Commentary Magazine

Building Jerusalem

When the will of the Creator turned to the building of Jerusalem, the mountains came and said: Build Thy city in the mountains with mountains all around it, so that it may be a sign to its inhabitants that they ascend ever upward.

The sea came too and said: A city that is heaven’s gate deserves to dwell by the sea, for as the waters of the sea are pure, so shall Jerusalem be pure. Purity should dwell by purity.

The Holy One Blessed Be He built Jerusalem in the mountains with mountains all around it. But to the sea He said: Have patience, for there will come a day when Jerusalem will spread all over the Land of Israel until it reaches the shores of the sea.

Rabbinic legend

There will come a day when Jerusalem will spread out and rise up and reach as high as the Mercy Seat, and still it will be said: There is not enough room.

Rabbinic legend

For sheer scale of construction, there hasn’t been anything like it since Herod’s time. In the alleys of the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, where materials are brought in on donkey back and the stonecutters squat on their haunches and tap at their stone, it could almost be Herod’s time, though not in the center of town, where new high-rise office and apartment buildings have punctured a series of holes in the city’s once lowly skyline. In the west and southwest, to which the bulk of new housing in Israeli Jerusalem was confined by necessity prior to the 1967 war, whole new streets continue to go up in a seeming matter of months. To the north, across the old armistice line, a giant housing development named after the late Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, the largest of its kind in the country, is nearing completion. Along the city’s eastern ridge, where Jerusalem rises spectacularly to meet the desert, another large complex is going up on French Hill, north of Mount Scopus, while on Scopus itself, the old campus of the Hebrew University that was cut off from the Jewish community for twenty years, large-scale renovation and expansion are underway. Finally, to the southeast, on the hill crowned by Government House, once the headquarters of the British High Commissioner and now of the United Nations, ground-clearing work has begun for another massive project which will eventually house some fifteen-thousand inhabitants, according to the recently proposed, and currently much under fire, master plan. The bulldozers first appeared on the hill in midwinter, then vanished for a while after the UN protested what it claimed to be illegal seizure of its property. (In point of fact, the UN’s claim would seem shaky, since the land was simply handed down to it by the British in the course of the 1948 fighting without any formal transfer of title ever taking place.) Now they are back again, biting into the limestone to level the terrain and carve out approach roads for the equipment that will follow.

Looking eastward at the site from the house that I rent in the Jewish neighborhood of Talpiot, it is difficult to imagine these fifteen-thousand people and the homes that will contain them. In any case, the view is not likely to be improved by their presence. The house faces out on the old border, as a memento of which it wears a fretwork of machine-gun bullets like a dueling scar over the front terrace. A few feet past the garden a rusty barbed-wire fence marks where the border once passed, beyond which lies an apple orchard in a small valley that was formerly in no-man’s-land. At its far end the orchard slopes up to a dusty brown patch where the bulldozers are now at work. Further up the slope to the left the UN flag dangles limply in the summer heat, while framed by palm trees beyond a saddle in the ridge to the right the wilderness of Judea slants barrenly down to the Dead Sea some twelve miles and 4,000 feet of altitude away. The desert air is so clear that on hazeless afternoons one sees not only the blue sea itself with the mountains of Moab behind it etched in perfect relief, but even the reflection in the water of the stone houses on its other, Transjordanian side.

South of the saddle, sturdily chiseled into a hill astride a loop on the old Jordanian road to Bethlehem, is the Arab village of Sur Bahr. Sur Bahr is not technically speaking “occupied territory” because it lay before 1967 within the Jordanian municipality of Jerusalem, which provided the boundaries for what was officially annexed by Israel shortly after the Six-Day War. Many of the men in the village now work as builders in Jerusalem, but shepherds from Sur Bahr still drive their flocks down the narrow path that skirts the apple orchard, and once several village women in embroidered peasant dresses appeared with gunnysacks and scythes at. the gate of my garden on a foddering expedition. Hashish, they answered when I asked them what inside the gate had caught their fancy, and it took me a moment to recollect that this was simply the Arabic word for green growth. It is unlikely that anyone in Sur Bahr has heard of the master plan or is aware of the fact that immediately to the east of the village it provides for a large industrial zone, which will be ideally located because prevailing westerly winds will carry pollution and noxious smoke off into the desert. (Another project planned for the foot of the village, a football stadium designed to seat thirty-thousand spectators, was recently cancelled when a member of the city council discovered that the slopes overlooking the low-lying playing field would provide free bleachers for all.) In their ignorance of what the future holds in store, however, the villagers are substantially no more in the dark than most Jerusalemites, Arab and Jewish alike, it being a curious feature of the current international debate over planning the city that it has taken place entirely apart from the local inhabitants whose lives it will most directly affect. No public hearings have ever been held on the master plan itself and its contents are not even available on demand to the citizen in the street.

