Guest columnist: Make Jerusalem a livable city

A staggering 272,000 Jerusalemites have left the city since 1990

colette avital 88 (photo credit: )
colette avital 88
(photo credit: )
June 2 marks Jerusalem Day when we commemorate Israel's victory in the 1967 Six Day War and the reunification of the city. In the 41 years that have passed, the capital has grown and thrived. Today it is the largest city in Israel with a population of 800,000 and the country's administrative and governmental center. And yet, with the 60th anniversary of Israel's independence and the maturity that comes with it, we can allow ourselves to deal with some tough questions concerning the city's future. For many years Israel has appealed to the international community to recognize Jerusalem as its capital, but the world has remained adamantly opposed. Even some of its closest allies, including the United States, still refuse to officially grant Jerusalem the status of capital. Earlier this year, Canada's Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal by Eliahu Veffer, a Canadian Jew who asked that his passport show that he was born in "Jerusalem, Israel," rather than simply "Jerusalem." But today Israel must also ask itself what it has done to make Jerusalem special? Have we truly transformed it into a city worthy of its proclaimed title - the capital of the Jewish people? Unfortunately, it has done regrettably little. TODAY JERUSALEM has the sad distinction of being the poorest city in Israel. According to the latest report published by the Jerusalem Institute, 33 percent of the city's population is poor; a shocking 56% of its children live under the poverty line. The average family income is NIS 11,419 - much less than the national average of NIS 14,419. The last few years have witnessed a steady decline in the number of young working people in the population. In 2006, 16,800 residents left the city, while 10,600 arrived. Forty thousand students currently live in the city. But in a recent survey conducted by Dr. Maya Hoshen, a senior researcher at the Jerusalem Center for Israel Studies, 64% of them said they expected to leave the city after finishing their studies; 43% gave employment as the main reason for their probable departure. A staggering 272,000 Jerusalemites have left the city since 1990. IT IS hard to get to and from Jerusalem by rail. The city is effectively cut off from the national train system which connects most of the cities in the center of the country. One day, we are promised, a train ride from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem will take only half an hour, but this will only happen sometime in the next decade. Meanwhile, work on the light rail is under way after repeated delays. Soon this work will commence downtown, adversely affecting the appearance of the city and the short-term income of thousands of merchants. Employment is also an issue. Forty-eight percent of employees in the city work in the public sector; only 7% are employed in industry - less than half the national average. Developing employment training programs for Jerusalem residents and attracting high (and middle) technology companies is imperative if we are to keep commerce alive, let alone make it thrive. The budget Jerusalem receives from the national government for cultural activities and institutions is ridiculously small and a fraction of what Tel Aviv enjoys. Many artists, actors and musicians are forced to leave the city, and important institutions stand on the verge of collapse. THE HOUSING situation is similarly bleak. Almost all of the new building projects in the city are of "luxury" standard, targeted mainly at Diaspora Jews seeking a second home or an investment property. Rents in the city have skyrocketed this year, driving out young couples and families and making the city unaffordable to students. In my capacity as chairwoman of the caucus for Jerusalem in the Knesset, I convened a special conference on "The Economic Future of Jerusalem," which took place in the Knesset on Monday, May 19. We held sessions on housing, transportation, demography and employment and many other subjects. We brought together experts, government officials and the city's business community to discuss the burning issues Jerusalem faces today, and those it will face in the coming years. Some very concrete recommendations emanated from this conference. The need to develop real estate for affordable housing is absolutely essential. And the fact is there is enough land within the city's boundaries to do so without expanding into the green areas to the west. I urge the Israel Lands Administration to ease bureaucratic barriers and enable building on public land. Hi-tech industries in Jerusalem are in dire need of personnel - they can only survive if employment training programs are quickly funded and instituted. Teva, the pharmaceutical giant, functions here in part because it has instituted its own training system. The Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor should cooperate with such enterprises and encourage other similar initiatives. Industries such as biotechnology and new media should be given incentives to take root in Jerusalem. The large haredi sector, which constitutes approximately a third of the city's Jewish population, can and should be better integrated into the workforce. Everyone at the Knesset conference agreed that an effective rail system, both intracity and intercity, is crucial for the sustainability of business and tourism in Jerusalem and will raise the quality of life for Jerusalem residents. I can only hope that the proposals and ideas which emerged from our conference will resonate in the ears of our decision makers. The writer is deputy speaker of the Knesset and chairwoman of the caucus for Jerusalem.