Jerusalem: the new periphery

"The way Jerusalem functioned following the recent snowstorm proves that the city is physically and psychologically distant from the center of the country."

Snowy Jerusalem street 390 (photo credit: Amy Spiro)
Snowy Jerusalem street 390
(photo credit: Amy Spiro)
The time has come to congratulate Jerusalem. It is now officially part of the true Israeli periphery. In the past, there were attempts to name Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, but they just ended up looking ridiculous.
The way Jerusalem functioned following the recent snowstorm proves that the city is physically and psychologically distant from the center of the country and that the events that take place high up on the mountaintop, where the strange people with their long coats live, have absolutely no connection to us.
Change takes place slowly over a long period of time and we don’t always notice when it’s happening. Sometimes it takes a landmark event or catastrophe for us to notice that the reality has changed. That’s exactly what happened after the snowstorm in Jerusalem. We were finally able to really see how weak this grand city really is. Out of sight, out of mind.
For years annual reports have ranked Jerusalem at the bottom of both the economic and social realms in Israel. The city has been suffering from negative migration for years and is losing between 7,000 and 8,000 residents each year, 100 percent of whom are Jewish.
Nonetheless, the city’s rate of natural increase is the highest in the country and the amount of illegal immigration to the city from Judea and Samaria has also grown. The fertility rate of the general population in Israel is 2.9, and 4.2 in Jerusalem. Among the Arab population in Israel, the fertility rate is 3.3, and 3.6 in Jerusalem.
In 2011, 22,200 babies were born in Jerusalem, 63 percent of whom were Jewish and 35% Muslim. Since 1967, the population of Jerusalem has tripled. The Jewish population in the capital has grown 159% , whereas the Arab population has grown 327% .
Currently, 40 percent of the city’s residents are Arab and 60 percent are Jewish.
A more detailed analysis of the data shows that of the Jewish population of Jerusalem 31% are haredi and 21% associate themselves with the Zionist religious sector. This fascinating figure is an example of how all of Israel will look in 30 or 40 years from now.
There will be two large groups – haredi and Arab – and a small minority made up of members of the secular and Zionist religious communities.
The implications of these numbers are clear and immediate action needs to be taken.
Residents living in Jerusalem lag behind other communities around the country in every category: the percentage of people who are gainfully employed, education, families’ monthly expenses, percentage of youth who pass their matriculation exams, budgets, industrial parks and number of jobs available. A couple of weeks ago, the 2013 annual National Insurance Institute poverty report was released and it is now official: Jerusalem is the poorest city in the country.
A total of 34.7% of its residents and 60% of its children are poor.
I repeat: 60% of children in Jerusalem live below the poverty line. This is the future of the capital, of Israel’s largest city.
Absurdly enough, its arnona (property tax) is higher than any other city in Israel, and the number of residents paying arnona is decreasing and so the tax burden will continue to fall on a smaller number of residents.
Let’s not forget that the city benefits from a special status, but this small amount has not helped much. This process did not begin just yesterday, or even five years ago, and it has not been affected by Nir Barkat’s strong leadership or that of his predecessors. The city has been changing and eroding despite the tremendous amount of effort being invested in reversing this trend.
Jerusalem’s strength, resilience and its ability to cope is eroding.
When the heavy snow descended upon the city last week, the hard truth came to light: the city does not have the resources to deal with such a tremendous challenge. It is not enough to have good intentions and be enthusiastic. The picture is crystal clear.
Municipalities that have a hard enough time dealing with day-to-day problems are certainly not capable of coping in emergency situations.
Poor people who don’t have enough to eat during calm periods will have a hard time surviving times of distress.
For years the government and citizens who live outside of Jerusalem have managed to ignore these statistics, but the crisis that developed as a result of the snowfall has forced everyone to finally acknowledge the truth. What country in the world lets its capital remain shut off from the rest of the country for 48 hours, and then for days after that continues to suffer from such difficult traffic congestion? Who could have imagined that an entire city, including its suburbs, would be left covered in snow with no electricity, no phone lines, no communication capabilities and no food and supplies? The government refuses to acknowledge the reality. It refuses to recognize that Jerusalem is experiencing a deep crisis. Israelis around the country view Jerusalem as a nice place to visit historical sites and to attend cultural events.
No longer do people move to Jerusalem for a job or to go to university. Sadly, Jerusalem residents are moving away to other towns near the capital, such as Mevaseret Zion, Har Adar and even Modi’in, or to cities farther away and along the coast. Absurdly enough, when the new railway begins operating to Jerusalem, this will be even more of an incentive for people who work in the city to live elsewhere. This is not the way a city should function.
The media are also partners in crime when it comes to being in denial about Jerusalem.
During the recent storm, they only covered the western part of the city, where secular and Zionist religious Jews live. They completely ignored the two largest population segments in the capital. Can anyone recall a news item about residents in the eastern part of the city? From the refugee camps? Or about any Arabic speakers at all? And what about the haredi communities? How many haredi residents were interviewed about how they’d been dealing with the difficulties due to the storm? We all know the principle that if it’s not reported in the media, it doesn’t really exist. How convenient to just ignore the majority of the city’s residents.
The global Jewish community, of course, views Jerusalem as a most prestigious place. Mention the word Jerusalem, and you’ve said it all.
I remember participating in conferences with delegations of Jews from around the world, and when speakers would say “Jerusalem, which will remain eternally united” audiences would break out in great bouts of clapping and cheering. But it is doubtful that these Diaspora Jews are aware of the severity of the situation. For years, they’ve been spoon-fed very different information, and they continued handing over their bountiful financial donations without knowing exactly what they would be used for. The time has come for our brethren abroad to learn the real truth, as hard as this may be: Jerusalem is the new periphery and you are cordially invited to help us strengthen it.
The truth is that I’m tired of receiving handouts.
I truly appreciate all the help we are given from overseas, but I think that Jerusalem must be taken on as Israel’s next project, and not leave it to charities from the Diaspora. Only a multibillion-shekel investment will give the city the necessary momentum it needs to attract new and excited residents and provide the city with the holy trinity of employment, housing and education.
It was so sad to see Jerusalem suffering. Unlike the wonderful snowfalls that I remember from the past, the joy from the beautiful pure white snow that covered the city was quickly replaced with justified claims of failures and new difficulties that residents encountered.
The traditional joy we were used to experiencing was cut short as Jerusalemites and Israelis around the country came face to face with the sobering truth. We were forced to admit that the current Jerusalem is different from the one we used to know. Jerusalemites realized that they couldn’t hide the scars of their beautiful and beloved city behind stage makeup anymore.
It was especially sad to see the few hundreds of Israelis who came to Jerusalem for the winter weekend festivities. At least people are finally realizing that Jerusalem isn’t just a place to go to have fun on the weekends, but a place that can be lived in for the other five days of the week too. Let’s hope that the future of Jerusalem will be bright and that we will have many more winters in which to celebrate the wonders of this special city.
The author is a Labor member of the Knesset and chairs the Knesset Jerusalem Lobby.
Translated by Hannah Hochner.