At times there has indeed been an almost military air of security about Israeli plans for developing Jerusalem, especially the Arab sector of the city. Such sensitivity to exposure may well be understandable in face of a world that has so far refused to regard such plans as anything more than an extension of military conquest by architectural means, but it has hardly been conducive to a sober discussion of the urban problems involved. Yet the master plan itself, once one has gotten hold of it, seems nothing if not sober. A team of Israeli planners was originally commissioned in 1964 to draw up a blueprint for the Israeli half of Jerusalem alone. The plan was nearly finished when the 1967 war broke out, but in the aftermath of the war it was completely redrawn to include the city’s former Jordanian sector as well. The revised version, whose basic premise is that the city will not again be redivided and will permanently remain under Israeli rule, was presented early in 1969 and has been waiting since then for the final approval by the Jerusalem city council and the appropriate government agencies that is needed to give it legal teeth. Printed in both Hebrew and English editions, the plan contains some fifty closely-spaced pages of text accompanied by a complement of colored maps and statistical tables that attempts to chart the projected economic and physical growth of the city as far as the year 2010, with an intermediate “stopover” in 1985. Two sets of figures indicate at a glance the preoccupations of the master planners. First, an estimate of Jerusalem’s future population projects an expected increase from the present figure of 267,000 inhabitants in the actual city (198,000 Jews and 69,000 Arabs) to 400,000 in 1985 (295,000 Jews and 105,000 Arabs) and 600,000 in 2010 (440,000 Jews and 160,000 Arabs), and in the overall metropolitan area, from 380,000 to 600,000 to 900,000 (here the percentage of Arabs is considerably higher, due to the large Arab rural population in the city’s environs).1 The second set of figures predicts a far more precipitous rise in the number of motor vehicles circulating within the city: from 15,000 at present, the total is expected to jump to 110,000 in 1985, and to somewhere in the neighborhood of 400,000 by 2010. This last estimate is of course based on forecasts of generalized affluence, but it does not seem far-fetched to anyone who has observed the staggering increase of cars on Israeli roads that has taken place in the past few years alone.



The prospect that Jerusalem will grow in the next several decades from its present size to that of a city no bigger than San Francisco with traffic problems to match may not seem unmanageable to residents of Western metropolises, but it must be borne in mind that the particular beauties, virtues, and amenities of life in Jerusalem, as well as the violent claustrophobia that it has on occasion been known to arouse, have always been those of a distinctly small town. As recently as a few years ago there were practically no two points in the Israeli sector of the city that couldn’t comfortably be spanned in an hour’s walk, to say nothing of the Arab half, which was far smaller. Between the two, of course, one couldn’t walk at all, so that for all practical purposes they might have been as far apart as the Jerusalems of heaven and earth of rabbinic legend, yet rather than heighten one’s sense of physical distance this only served to diminish it still further by giving the space in between a mirage-like quality that was not of this corruptible world. It is difficult to describe the particular combination of resignation, longing, and unreasonable hope with which one looked out in those years from the Israeli side at the impenetrable Ottoman ramparts of the Old City, or clambered up strange rooftops in pursuit of a glimpse of the golden mosque or the paving stones of the Temple Mount, or strained to catch the grinding of a bus’s gears on its way to Bethlehem or Jericho or the braying of a donkey from within the Old City walls. (One Yom Kippur it was reported that someone had heard the mysterious echo of a shofar blast from the Wailing Wall, and a frisson ran through the Jewish city for days.) And because one knew, or imagined, that on the other side there were Arabs looking back with a similar mixture of emotions at houses they had once lived in and neighborhoods that had been their own, the entire city seemed to shrivel into one concentrated symbol of loss, as though it were not space at all that was dividing it from itself but something more cruel and final—time perhaps, or eternity. It was this that gave Jerusalem in those years a certain exquisite poignancy that was not among the least of its charms.

