Feb 5, 2010

URJ: "Is there a future for liberal and secular Jews in Jerusalem?"



Is there a future for liberal and secular Jews in Jerusalem?

Meir Azari

I used to love Jerusalem so much, yet it is so distant today from me and those like me. Only a few weeks ago, I took a vacation in order to revisit this most fascinating city in the world. Years ago, I was anxious to build a home in this city, and now it is so difficult for me to witness its decay. A tour of the center of the city, a walk in Meah Shearim, and hours of strolling in the Old City and the Jewish quarter can reveal to a Zionist like me that something went very wrong. The city as it is today may draw those who yearn for the magic of times past, it may touch the hearts of tourists and searchers of holy artifacts, but it is a threat to the Zionist dream and the fragile democracy of the State of Israel.

For many of Jerusalem's residents, the State of Israel as described in its declaration of independence is no more than a mistake, an insignificant detour on the course of history. Walk a little further from the tourist attractions and you'll see that the city is full of dirt and squalor. Its poverty, stemming from a lack of creativity, calls out to those who love it. For many of Israel's residents (living along the shoreline), Jerusalem is a symbol of extreme right-wing views and conflict. They see it as a capital obsessed with maintaining ownership over the West Bank while pampering the Ultra-Orthodox communities and serving as a short-term hotel for those who visit and quickly leave. It has become a city often detached from reality, seemingly taken over by anti-Zionist forces. The graffiti written on many of the houses in Ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods says it all: "Jews do not like Zionists."

But there is still hope. The voices of young people in the city who fear for it are encouraging. The Machaneh Yehudah market, with new shops opening up; the Nachalat Hashiva area; and the German Colony neighborhood all attest to the fact that there are still many in Jerusalem who strive not for fake holiness and eternal conflict but for normal life.

For my progressive rabbi friends in the city, brave committed Jews like Levi Kalman, Ada Zavidov, and others, there is an important national mission. They are among those whose rational, reasonable voices may lend the city the hope and the chance to lead the renewal of the Zionist dream. The future of Jerusalem as a city will not be determined in a battle over prayer in the womens' section at the Western Wall. Rather, it will depend on the determined pursuit of every man, woman, group, or minyan for the right to equal access to these ancient walls that represent the city's strengths and weaknesses.

In the meantime, less than forty miles from the Wall, the City of Tel Aviv–Yafo flourishes. This city that rests on the Mediterranean seashore is welcoming and loving, and conveys that sense of hope and optimism that is the secret ingredient of the success of the Zionist dream. Maybe it's worth considering that—unlike times past—this time, the voice of the seashore, calling for pluralism and equality, will set the pace and free us all from pipe dreams, so we can start building the model society that we have been yearning for from the time of the prophets through our journey in the Diaspora.


Elan Ezrachi

In June 1967, at the eve of the Six-Day War, there were 200,000 residents in West Jerusalem. Almost all of them were Jewish. Jerusalem was a fairly sleepy town. Most Jerusalemites worked in establishments such as government agencies, Hebrew University, the Jewish Agency, and Hadassah hospital. Jerusalem was a modest working- and middle-class town. The Ultra Orthodox community was small and mostly concentrated in the Meah Shearim area.

The results of the Six-Day War ushered a dramatic transformation for Jerusalem. The walls between west and east were removed; the city limits expanded with the annexation of East Jerusalem, and access to the Jewish holy places was regained. In the years after the war Israeli governments invested huge resources in advancing Jerusalem. New neighborhoods were built, exciting archeological sites were opened to the public, cultural institutions were built, and the Hebrew University returned to its historical campus on Mount Scopus. The Jewish world also rallied around the new Old Jerusalem with excitement and a resurgence of tourism. The city became a large metropolis. Longtime Jerusalemites admit that the Jerusalem of today is very different from that which they remember from before the unification.

Today's Jerusalem has close to 800,000 residents living in one of the most diverse and conflicted cities in the world. In general, two thirds of Jerusalemites are Jewish, and the other third are Palestinians who collectively aspire for the establishment of a Palestinian State with East Jerusalem as its capital. The ambiguity around the political future of Jerusalem contributes to the feeling that the city is highly volatile.

Let's focus now on the Jewishcommunity in Jerusalem. The most noticeable change in recent decades is the massive growth of the ultra-Orthodox population, estimated at around 150,000. The phenomenal growth is felt in all spheres of life: education, politics, housing, and culture. Parallel to the rise of ultra-Orthodoxy is an increase in the attraction of Tel Aviv and the center of Israel to those who are not ultra-Orthodox. Many young, educated, and liberal Jerusalemites choose to migrate away from Jerusalem. This demographic reality has become a source of concern both to Jerusalemites and Israeli leaders, who want to keep Jerusalem open and diverse.

The complete story, however, is more complex. Jerusalem is going through a dramatic set of changes. First and foremost, Jerusalem is becoming more religious, less tolerant, and less attractive to young and liberal people. There are several municipal attempts to minimize this negative trend with policies and initiatives that will reverse the pattern, but only time will tell if they will be effective

Yet, Jerusalem has more vitality and creativity than many people believe. Here are just a few examples: Jerusalem is the center of Israeli higher education. Leading this trend is the world-renowned institution, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, with its three campuses, and an additional five colleges and nine art schools. All together, there are close to 40,000 university students in Jerusalem. The cultural scene in Jerusalem is very rich with artists, performers, writers, musicians, and dancers. Jerusalem is home to many festivals, international conventions, and interfaith activities. Thousands of "Anglos" (Hebrew term for native English speakers) from North America, the United Kingdom, and other countries have created a rich array of congregations, liberal synagogues, and cultural centers. Jerusalem is the center of the Jewish world, where many Jewish organizations have representatives, student programs, and exchange programs. All these trends indicate that the predictions on the demise of Jerusalem are grossly exaggerated.

The conflict over the freedom of women to pray at the Western Wall is a sticky issue and it should be resolved. But let's not lose perspective. It can be argued that the Kotel is not the property of Jerusalem. But Jerusalemites do not derive their attitudes toward their city from what is going on at its holy sites. The problems of the Western Wall are a result of an international Jewish struggle for religious freedom that does not engage the locals with the same intensity. For people in Jerusalem, the future will be determined through the daily effort to ensure that the city is open, pluralistic, and friendly to all people, everywhere.



Copyright © Union for Reform Judaism 2009


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