the city]. I'm not saying it's a bad or terrible plan. The big picture is to ensure there is enough housing in the city so that youngsters can live here, so that olim can live here, so that the prices won't be sky high. And for that we need to work on plans within the city. Why? Because everyone has been so busy with a plan for West Jerusalem that relates, maybe, to the year 2025. And meantime, all the other plans were neglected, halted. All the energy was channeled to Safdie... I realized we could work together with the greens, the various offices and ministries, so I said "Let's freeze the Safdie plan. Let's come back and check it in a few years, and meanwhile let's focus our energies within the city and get to work." We have plans for more than 50,000 housing units... And 2,000 to 4,000 of those are planned for this year. We are now coming out with the plan for Givat Hamatos - 2,600 housing units. We're working on a plan for East Talpiot for 600 units. A plan for Ramat Rahel. There was a disproportion between the attention given to Safdie at the expense of these plans. Presumably because it offered larger potential… But these areas are problematic. I'm not saying they may not be worthwhile in the end. But you have to build infrastructure, roads, bridges, tunnels. You need a water line, sewage line, telecommunications. By contrast, within the city, all that exists. But the existing transport infrastructure is not adequate. That's why we asked to prepare a master plan for Jerusalem transport... We are going to establish such good public transport lines that, despite their reluctance, will make it worthwhile for people to travel within the city on public transport. As this infrastructure is being built, as roads are fixed, there's inconvenience. But... within two years, it will be possible to move around with great ease and comfort on public transport. Have you seen from other cities that people really are prepared to give up their private transport in sufficient numbers? This was checked in Germany, France, Switzerland. The ease, speed and comfort will be so significant. There's also a social value in having an office manager coming to work together with the clerks. It will be so beneficial for the elderly and the handicapped. The bus stations will be completely handicapped accessible. There'll be no step up needed to get onto the buses. There's a lot of very costly building going up in the city center - with prices that are sky-high. If you're talking about Mamilla and so on, it is prestige building and Jerusalem needs it. There are a lot of people - mainly, but not only, Jews - who want to live in the holy city. And even if that's not where they live all year round, they want a home here for the festivals and so on. Are "ghost neighborhoods" not emerging as a consequence? Not at all. Because the phenomenon is not centered in one particular neighborhood. It's spread out, and this is a big city. This city has more than 800,000 people... (Figures released on Jerusalem Day by the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies put the figure at 718,900 - 66 percent Jewish and 34% Arab - DH.) Let's say there are 2,000 units [that go unoccupied by their owners for much of the year]... I also see it as part of the aliya process: Many of these apartments are not empty. The father comes for the festivals; the son comes on a program for a year; the brother comes. Then the father comes for longer. It's a process that draws them more to Israel. A very specific education question. Two schools: Reut and TALI Bayit Vagan. Reut is a wonderful school and it gets all the backing in the world. TALI Bayit Vagan is being given very different treatment - pressed to merge with this or that school, to leave its building, not having its building fixed up. What's going on? I can't claim to be absolutely familiar. I can say that Reut is successful and is growing and the municipality is helping it. TALI is getting smaller. The Education Ministry bars the municipality from maintaining schools that are too small. Now, because there is also a problem with the physical building there, they are saying that a more appropriate place should be found. In principle, do you support the TALI mindset? I am in favor. You might ask, "You're Orthodox, so why is that?" Well, I think that there are Jews who keep some commandments, Jews who keep more, Jews who keep less. But a Jew must know his heritage, and then he can make his decisions. Reut and TALI give you that heritage. So they're very important. They teach what Judaism is about. Graduates know what Rosh Hashanah is… What's your take on Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad? He's dreadful, of course - to threaten the destruction of a people, any people? Unthinkable. I don't understand the free world. Especially after World War II, that these kinds of things... I've learned more about Christian theology but I have also learned Islamic theology. And for him to make this cynical use of religion. The Koran does not include this concept of genocide. Catholicism has some discussion of what is permissible to try to encourage someone to convert; in Islam, even that does not exist. To our sorrow, there are many people who cynically abuse religion. We know that even some corrupt [Jews] went there [to Teheran for Ahmadinejad's Holocaust denial conference]. It may be "normal" for such rotten apples to be found on the margins of society. But for someone like Ahmadinejad to be allowed to be at center stage? To speak from the platform of the Iranian parliament about the destruction of a people? It's appalling. Are you enjoying this job? I can't speak in those terms, but I derive satisfaction from the fact that we are meeting our strategic goals, that I've managed to reduce the debt of the city of Jerusalem and reach a balanced budget. I certainly don't take personal credit for the fact that the city is alive, vibrant, the economy is reawakening, tourism is so drastically returning... But at any moment, new minefields appear. Do you want to keep on doing this? In this country, and especially Jerusalem, every hour is like an eternity. On November 26, 2008 there will be elections. That's two years away. Do you have a demographic vision for this city. [In an address to the Herzliya Conference a year ago, opposition City Council leader Nir Barkat warned that Jerusalem was fast losing its Jewish majority, and had already lost its Zionist majority. He said 46 percent of city residents were Zionists, 20% were haredim and 34% were Arabs.] Jerusalem is the capital of the Jewish people. Not just Israeli Jews, but the world's Jews. When our parents were scattered all over the world, they prayed to Jerusalem, they broke a glass for Jerusalem when they got married, they invoked Jerusalem when they mourned. And so it must maintain an overwhelming Jewish majority. It must not exclude Jews; it needs Jews to come. All streams of Judaism? Absolutely. And it is happening. There's so much [negative] "folklore" surrounding this city. But anyone living here sees the harmony. Are secular Jews leaving? Factually, no. Overall, in the "golden era" of [mayor] Teddy Kollek, 18,000-20,000 people left the city, mainly to the nearby areas like Ma'aleh Adumim. It wasn't that they fled. In Ehud Olmert's time, that number fell, to 12,000-15,000. Today, that number has come down so much further - because the city is thriving. We're talking about a [net outflow] of 4,000... (The trend long predates Lupolianski's era. Those departing mainly cite better job prospects and cheaper housing as reasons to leave. The net outflow was 6,700 in 2004 and 5,800 in 2005, according to the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies. The Institute does not yet have figures for 2006. The 2005 figures show Bnei Brak, Tel Aviv and Beit Shemesh as the three leading areas from which new residents arrived in Jerusalem, and Tel Aviv, Beit Shemesh and Ma'aleh Adumim as the three leading areas to which Jerusalemites departed. Close analysis of some of these statistics - such as the fact that over 1,000 more Jerusalemites left for Tel Aviv than arrived from that city, or that 700 more left for Ma'aleh Adumim than arrived from there - highlights the sense of an overall outflow of non-haredi Jewish Jerusalemites - DH.) Is all the work done? No. But you asked, am I running again for mayor. I want to finish the job. I hope I'll finish the job. And then I won't have to... I don't see this as a profession. I don't think someone should be a mayor for 20 years. (A longer version of this interview appears in today's "In Jerusalem" supplement for Jerusalem-area readers.)