Still, it is not now among the most mourned. For better or for worse, the city is bigger now, livelier and less unworldly, certainly more complicated, and ultimately perhaps more tragic too. There is less honeysuckle and jasmine in the air these days and a great deal more exhaust. Jerusalem is no longer a border outpost, the last stop at the dead end of a mountain road, but is again at the natural crossroads of Palestine where geography meant it to be. It is at other kinds of crossroads, too, where fateful questions are being posed. One of these of course is whether the city’s conquered Arab community can establish some sort of tolerable long-term relationship—one certainly not based on an excess of love, but on a measure of mutual respect perhaps, and, above all, on an absence of ghettoization—with a Jewish majority that is currently three times its size and politically its master. Another question is whether the city’s own justly fabled and particularly fragile beauty can survive the postwar boom that has now enveloped it and in whose grip it is likely to remain for an indefinite time to come. Fragile, because it rests on a delicate play of finely calibrated opposites: of the “Old” city and the “New,” of course, but equally of mountain and valley, stone and sky, red roof and green pine, horizontally massed houses and vertical landmarks, closed space and open space, narrow lanes and sudden vistas, main streets and hidden neighborhoods set directly off of them—each a self-enclosed island of one- and two-story buildings with a name, a history, an ethnic origin and composition, an architectural character, and perhaps a fanaticism of its own. It is precisely such precarious balances that are most defenseless in the face of rapid growth with its customary livery of soaring real-estate values, urban “renewal,” high-rise buildings, look-alike developments, suburban sprawl, and unchecked vehicle proliferation, all of which have already scarred the city’s visage more than one sometimes cares to admit and all of which yet threaten to ravage it completely.



It is to the credit of the master plan that it makes no attempt to dismiss such dangers out of hand and seriously proposes to combat a number of them. On the whole, however, one comes away from it with the impression that the planners have been too ready to write off some of the city’s most unique qualities as the inevitable price of progress. Basically, they have provided for the following:

  1. The walled Old City is to be scrupulously preserved in its present form and its Jewish Quarter, largely ruined in the 1948 fighting, will be rebuilt as far as possible in its original style. The area immediately surrounding the Old City, including the Mount of Olives in the east and the Arab village of Silwan, the biblical Shiloah, to the south, will be incorporated into a national park in which a minimum of further construction will be allowed. Where the building line begins, it will be kept deliberately low, so as not to dwarf the Old City in size. (This section of the plan owes much to the original British master plan of 1918, and its subsequent revisions, which paid special attention to the safeguarding of the Old City and the religious sites in and around it. Another feature of the current plan deriving from Mandatory times is the provision that all future buildings in the city be faced with stone. The fact that both Israel and Jordan continued in large measure to observe such British regulations between 1948 and 1967 did much to help preserve the visual unity of the city during its two decades of separation.)
  2. The present Arab and Jewish business districts, which are located to the north and northwest of the Old City respectively, will be encouraged to grow toward each other and eventually to merge. The effect of this will be both to keep the downtown area compact and to promote the mingling of Arab and Jewish populations in an essentially “neutral” commercial area. On the other hand, there will be no deliberate attempt to integrate Arab and Jewish residential neighborhoods, which for the foreseeable future can be expected to remain distinct, though often in close physical proximity.
  3. Where outward growth of the city occurs, it will be encouraged to take place equally in all directions in order to preserve the centrality of the present city core. In effect this means that Jerusalem will spread mainly along the north-south mountain spine on which it sits in the directions of Ramallah and Bethlehem—in each case approaching the present border between “annexed” and “occupied” territory—as well as to a lesser extent eastward into the desert, where industrial zones will be built. At the same time, however, the plan seeks to prevent excessive sprawl and the familiar worldwide pattern of inner-city decay and creeping suburbanization that is already in a relatively advanced stage even in Tel Aviv. To maximize concentration within the present city core and keep large parts of it from becoming depopulated slums, the plan decrees that the older parts of the Jewish “New” city—that is to say, practically the entire area built up west of the Old City walls from the 1860’s until after World War II—will be gradually torn down and replaced by modern apartment houses of up to seven stories on a gridiron pattern of streets. A few of the more historic or attractive of the old Jewish neighborhoods will be renovated and preserved. Since future restriction of motor traffic into and within the city was deemed by the planners to be impracticable, it will be necessary to accommodate this flow by the construction of extensive parking areas, some of them underground, and of a number of expressways cutting directly through the city.

