Monday, December 8, 2008

Jerusalem, Oh Jerusalem

The Jerusalem Municipal Elections were more interesting and with results that I least expected. Jerusalem’s best days were those when the Honorable Teddy Kollek was Mayor. He brought to the table gravitas as well as a profound love for the city. For Teddy, Jerusalem wasn’t a stepping stone to further his political career, it was his career. Jerusalem was his passion. He was known to go through the streets of Jerusalem at 5AM before the city came to life and the traffic began so he could inspect for himself city projects and their progress. It was Teddy who established Keren Yerushalayim which quickly became an international organization with snob appeal. Philanthropists from all over the world were making huge donations without solicitation. They wanted to be part of Teddy’s Jerusalem.

During the mid 1980’s as a graduate student at Hebrew University, my mentor and advisor was doing research on behalf of the Keren Yerushalayim. As his student, and knowing how hungry I was, he was kind enough to involve me in the research and publication of the study. The nature of the research involved the impact of the growing hareidi population on Jerusalem. One of the purposes of the study was to make a determination on the effect a growing hareidi population would have on the hiloni (secular) community. The concern was that the hilonim were the financial backbone of Jerusalem. If the hareidim became a majority what impact would that have on the hilonim? One obvious concern was that they would abandon Jerusalem. The impact would be catastrophic. Who would deliver services? What would become of all the cultural attractions that the city built up over the past decades? Would Jerusalem, the capitol of Israel slide backward and become another backwater city like Zfat?

Since that time I have returned to Jerusalem at least annually and each time I was more disappointed than the previous visit. The city slowly began to show its neglect; it no longer shined. It began showing its age like an older woman resigned to her age giving up on the hair coloring allowing her white hair to grow in, complimenting her graying palor. It’s ok to age. We all do and so do cities. But it’s another thing to allow it to grow old. That’s the sign of someone who has given up. In the years since Teddy left the Iriya the city was up for grabs. Olmert used it as a stepping stone and then came Lupiyanski who casually let the city slide further into the abyss of growing old. His concern and that of his constituency wasn’t the culture of the city or its development in order to attract bright young minds but was concerned with meeting the needs of a growing hareidi community in need of more and more services and yeshivas but not contributing to the beauty, glory, or development of the city. On my last visit there a year ago Jerusalem lost any semblance of the Jerusalem of Gold I loved. It no longer loomed on the horizon with pride and majesty as the Jewel of Israel and the Jewish people. No, it conjured up an image of an old hareidi man, stooped but rushing to a hashakamah minyan with their eyes cast towards the ground rather than stand erect with their eyes fixed straight ahead with the pride of being a man. If Jerusalem was once a beacon of light giving full meaning to the words Ki Mitzion Tezeh Torah, today its light has dimmed, is no longer a beacon and certainly can’t pride itself on giving meaning to those poetic words of hope and fulfillment.

Over the years the hareidim through natural growth took over the city and destroyed its beautiful legacy. A city that once prided itself on its culture and beauty was replaced by neglected streets, pollution, faded out parks and lackluster in every way except for its plethora of yishivas and shteiblech. Apparently even the hareidim believed that they over did the zealousness to the point that they even corrupted the very religious principles they were supposed to be keeping. A glaring example of this was the ‘modesty police’ going berserk over the dancers scheduled to perform at the opening cerermony at the Chords Bridge. Girls 13-16 years old fully and modestly dressed by most standards wasn’t good enough for these talibanesque type hareidim who insisted that they cover their hair and wear shapeless bags over their bodies.

It was probably ‘bashert’ that the “chords” event preceded the municipal elections. Most Jerusalemites have probably had enough of the hareidim running rough shod over the city. It also helped that there happened to be disharmony within their own ranks.

The split within Agudas Yisrael was the best thing that could have happened and contributed substantially to Barkats victory. Porusch’s Shomrei Emunei Yisrael is up against Israel’s largest hassidic sect Ger. The struggle is the typical power struggle: who will control Agudas Yisrael: Ger or Shomrei Emunei Yisrael? As a result of this power struggle Rabbi Y. A. Alter, leader of Ger refused to throw his support behind Porusch and it is questionable whether or not he gave the word to his followers to vote for Barkat. Regardless, Barkat did win and perhaps now, Jerusalem can be rehabilitated and restored as a city that delights in Torah as well as world culture giving new meaning to those beautiful words ‘ki mitzion teizeh torah’.