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37 Years After City’s Reunification, Jerusalem Struggles to Regain Vitality

May 18, 2004
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No one stopped as Yossi Cohen stood at the door of his gift shop, arms folded behind his back, waiting for customers.

The veteran shopkeeper at the Rasco passage in downtown Jerusalem had low expectations. Waiting for the next customer has become his natural state of mind. Waiting — for lack of anything else to do.

This week marks the 37th “Jerusalem Day,” the anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem during the 1967 Six- Day War, when the eastern part of the city fell into Israeli hands after Jordanian fighters failed to hold onto the Old City.

But three and a half years after the start of the Palestinian intifada, Jerusalem still is somewhat separated from the rest of the country — and Yossi Cohen was in no mood for festivities.

“Business is bad,” Cohen said. “Real bad.”

Though shoppers have returned to Jerusalem’s city center since the peak of Palestinian terrorism, going to downtown Jerusalem is no longer considered a leisurely outing. People come, take care of their business and hurry home.

“Obviously, if there is peace, there will be tourists, and if there are tourists, things will change,” Cohen said.

Then he smiled sadly.

“Perhaps things will change, but it will take a few more years. In the meantime Jerusalem is dead,” he said.

Dead sounds rather merciless; seriously ill would be more accurate.

Outside of city residents and foreign visitors — more often than not religious pilgrims of some sort — Jerusalem has been shunned by many Israelis.

“When I ask my friends in Tel Aviv, ‘Does anyone need a ride to Jerusalem?’ they look at me pitifully,” writer, satirist and playwright Ephraim Sidon said.

“For residents of Tel Aviv, going to Jerusalem is a rather risky business,” he said, referring to the numerous terrorist attacks in the capital over the past three and a half years.

The number of residents leaving Jerusalem is greater than those moving in, according to the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies. In 2002, the latest year for which data is available, 16,400 people moved out of the city, while only 9,700 moved in.

At the end of last year, Jerusalem had 692,300 residents, 67 percent of them Jews. Some 30 percent of them are fervently Orthodox, or charedi.

Technically, Jerusalem remains Israel’s largest city, but that’s because of the expansion of the city’s municipal boundaries and the fact that the country’s largest metropolitan area, around Tel Aviv, is divided among several large cities.

Over the past 14 years, Jerusalem has lost some 100,000 residents, most of them young, secular Jews. But many of them also have been fervently Orthodox, who move out of Jerusalem to less expensive places such as Beitar Illit and the Orthodox neighborhoods of Beit Shemesh.

On the face of it, there is no reason why Jerusalem should not be one of the liveliest places in Israel, despite the drop in tourism. With 42,000 students, the plurality of them at Hebrew University, and 60 high-tech companies, predominantly in biotechnology, the city has the potential to attract young, educated Israelis.

But last week’s Student Day events were a case study of why things aren’t so easy.

The events, mostly rock concerts, took place in the highly protected and closed campuses of the Hebrew University at Mount Scopus and Givat Ram. Mount Scopus lies at the eastern rim of the Jewish part of the capital, far from the business center, behind closed fences and other high-alert security devices.

“Even a couple that wants to go for a romantic walk in the mountains cannot do so because the immediate neighborhood of the campus is a hostile Arab village,” said Sidon, who said he is considering leaving Jerusalem for Tel Aviv. “If you ask me, they should have closed down the campus and brought back all students to Givat Ram.”

Givat Ram, within walking distance of downtown Jerusalem, was the main campus until the Mount Scopus campus was rebuilt following the Six-Day War, which enabled easy passage to the previously isolated hilltop.

Indeed, until the late 1970s, students dominated downtown Jerusalem. To a large extent, they provided the economic fuel for small businesses in the heart of the city, like Yossi Cohen’s gift shop.

Now many Jerusalemites who visit the downtown leave quickly. They go to cash machines, shop quickly at one of the two-dollar shops or grab a bite of falafel.

Here and there an elderly Russian immigrant, a musician turned mendicant, might break the monotony with the sound of a violin or an accordion. A young, visibly pregnant woman walks the streets distributing booklets with the blessings of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav.

Border policemen have helped bring a sense of renewed security to the area, but there are no customers for Yossi Cohen.

Yakir Segev, 26, who attended the Student Day festivities at Mount Scopus, said he didn’t see it as a moment for celebration.

“Look at those students,” he said. “They should not be here. I would like to see them celebrating in downtown Jerusalem, injecting life into the city.”

Segev, along with several hundred students, is now doing something about it by launching a volunteer group called New Spirit, which aims to bring students back to Jerusalem’s streets.

The group is engaged in a number of projects.

An apprenticeship program connects students to economic and high-tech projects in Jerusalem. Economics and business-administration students serve as guides for high-school students in “business” projects to create early ties between the younger generation of Jerusalem residents and Jerusalem’s business community.

Subsidized student housing is provided in Jerusalem’s poorer neighborhoods so students can help local youth with educational activities.

“I could have stayed at the student dormitories on Mount Scopus,” said Osnat Berman, who coordinates youth activities in Jerusalem’s Katamonim neighborhood. “But I chose to live here, and I don’t regret it for a moment. By now I feel that I’m part of the neighborhood.”

Berman lives with two roommates in a three-bedroom apartment partly subsidized by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

New Spirit has linked its social and educational work in the neighborhood with other social groups such as the “Democratic Education Fountain,” the secular version of a Shas-run educational project called El Hama’ayan.

“Forty thousand students can change the face of the city,” Segev said. “If every student would contribute two hours a day to the welfare of the society, Jerusalem could change drastically.”

Segev knows a lot about volunteering: Exempt from military service because he lost his left arm in a traffic accident as a child, he nevertheless volunteered for the army.

In the army, being a “jobnik” — a paper-pusher — was not enough for him. At night, he would join his fellow combat soldiers, training for hours as he struggled to handle a rifle with one arm. Eventually he joined them, ending his military service a year and a half ago as a captain, commander of an elite commando unit.

New Spirit’s founder was Nir Barkat, who lost the Jerusalem mayoral election last year.

“The organization aims at coping with emigration from Jerusalem, mostly by turning the students’ potential into an effective factor in the city,” Barkat said.

Barkat, 44, is a high-tech multi-millionaire who has vowed to run again for mayor in the next elections. He already has garnered the support of a number of influential donors, including Harvey Kruger, former chairman of the Hebrew University Board of Governors.

“These students have interests that are so important for Israel and for the future of Jerusalem, that they have to be helped,” Kruger told JTA after meeting with the students last week.

Sidon, however, remains skeptical.

“As long as there is not even a train which would run from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv in 20 minutes, there is no choice for people like me but to leave the city,” he said.

Tel Aviv is Israel’s modern cultural and business center.

Sidon says the city needs much more than student volunteer work to succeed.

“If the city becomes charedi, I have no problem with that, but if you want to preserve its secular character as well, one needs to do something about it,” he said.

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