In effect, therefore, it is the area of Jerusalem over whose future in Israeli hands the world has professed greatest concern—the Old City and its environs—which stands to be most painstakingly protected by the master plan. In part no doubt this reflects a certain sensitivity to world opinion on the planners’ part, though less so probably than to purely local sentiments about a physical site that has been enshrined after all in the Jewish consciousness far more than in the world’s. No doubt, too, the decision to preserve the Old City area in toto was facilitated by the fact that it is relatively easy to isolate a walled enclave from its urban surroundings and to treat it as a problem in itself. When it comes to the Jewish “New” city, on the other hand, the planners seem to have more compliantly deferred to the “unavoidable” urban processes and their conventional resolutions, neither of which has been especially kind to historic cities elsewhere: demolition of old neighborhoods rather than renovation, letting real-estate values determine land functions instead of vice versa; widening and rerouting streets to accommodate traffic rather than restricting traffic to accommodate streets. In the course of the next several decades, should the plan become operative, the wreckers will be loosed not only on most of the old Jewish quarters first built outside of the Old City during Ottoman times—many of which have admittedy degenerated today into little more than slums, like Nahlaot, Mekor Baruch, Sha’arei Hesed, Nahlat Shivah, and others—but even on currently wealthy and fashionable areas like Talbieh and Rehavia which date from the period of the British Mandate—all presumably to be replaced by rows of standard houses which no matter how well-designed will have none of the extraordinary variety and palpable history of the areas to be torn down. Moreover, the planners themselves admit that even such an approach will not sufficiently raise the density of the inner city to prevent Jerusalem from spreading outward and engulfing some of the loveliest Jewish and Arab villages of the Judean hills. These new residential areas in turn will pour daily commuter traffic back into the city in quantities capable of clogging the widest of the wide new streets to be built. In effect, faced with the classic problem of building up or building out, the planners have chosen the classic solution of an honorable compromise between the two. It may well be that in the bargain they have opted for the benefits of neither and the disadvantages of both.



The feeling that the Jerusalem of the master plan is headed for precisely the urban morass from which most large cities of the Western world are now struggling, with little noticeable success, to extricate themselves dominated the conference of architects and town planners who met here last winter at the invitation of Mayor Kollek to discuss the plan and—so the conference’s sponsors evidently hoped—give it their professional imprimatur. The panel, which was officially named the Jerusalem Committee and included an impressive array of world-famous figures in the urban field, did nothing of the sort. Instead, at a three-day session, parts of which were open to the public, it attacked the plan with a savagery that seemed to take even its severest local critics by surprise. “Collective hara-kiri,” it was called by one participant in a moment of high spleen, and though his fellow panelists were on the whole more restrained, they seemed to agree that rather than having learned from the mistakes of decaying large cities everywhere, the authors of the master plan seemed determined to repeat them. The members of the committee were particularly critical of the plan’s permissive attitude toward private cars, which, they repeatedly stressed, had already strangled life in some of the fairest of European and American cities. The conference ended on a sour note, the panelists wearily insisting that it was still not too late to make Jerusalem an urban light unto the nations, the master planners testily replying that they did not see why Israelis should be asked to be guinea pigs or behave any differently from city dwellers elsewhere. After three days of argument one panelist confessed to feeling “desperate and frustrated”; another reportedly broke into tears in his hotel room. Visibly shaken, Mayor Kollek announced at the conference’s close that the committee’s recommendations would be taken into account in preparing a revised plan, which he hoped could be presented to the panel at some future date.

