Sunday, the 28th of Iyyar, marks the 51st anniversary of Jerusalem’s unification. Professor Doron Bar, President of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, and a 7th generation Jerusalemite, tells the story of Jerusalem’s changing population through the lens of his family history. How has Israel’s largest city evolved from a a small group living within the Old City walls to an expansive metropolis? Watch the video below:
The history of Jerusalem spans millennia. Over the years, as a result of conquests and changes in government, the city has been built and destroyed, enlarged and made smaller. Yet the local landscape has never been destroyed as much as it has been in the 51 years since the Six-Day War. Before it is too late, I call on policymakers to take a new look at how the city should continue to be developed over the next 50 years. I hope that on the 100th anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem, in 2067, the city will still retain some of its unique physical character and that the unique mixture of characteristics that distinguishes Jerusalem from all other cities — its majesty and splendor, the comingling of the holy and the everyday — will not have been lost.
Since the Six-Day War, the actions of Israeli politicians have focused on coping with the rapid increase in the number of Arab residents and fear that the population of East Jerusalem might grow to be greater than that of West Jerusalem. Recently, several members of Knesset proposed that a number of densely populated Arab neighborhoods be artificially severed from the city, in order to change the demographic balance. It appears that as the illegal building in the eastern part of the city becomes more widespread and the population of those neighborhoods grows, so too will the Israeli challenge to increase the Jewish population of the city grow. In the absence of any ability to expand the city westward or eastward, for political and environmental reasons, we have seen increased densification and the construction of taller buildings, as well as more and more construction on land that had previously been zoned for use as green space. Someone who travels today across the city from west to east or north to south cannot help but be impressed by the wave of construction that “conceals” Jerusalem from view and dwarfs the holy, historical city — the Old City and the established neighborhoods of Jerusalem. Slowly, green spaces are giving way to white limestone. The gazelles in Nahal Sorek, alongside the neighborhood of Ramot, will soon be replaced by humans and construction next to the Old City is reaching new heights, so that its unique views would be enjoyed only by the rich and by tourists. These are only a few examples of this disturbing phenomenon.
I call on not only the new mayoral candidates, but also current and future Members of Knesset to change Israeli policy regarding Jerusalem. As Jews and Israelis, we have a very serious responsibility for Jerusalem and her future. The processes currently underway are irreversible and are changing the landscape and character of Jerusalem from end to end.
It is certainly true that a living and lively city like Jerusalem cannot be frozen in time and that dynamic city life must be preserved. On the other hand, we should not be acting under the steamroller of demographic pressure. Jerusalem is already the largest city in the State of Israel, in terms of both population and area. The nation’s leaders should view Jerusalem as a site of Israeli and world heritage and protect her from both processes carried out too quickly and processes that have been poorly thought out. Most importantly, the growth of the city, in terms of area and population, must be slowed, as the current rate of growth is imposing unnecessary pressure on the already scarred landscape.
The city is currently experiencing negative migration as many people leave Jerusalem in search of more affordable or more appealing housing. We have no obligation to continue to enlarge the city. Yet we do have an obligation to think about Jerusalem in terms that are different from those in which we think about other places in this country — Jerusalem is a treasure trove of holiness and culture, a symbol and a unique asset to be preserved and protected. This city is home to hundreds of thousands of residents who go about their daily lives within her boundaries, but, at the same time, it is also a holy city, a capital city, a symbol and a crown jewel of our cultural heritage.
Comparing Jerusalem to other major cities, some of which are no less densely populated — Paris, Rome, Amsterdam, etc. — reveals that those cities have experienced more cautious processes of population growth and that their leaders have managed to balance demographic pressures with the desire and need to preserve their city for future generations. In Jerusalem, we need to identify appropriate economic mechanisms to ensure that the city remains open to everyone: young and old; secular, religious and ultra-orthodox; Jews and Arabs. We must make sure that the city remains alive and lively, as well as a source of inspiration for Jews, Israelis and the world.
Prof. Doron Bar is the President of the Schechter Institute for Jewish Studies, a lecturer in the field of Land of Israel and Jerusalem Studies, and a historical geographer who specializes in the study of the development of popular and national holy sites in Israel.
Explore the Statistical Yearbook of Jerusalem to see maps and information about Jerusalem today.