Equally Jewish and democratic

Har Homa was founded in 1997, in the midst of a stormy binational struggle. Today it has nearly 20,000 residents, but it still looks like a construction site, neglected and uninviting.

Har Homa in Jerusalem (photo credit: REUTERS)
Har Homa in Jerusalem
(photo credit: REUTERS)
It struck me in the neighborhood of Har Homa, among its sprawling streets and stone homes that sprang up so suddenly, in the Jerusalem heat of early summer. I was waiting for then housing minister Uri Ariel and Mayor Nir Barkat, who were expected to arrive for a joint tour to convey (once again) the message that Jerusalem will not be divided, and that our right to build in all parts of the city is alive and well, despite and in spite of Western naysayers.
I looked around me: The streets were too empty, the sidewalks too exposed, and the houses looked like sealed fortresses. Here and there a small, unshaded, neglected playground, or a shopping center with nothing more than a rundown pizza place, a small kiosk, or a shabby minimart. No trees to provide shelter from the sun or add color to the stone landscape, no flowers in the overly wide boulevards, and hardly any public benches – not to mention any places where residents might gather, interact and experience community life.
Har Homa was founded in 1997, in the midst of a stormy binational struggle. Today it has nearly 20,000 residents, but it still looks like a construction site, neglected and uninviting. Something doesn’t add up.
At one time Faisal Husseini said that the construction of this neighborhood would constitute a causus belli.
Every US president has heard the words “Har Homa.”
Every EU official knows its map and can point out its deviation from the Green Line. The global media views every house here as another obstacle to the Clinton Parameters. And every new floor on every new building is meant to remind the surrounding Arab neighborhoods that the process is irreversible.
Who has not sworn an oath to Har Homa? From Ehud Olmert, who authorized it, to Tzipi Livni , who supported it, and obviously Netanyahu’s administration in its various compositions. Har Homa has solid standing in the Israeli consensus, which is united in its support for construction in Jerusalem: the neighborhood is Israel on any map and in any agreement.
With such a foundation, one should expect this neighborhood to be a gem, a marvel of urban life and model of Jerusalem’s renewal 20 years since its founding.
It should attract new residents effortlessly. But instead the opposite has happened. Somehow, here of all places, the residents are taken for granted, seen as the least important part of the enterprise. As if they were merely pawns in the grand game of the conflict . Extras on the movie set of the Story of Jerusalem, dwarfed by a continuous history of 3,000 years.
For years I wondered what lead that very moment, when Ehud Olmert beat Teddy Kollek and took over as mayor of Jerusalem. What was it that caused me to leave the city of my birth, the city I loved, where I dreamed of raising my children, the city to which my soul is still linked, the city that continues to pain me, distress me and inspire me in equal measure? What caused me to pack up and move to Tel Aviv – where, despite all the years that have passed, I still feel like an exile and a foreigner – even while I continued working in Jerusalem? Why did I and nearly all my former classmates, and in time my family, leave Jerusalem? Some would say we ran away; some would say we abandoned the city and its heaviness seeking an easier life the lightness and comforts of Tel Aviv.
On that brutally sunny day in Har Homa, listening to the proclamations of the minister and mayor, the Shechina (spirit of God) suddenly descended on me, as we Jerusalemites say, and I understood.
Jerusalem demands its residents serve history, I realized. The residents exist for the city rather than the city to serve them. The biblical verse is more important than the residents’ well being and day-today living. The historical narrative comes first, and only then, if it can be accommodated, a playground or some shade to enjoy the day. Har Homa is a political statement first and only then a residential neighborhood.
Tel Aviv, in contrast, was meant to serve its residents, and it vies for their hearts. The future is written only as the present provides for it. If you like, it’s the Zionist narrative subject to the market rules.
Tel Aviv – taglined The City That Never Stops – seeks the best for its residents. They are its raison d’être and they grant the city its status. If they are content and happy, the city can exist – otherwise, as proven in the 1970s, they will go somewhere else. The first Hebrew city cannot afford to take its population for granted.
The title is tested day by day. (Maybe because in this case God and faith are not part of the deal.) Given that life in Israel is already both a political statement and a constant struggle to exert the right to exist in the Middle East, at least the day-to-day life can be a little bit saner. If we are already enlisted in the Zionist cause, at least let the terms of our service be reasonable at the level of life. There, in Har Homa, more than a decade after I’d left the holy city for the coastal plain, I suddenly realized that I had, in effect, not fled from the cause yet reinforced my reserves to conserve energy for the really important struggle: a Jewish and democratic Israel with a hyphen, equally Jewish and democratic.
At the end of the day this is the priority – this is the fight for a common existence, a struggle for a shared tomorrow, a cause to focus on now rather than another little verse from the pages of history in a city whose story is larger than life itself.
The author is Channel 2’s chief correspondent and anchor of the Saturday evening news, Israel’s most watched news program. @danawt.