Yet if the panelists were unanimous that the master plan spelled urban disaster, they were less so on how urban disaster is to be warded off. Indeed, as soon as they stopped attacking the plan itself, there was little they could agree on at all. One suggested that congestion within the city center could be avoided by building a high-speed railway to Tel Aviv, where Jerusalemites could do their shopping; another, that the solution lay in providing each of Jerusalem’s neighborhoods with a shopping nucleus of its own; a third, that it was foolish to oppose congestion in the first place, since “we build inner cities because we love to be together.” It was cogently argued that the downtown business area should be placed as close to the Old City as possible to preserve the latter’s central location, and equally cogently that it should be as far from the Old City as possible to keep the latter out of the shadow of the skyscrapers that downtown real-estate values inevitably entail. Mayor Kollek was urged to preserve as many of Jerusalem’s old neighborhoods as he could because their narrow lanes served as perfect anti-car barriers, and to “think big” like Pope Sixtus V, who was not afraid to cut main traffic arteries through the cramped quarters of Renaissance Rome. The question was raised why a city that had gotten along for three thousand years with a minimum of industry should suddenly need more now; it was also asked how a city of close to one million people could possibly support itself without considerably more industrialization than the master plan seemed to project. Some panelists felt that the plan allowed Jerusalem to spread too far laterally because it did not provide for a sufficient vertical rise within the present city core to absorb the projected population growth; others that the city should keep its low profile and be allowed to spread out naturally over the surrounding hills. Perhaps the only fully consistent position was that of a well-known American urban historian who did not appear at the conference in person—he had never yet been to Jerusalem, in fact, though he hoped one day to visit it—but who sent his written opinion that the city should not be allowed to grow any more at all. On the basis of his studies, he wrote, he had come to the conclusion that the maximum optimal size for a modern city, beyond which it tended to become progressively unworkable, was a population of somewhere between three and four hundred thousand—a figure whose upper limits Jerusalem will surpass within a decade if its current rate of growth continues.

Assuming even that it were both urbanly feasible and desirable, however, the prospect of a Jewish government deliberately curbing Jerusalem’s growth now that the undivided city is again in Jewish hands for the first time since the year 70 is remote. If anything, the government is more likely to act in the opposite direction, as it was recently urged to do by a leading cabinet minister who proposed that two hundred thousand new immigrants be settled in the city in the next five years alone to strengthen its Jewish character. (In effect, the government is even now actively encouraging settlement in Jerusalem through its sponsorship of public housing and the higher mortgages it offers to immigrants there, though it can be argued that such measures merely serve to offset the tremendous price of real estate now prevailing in the city.) Such a massive influx would of course mean the master plan’s wholesale abandonment, though even in its absence the latter’s population projections seem quite low. Already today immigration is steeply up from what it was when the plan was drawn up, and if the 15 per cent to 20 per cent of new immigrants who are now choosing to settle in Jerusalem continue to do so in the future, the plan’s demographic assumptions may be far off the mark. Equally uncertain are its geographic assumptions, for who can now say with any degree of confidence what in another five, ten, or twenty years the city’s relationship will be with the hill country of the ex-Jordanian West Bank to its north and south, an area which historically has always been its natural hinterland? One can accept at face value Israeli assertions that a border will never run through the city again, but whether one will run near it, and if so, what manner of border it will be, are less easily answered questions. When one considers indeed that the two basic parameters with which all urban planners must work, future population and the area into which it can expand and to which it will be economically linked, are in the case of Jerusalem at the mercy of highly unpredictable unknowns, one might well ask whether it is possible rationally to plan the city’s future very far ahead at all, much less over a period of the next forty years.



In any case, the master plan has now been recommitted for “further study,” from which it may or may not re-emerge to see the light of day. In the meantime, the sole document currently regulating development in Jerusalem is the previous Israeli master plan of 1959, whose applicability to present circumstances is limited. The result is that the city has come to resemble an arena in which contractors, realtors, investors, government agencies, the municipality, and a small citizens’ lobby called the Society for a Beautiful Israel tilt at each other literally and figuratively over the heads of the general public. Hardly a week goes by without its scare of some new colossus that will disfigure this or that of the city’s ultimately exhaustible panoramas, and if many of these rumors prove to be nothing more, others are eventually writ large in concrete. This is not to say that everything going up in Jerusalem today is ugly or misplaced—on the contrary, much of it is undeniably attractive by any standards, to say nothing of those generally prevailing in Israel, which can display some appalling urban landscapes for a country so young. Yet the city’s hilly topography makes it impossible to conceal blunders that could easily go unnoticed in most places. A classic example of this is French Hill, where a cluster of tall, coffin-shaped buildings that would be merely tiresome elsewhere has permanently marred the skyline of the northeastern quadrant of the city. Another such fatal error may be in the offing on the slopes of nearby Mount Scopus, where the Ministry of Tourism has been promoting a syndicate of American investors who wish to put up a high-rise hotel on land owned by the Hebrew University. This latter project, however, has aroused considerable opposition in advance and may yet be canceled or scaled down.

