Middle Israel: Does Jerusalem need a Calatrava bridge?

Beset by zealotry, terror and geography, the effort to impose normality on the capital has failed.

amotz asa el 88 (photo credit: )
amotz asa el 88
(photo credit: )
As they watched the Calatrava string bridge being assembled above its entrance the other day, Jerusalem's admirers and detractors agreed on one thing: this town is no Paris, Rio, New York or Tokyo. It has no beachfront, bayside, riverbank or lake view, and never purported to straddle a major (or even minor) trade route, nor does it sport commercial fairs or much of an industrial center or business district. Why then build here a doubtfully necessary bridge, even if designed by the celebrated architect of world-class museums, towers and transport centers? This City of God has always resisted the mundane. The mountains that for centuries shouldered pilgrims, enshrined priests, entombed sages, dwarfed kings, bred prophets and often also swallowed them alive - were no place for glitzy office towers, noisy stock markets, bustling subway stations, busy airports, seductive fashion pageants, trendy shopping rows or elaborate cultural scenes. It follows that, whether beamed, arched or suspended, this city also defies elaborate bridges, one of the most ancient expressions of human arrogance. Jerusalem has no Thames, Seine or Euphrates running through it, and there can be no Seventh Wonder linking it to a neighboring country, the way, for instance, the Oresund connects Denmark and Sweden above 16 kilometers' worth of Baltic Sea waves. And yet, 40 years after its reunification, if there is anything Jerusalem needs more urgently than anything else - it is bridges. IT IS easy to laugh away the 72-string Calatrava Bridge, which will look like a 300-meter-wide bird no less than the harp and shofar by which its celebrated architect was inspired. Many will deride it as a gimmick aimed at advertising the light railway project, and diverting attention away from its flaws. After all, once activated next year, the rails currently being laid down Mount Herzl will prove but a dim echo of real mass-transit systems, a much heralded trolley comprising a mere two lines, both above ground, and one of which will not even run trains, only glorified buses. Anyone who has seen metro systems around the world, even in cities not much larger than Jerusalem like Boston, can't escape the suspicion that this project is much ado about rather little, a one-line service that will remind Israelis of Haifa's quaint Carmelit, and Americans of Seattle's anecdotal monorail. Considering that the light-railway system will at least initially not even enter populous Ramot and Gilo, chances are that the entire project will soon prove a flop, largely shunned by the middle class that will remain attached to its cars and disgusted by the inner city's dilapidation, as they have been in the aftermath of the Teddy Kollek era. Yet chances are also that, despite its shortcomings, this project will help Jerusalem to a new era of urban renewal. THE LIGHT railway may restore the Jaffa Road area. The artery that once was the city's main drag is now run down, and in fact last saw a serious development drive in the 1930s, when the British built much of what connects the Old City and the Ben-Yehuda areas. The railway may not efficiently link any two points in the city, but it will place the old urban center at its heart. If as a consequence Jaffa Road will be taken over by elegant stores of the sort that currently exist only in the malls, then something will have been accomplished. Secondly, the Mamilla Project - the glitzy shopping, office and entertainment quarter now being completed outside Jaffa Gate some 30 years past deadline - may emerge as the commercial link between Arab and Jewish Jerusalem that this area was until 1948. And lastly, if a sense of renewal begins to emerge from the inner city, Jerusalem may reclaim its appeal among the secular Israeli elite. Few things symbolize the capital's decline more than its abandonment by secular notables, from novelists Meir Shalev and David Grossman to TV anchor Haim Yavin and now also Justice Aharon Barak. Even Ehud Olmert reportedly sought property in Tel Aviv upon completion of his nine years as the capital's mayor. Surely, for this to transpire Jerusalem must also be culturally reinvented. Back in the 1960s, when it had the country's only fully fledged university, Jerusalem was home to Israel's most prominent luminaries, from Kabbala expert Gershom Scholem and philosopher Martin Buber to Nobel laureate S.Y. Agnon and poet Yehuda Amichai. Today hardly a fraction of Israel's literary and academic elite live in Jerusalem, and the numbers keep dwindling. Gone also are the cosmopolitan Kollek era's frequent visits by foreign celebrities like Saul Bellow, Barbra Streisand, Marlene Dietrich, Frank Sinatra and Isaac Stern. Today's depleted Jerusalem is in no position to rival decadent Tel Aviv's cultural leadership of the Jewish state. And this is even before one seeks in Jerusalem Israel's powerful financial, industrial and technological elites, practically all of whom graze along the Tel Aviv-Caesarea-Mount Carmel axis. BESET BY zealotry, terror and geography, Kollek's heroic effort to impose normality on Jerusalem has failed; abnormality sprang from underneath it, like a geyser from a stone or lava from a volcano. The city that built a career on its proximity to the afterlife remained suspicious of life itself, letting its painstakingly built bridges between faith and creativity, and between man and man, fall into disrepair. Seen this way, it would verge on the criminal to dismiss for whatever reason the emergence of an elaborate bridge in Jerusalem, or to judge its merit by such mundane criteria as whether it leads from here to there or from there to here, or whether it eventually carries this or that many people. What matters is where it leads Jerusalem itself. If it shortens even by just one inch the gaps that have come to yawn between sanity and this sorry city's numerous zealots, crusaders and self-styled prophets, for Middle Israelis Jerusalem's bridge of strings would be longer, and far more useful, than the world's longest bridge.