Nahum Barnea

Jerusalem’s demographic trap

Hebrew becoming minority language in capital as haredim, Arabs take over

Part 1 of article


Forty three years ago, a group of paratroop reservists stood before the Western Wall. Bulldozers called up overnight razed the Mughrabi neighborhood and turned the area into a huge parade ground; the Kotel plaza. The first, well-connected citizens arrived at the plaza. Some of them prayed, others took pictures, and yet others looked for loot. The first thought that came to my mind was that Jerusalem will now be a real capital, large and important, but it will be the capital of a different country; the capital of others.


There was a short period, a few years – not much in the city’s long history - where all of Israel’s famous singers and songwriters sang and wrote about Jerusalem.


Jerusalem was not only holy and patriotic. It was also cool, colorful, and fascinating. All one needed to do was to sit in the morning on the balcony of Gingi’s café, near the Jaffa Gate, drink a sweet Turkish coffee, watch the crowds pouring into and out of the Old City, and take in the scent of the great wide world: Various types of priests, ultra-Orthodox Jews, Palestinian females from the villages, pilgrims and their crosses, backpackers searching for cheap hostels overflowing with hashish, hummus-loving Israelis, and tourists from across the world.


All of the above are still there, with the exception of Gingi, who shut down his coffee shop. Yet the magic that captivated us all in 1967, the year of Jerusalem’s discovery, no longer captivates everyone. Alienation has taken root in some sectors, with hatred on the margins. The various owners of beards – haredim, settlers, Muslims – are not liked. People don’t like the many demonstrations, the plethora of radicals, the streets which have been conceded to various types of nutcases, and the addiction to politics. Jerusalem is a city that Israelis leave behind.


The 1967 takeover made way for a no less significant one; a demographic takeover. According to city hall figures, a total of 191,000 students study at city schools; 130,000 of them study in haredi or Arab institutions. This means that an overwhelming majority of the city’s children are being educated in an anti-Zionist system. As the main language in haredi schools is Yiddish, while Arabic reigns supreme in east Jerusalem schools, we can say that Hebrew is a minority language in Israel’s capital.


As result of the above is that the city is less diverse and less interesting. In recent years, we have seen a certain “division of duties” between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Jerusalem is becoming increasingly haredi and poor, while Tel Aviv becomes increasingly secular and old. Jerusalem is growing black; Tel Aviv is becoming whiter. The withdrawal into demographic ghettos hurts the attractiveness of both cities.


More important battles

Some of these processes are unavoidable, while others are man-made. Take Israel’s government, for example. Our leaders wax poetic about Jerusalem, yet to this day they have not truly recognized the city as Israel’s capital. The rule of thumb is that the more rightist the government is, the more it neglects Jerusalem’s status.


It starts with small matters. Seemingly, the Israeli government seat is in Jerusalem. All government ministries are located in the capital. Only two ministries –Defense and Agriculture – were allowed to set up camp outside the capital. The Defense Ministry is in Tel Aviv, because of the proximity to IDF headquarters, while the Agricultural Ministry is in Beit Dagan, simply because of some caprice. In practice, other ministries are also located in Tel Aviv and most ministers have offices in Tel Aviv, in complete contradiction to the government’s decision on the matter (the only minister allowed to maintain Tel Aviv offices is the prime minister.)


As the minister and his office travel between both cities, the director general does the same. Meetings are held in Tel Aviv, because it’s more convenient that way. Senior officials live in the coastal plain. For them, Jerusalem starts and ends with the government complex at the entrance to the city. This government complex is like a façade; a theater set with nothing behind it.


There is no government in the world that splits its offices between two cities that are 60 kilometers apart. This is huge waste of money, but forget about the money. What we have here is great contempt to our national conception coupled with educational damage.


With the exception of several Latin American states, the world does not recognize Israel’s sovereignty in western Jerusalem de jure. I’m not talking about east Jerusalem; west Jerusalem. For diplomats, Israel’s eternal capital is Herzliya Pituach. Most of them reside there. Over the years, Israel’s governments conceded the struggle for recognizing the city. They thought other battles were more important.


They may have been right. Yet what’s more infuriating is the fact that so little had been done in order to influence the demographic erosion. Jerusalem took advantage of the Russian immigration wave to a much lesser extent than other cities. Not much had been done to open factories and create jobs. Hebrew University has lost its prominent status and became just another university in the eyes of the government; just another college.


It’s not a case of the government discriminating against Jerusalem; it merely gave up on it.


Part 2 of article to be published Wednesday night


פרסום ראשון: 05.12.10, 18:14
 new comment
See all talkbacks "Jerusalem’s demographic trap"
This will delete your current comment