Less successful have been attempts to stop building at Nebi Samwil, a hillside several miles northwest of Jerusalem on whose summit stands a mosque, formerly a medieval synagogue, whose doubtful claim it is to occupy the burial site of the prophet Samuel. At almost 3,000 feet above sea level, Nebi Samwil is one of the highest peaks in the Jerusalem area, and though the current boundary between “occupied” and “annexed” territory runs only halfway up its slope, the government clearly intends to retain the upper half as well. To lend weight to this decision it expropriated a tract of Arab-owned land on the hillside about a year ago, and then asked the Ministry of Housing to build a standard Israeli shikkun, or housing project, there which would ultimately contain close to ten-thousand dwelling units—this in flat contradiction to the master plan, which had proposed that the site not be built on at all until 1985 and then only for a limited number of single-family houses. The government’s plan was challenged by the city of Jerusalem, which argued that the project would not only deface a prominent landmark that dominates the main approach to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv but would require an enormous outlay of municipal funds for the provision of roads, public transportation, schools, and other services that could not be justified by any rational order of priorities, since Nebi Samwil’s future residents could just as well live closer to the city. A public uproar developed and several architects working on the project resigned. Prospects for halting construction at Nebi Samwil seemed fairly bright, in fact, until the American State Department inopportunely joined the proceedings last spring by issuing a condemnation of the project’s annexationist aims. The response on the Israeli side was immediate. Mayor Kollek announced that in view of the American action he felt compelled to withdraw his objections to the plan, which was promptly approved without a dissenting vote at the next meeting of the city council. Preliminary work at Nebi Samwil is now underway, though the ultimate dimensions of the project remain uncertain.



Quite apart from the predictable tendency to close ranks in the face of criticism from abroad, it is still next to impossible to convince most Israelis, whether officials or people in the street, that building houses for Jews in the Land of Israel is not by definition a virtue that is its own reward. Throughout the history of modern Jewish settlement in Palestine, after all, to build has always been first and foremost a political act, a means of asserting national title to disputed land, and only secondarily an architectural undertaking with demands of its own. So it was in Ottoman times, when Turkish law decreed that once even a Jewish house had a roof overhead no power on earth had the authority to tear it down; so it was under the Mandate, when entire prefabricated settlements were erected overnight to present the British with a fait accompli in the morning; so it was in the years after 1948, when thousands of immigrants were settled in development towns that were hastily built in former Arab areas with little regard for whether anyone cared to live in them or whether they made any urban sense at all; and so it seems to many today in Jerusalem, where once again the world seems determined to deny what appears in Jewish eyes to be the most obviously legitimate of claims. It hardly needs to be argued that without such an ideology of “establishing facts,” to use the common Hebrew expression, there would have been no Jewish state at all; yet the question must be asked—and it is now in fact being asked by an increasing though still small number of Israelis—whether such a build-first-and-ask-questions-later approach to development has not in the present day and age become an anachronism whose dubious political benefits are more than outweighed by the certain environmental loss involved in hurried planning and poor execution. Indeed, the debate now taking place over the physical future of Jerusalem marks the first time that an essentially environmental versus political issue of this kind has reached and apparently held the interest of a sizable segment of the Israeli public. As such, regardless of its outcome, the battle for Jerusalem may yet signify something of a turning point in the country’s life.

Yet if building has its problems, so does preservation. The one large renovation project that has been undertaken in Jerusalem so far is in Yemin Moshe, a quaint little quarter of low stone houses and cobblestone streets and stairs that hangs on the western lip of the Valley of Gehennom directly across from the Old City walls. When it was built in the 1860’s with the help of a large donation from Sir Moses Montefiore, it was the only group of houses outside the Old City at all, to the safety of which its first inhabitants retreated nightly despite Sir Moses’s offer to pay them negative rent if they would only stay put. By Mandatory times Yemin Moshe was a neighborhood that had already seen better times, and after 1948, when it bordered on a strip of no-man’s-land and faced into the guns of the Arab Legionnaires on the ramparts opposite, it became a badly neglected slum whose absentee landlords rented out their apartments to Ladino-speaking immigrants from Turkey and the Balkans. Plans were afoot to rehabilitate the area even before 1967, when there was talk of turning it into an artists’ quarter; meanwhile, however, the Six-Day War broke out, and when it was over Yemin Moshe had suddenly become a valuable piece of property located at the heart of the reunified city with a magnificent view of the now Legionless walls. Land values and renovation costs soared, and it soon became apparent that the artists would be a minority among the wealthy Israelis and Jews from abroad who could afford to buy and restore one of the quarter’s old stone houses.

The chief grievance in Yemin Moshe today, however, is not the artists’ but the old tenants’, who claim that they are being asked to leave their homes in exchange for a pittance of relocation money that will not enable them to buy anything elsewhere at current Jerusalem prices and that is but a fraction of what the vacated houses are being sold for to the rich. The renovators argue for their part that the tenants are if anything getting more than they deserve, since they are not the owners of the property to begin with, and that to raise the level of compensation any further would render prohibitive the already steep prices of the modernized units. Some of the old tenants have taken what was offered them and left; others hang on in the hope of something better, and the walls of the quarter are scrawled with crudely-lettered Hebrew signs like “We Will Not Be Forced Out,” which might make the casual tourist think that he is indeed in occupied Jerusalem. Presumably a compromise will be struck, but it is clear that renovation predicated on eviction can hardly serve as a model for similar undertakings in the future.



It is as much as anything the exorbitant cost of buying an apartment in Jerusalem today (a problem compounded by the fact that the rental system is practically unknown in Israel) that has made the city the focus of the loose organization of young Jews of “Oriental” backgrounds that has recently sprung up under the somewhat macabre name, all circumstances considered, of the “Black Panthers.” Viewed in the context of past ethnic protest movements in Israel, “Black Pantherism” is far from a new phenomenon: there has been, on and off, a series of small “Sephardic Power” political parties in the country since the early 1950’s, none of them very successful, and the Wadi Salib riots in Haifa in 1959 were certainly far bloodier than the violent demonstrations in Jerusalem last spring. Even the name “Black Panthers” is less indicative of any radical or Third World trend among young Israeli have-nots than it is of the intensely imitative and consumer-oriented phase through which the country is currently passing, in which any product bearing a foreign, or better yet, an American-sounding name, enjoys an automatic advantage. This is not to say, of course, that the “Panthers” needn’t be taken seriously. The fact remains that while the situation has in some respects improved considerably in the last decade, the great majority of Jews at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder in Israel are still of non-European origin, and that though they may encounter little or no direct discrimination of the kind practiced on minorities elsewhere (and often on Arabs here), the basic machinery of Israeli society continues in many ways to work against them. If Jerusalem, which has the highest percentage of such Jews of any major city in Israel, as well as the highest percentage of families living on welfare and in substandard housing, has been spared such outbursts in the past, it is perhaps because being a city of shopkeepers, civil servants, and professionals with hardly any rich business class to speak of, it has been relatively free of the kinds of conspicuous wealth that can embitter the poor more than poverty itself. This continues to be true in many areas today, but housing is no longer one of them. It is now almost impossible to buy a new, two-bedroom apartment anywhere in the city for less than 100,000 Israeli pounds (about $35,000), and when one reflects that this is close to ten times the annual income before taxes of the average Israeli worker, who cannot even look forward to receiving the 50,000-pound government mortage that is available to every new immigrant, it is clear that most local residents are completely priced out of the building boom that they see all around them. The “Panthers” are a natural response to such a situation.

If there has been any principal beneficiary of the building boom besides the contractors, it has been Jerusalem’s Arabs, who along with Arab labor from the West Bank now constitute nearly all of the city’s construction force. This has not come about so much because Arab labor is cheaper than Jewish—on the whole, wherever it is legally employed and subject to government regulation, it is not—but because Jewish labor is simply not available, the result of a by now chronic shortage of working hands in the Israeli economy that stands in dramatic contrast to the severe unemployment of the middle 1960’s. One can ponder the ironies of a reunified Jerusalem under Jewish control being built by Arab workers; one can wonder about the long-term implications of Israel’s growing dependence on Arab labor not only in construction but in other fields as well; yet in the short run one would be hard-pressed to deny that the sudden demand for new building in Jerusalem and the equally sudden availability of a labor force to perform it—both direct outcomes of the Six-Day War—have been a happy conjunction, most of all for the Arabs themselves. The majority of Arabs employed in the building trades in Jerusalem are unskilled or semi-skilled workers who in Jordanian times never lived far above subsistence level. They are not getting rich today either, but they are probably earning more, living better, and enjoying greater economic security than ever before. A recent Israeli study indicates that whereas prices in East Jerusalem have risen by close to 50 per cent since the war, wages among manual workers have more than doubled, and this seems to be a fairly accurate assessment of the increase in purchasing power of a large part of the poorer Arab population, which is in addition now benefiting from such things as medical and unemployment insurance which were never provided by the Jordanians.

Thus, at a time when the economic stratification of Israeli society as a whole is increasing greatly, East Jerusalem may be the one place in the country where it is actually decreasing, for if the Arab workingman is economically better off than he was before the war, the Arab middle class is probably not. Worst hit have been white-collar workers and professionals, the first because they were largely employed by the Jordanian government, the second because they find it difficult to compete with their Israeli counterparts, who are often on a higher level of competence and have the additional advantage of knowing their way about in a society where personal connections can often make all the difference. Because these are the groups that have in recent years provided the elite of the Arab community in Jerusalem, and who continue today to represent it in its external dealings, they have perhaps succeeded in conveying to the world at large a gloomier picture of economic conditions in the Arab sector of the city than in fact prevail. I was talking not long ago to an Arab businessman who was reciting the standard litany of complaints against the “occupation,” as it is still universally called in East Jerusalem: Israeli prices and taxes were outrageously high; they channeled all the tourist trade to their own people and left only the crumbs for the Arab guides and hotels; the Israeli way of doing things was too fast-paced and aggressive for Arabs to adjust to; ultimately the two life-styles were simply not compatible and it would be better for all concerned if the city were to be politically redivided. I inquired whether it wasn’t true nonetheless that the lot of many poor Arabs had materially improved. Well yes, but I had to understand that there were never many poor Arabs in Jerusalem to begin with. That was just an Israeli myth. There were only five-thousand ordinary laborers in all of Arab Jerusalem. But according to statistics I had seen, I said, that was nearly half of the entire Arab work force! Well yes, perhaps. He would have to check his figures. But in any case, what did it matter? As long as the occupation continued. . . .



But there are indications that the Arab community may be slowly arriving at the conclusion that the occupation has come to stay. There is no point in making too much of such things, yet they are perhaps not altogether devoid of significance: the disappearance in the last year of the periodic demonstrations and shutdowns that annually commemorated the “black days” of the Palestinian calendar—the anniversaries of the Balfour Declaration, the UN partition vote, the Six-Day War—the new Hebrew signs that one notices in the shop windows each time one visits the Old City, the increasing numbers of Arabs who are entering into business relationships or even partnerships with Jews. Ask a Jerusalem Arab and he will reply with a shrug that one has to live, and that, in any case, the final disposition of the city is quite out of his hands and will be ultimately decided elsewhere—in Cairo, in Amman, in Washington, in Moscow, by the Israelis. There is a bottomless anger in this acknowledgment of the powerlessness that has come to be the central trauma of Palestinian existence, but there is also perhaps a faintly noticeable sense of relief that when the bitter day comes on which the loss of Jerusalem must be publicly admitted by the Arab world, the hand that signs the treaty will not be one’s own. One cannot be an Arab in Jerusalem today without knowing in one’s heart that there can be no return to the city of 1967 for the simple reason that the city of 1967 no longer exists. For Arabs elsewhere to insist indefinitely otherwise will simply be once again to display the peculiarly Arab penchant for rallying around the flags of lost causes. The Israelis are already arguing about 2010, and it is in this as much as in anything that the difference between the two sides is expressed.




1 In both cases, the approximate doubling of the Arab population is presumably based on the Palestinian Arab birth rate, which is one of the highest in the world. It is not entirely clear on the other hand what calculations led the planners to predict the doubling by 2010 of the Jewish population, whose growth is in large measure a function of immigration from abroad—unless it was simply an ex cathedra judgment that the present parity between the two groups should continue to be maintained. In any case, it is a curious fact that ever since Jews from Eastern Europe and the Levant began settling in Jerusalem in growing numbers in the middle of the 19th century, the population of the city has more or less doubled every thirty to forty years: in 1844 it was in the neighborhood of 15,000, of which 7,000 were Jews; in 1876, 25,000, of which 12,000 were Jews; in 1905, 60,000, of which 40,000 were Jews; and in 1940, 157,000, of which 95,000 were Jews. There is thus some irony in the fact that the one city in Palestine that had a Jewish majority even before the onset of Zionist colonization is now the one city in Palestine that has become a symbol of Zionist usurpation in the eyes of much of the world.

About the Author

Hillel Halkin is a columnist for the New York Sun and a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY. Portions of the present essay were delivered at Northwestern University in March as the Klutznick Lecture in Jewish Civilization.

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