Mideast Commentary: Jerusalem Prognosis

June 14th, 2011

Ed Rettig, Director, AJC-Jerusalem

The Israeli Knesset designated Jerusalem Day as a national holiday in 1968. It falls on the 28th day of the Hebrew month of Iyar, the anniversary of the day the State of Israel proclaimed the reunification of the city in 1967. This year the Hebrew date fell on June 1. The occasion calls for some reflections on the state of the city.

Many write and speak about Jerusalem as a “cause.” The Arabs call the city Al Quds (the sacred), and Palestinians see it as the capital of the future Palestinian State. For Israel, though, it is self-evidently the capital of the Jewish State, much as it has been the lost capital of the Jewish people through much of their history. Indeed, the very name of the Jewish movement for national liberation that produced Israel is “Zionism.” “Zion,” the name of a hill in Jerusalem, is used to connote the entire city.

Yet, in our passionate discussion of the cause of Jerusalem we tend to lose sight of the people who live there. As we ponder the city’s political future we do well to consider the Jerusalemites, those most directly engaged in that future. Jerusalem is home to about three quarters of a million people, most with large families, low incomes, and, unless things change drastically, relatively poor economic prospects.

The invaluable Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies (JIIS) released its 2011 Statistical Yearbook of Jerusalemproviding facts and figures. While the raw statistics are two years old (the usual delay in scholarly JIIS analytic studies), they illuminate long-term trends. The city is home to 773,000 people, three times the 1967 population of 266,300. Its ethnic makeup has shifted somewhat. In 1967 the city was about one quarter Arab, while in 2009 Arabs constituted over a third of the population. On the Jewish side, the growth in population has been overwhelmingly Haredi (ultra-Orthodox). In 2009 Haredim made up 29% of the population while those self-defined as “secular” were down to about 20%. As 62% of Jewish children in Jerusalem study in Haredi schools, this trend on the Jewish side is likely to continue.

Jerusalemites have many children. The birthrate for both Muslim Arabs (3.9 births per woman) and Jews (4.1 births per woman) is much higher than in the rest of the country, although the Muslim Arab birthrate is slowly coming down. (Christian Arabs, who account for only a small portion of the population of the city, have a very low birthrate.) Jerusalem’s population does not support itself. In Israel as a whole, 57% of those over age 15 participate in the workforce, but in Jerusalem the figure is just 46%. Arab women and Haredi men tend to refrain from participation in the workforce for reasons deeply rooted in their respective cultures.

An astonishing 68.6% of Arab families live below the poverty line. The Jewish communities have little to be happy about either, with 23% of their families below the poverty line. While these statistics relate to families and not individuals, the overall poverty rate for the city stands at 56.5% of individuals, making the Jerusalemdistrict the poorest in the country by a significant margin.

Jerusalemites are taking notice and making choices when they have the option. In 2009, 18,800 left the city while only 11,700 moved in. Overall, those who leave tend to be the more economically productive, while those who arrive tend to be elderly, or students, or young people not yet working at their full economic potential. It is the high birthrate, not the attractiveness of the city, that keeps its population growing.

Politically, the much proclaimed “unity” of the city is a fiction for one major structural reason. Over the years, the Palestinians have boycotted Jerusalem’s municipal elections as a way of demonstrating their long-term non-acquiescence in the unification of the city. But this comes at the high price of shortchanging themselves in the allocation of resources.

Municipal politicians work in much the same way all over the world, seeking to further the interests of constituencies that elect them. Their successes (and reelection chances) are often a function of how aggressively they pursue those interests, often at the expense of broader policy issues. Critics of Israelcharge it with discriminatory policies against Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem, but the real reason those
neighborhoods get fewer resources lies elsewhere. Palestinians do not sit on the Municipal Council as a result of their election boycott, and thus have no representatives at the table when the political game is played and resources allocated. An example of the opposite strategy can be seen in the Haredi communities, which participate in elections and whose representatives are skilled at the art of leveraging that participation and receiving municipal resources far in excess of what their community produces in tax revenues.

A sober look at the economics of Jerusalem shows a city slowly but apparently inescapably sinking into poverty. But that is not inevitable. The city is home to a great university, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. It is home to an important Palestinian institution of higher learning, Al Quds University. It has half a dozen colleges and dozens of research institutions. It has some hi-tech industry. It has a highly trainable and talented work force, both in the Arab and Jewish neighborhoods. It is a center for tourism and, not to neglect the obvious, the national capital of Israel.

Part of the problem in harnessing these resources has been mediocre leadership. Since the days of the legendary Teddy Kollek, no mayor of Jerusalem has had the vision, force of personality and leadership to become a driving force for development of the city. The current mayor, Nir Barkat, a successful hi-tech entrepreneur, shows potential but has been in office only since 2008 and it is too early to tell if he can fill Kollek’s shoes.

The dire economic picture also has implications for the political fate of Jerusalem. In strictly economic terms,Israel has nothing to gain by holding on to the Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, which are a drain on national resources. Indeed, some on the Israeli left who are willing to divide the city to attain peace bolster their argument by citing this fact.

Conversely, those who argue that the city must remain united under Israeli rule must come to grips with the economic result of the Palestinian absence from municipal electoral politics. When push comes to shove, the rhetoric of a unified city will not mean very much if the city is divided not just ethnically but also by the imbalanced allocation of resources between its Arab and Jewish citizens.

From a strictly economic standpoint, dividing Jerusalem may work to the advantage of the Jewish part of the city. Indeed, between 1949 and 1967 before unification, Jewish Jerusalem grew by leaps and bounds while the Eastern part, under Jordanian rule, languished. But economics will be only a secondary consideration inIsrael’s policies on resolving the issue of Jerusalem.

The primary Israeli concern is safety. Will Arab East Jerusalem, should it become the capital of Palestine, be a friendly neighboring capital, Jewish Jerusalem’s Ottawa? Or will it be Beirut, home to violent, bigoted enemies? Until we find out it is hard to see how the city can peacefully divide. A united Jerusalem may or may not be the preferred solution to the challenges the peacemakers face, but it may be the only serious game in town so long as Israeli democratic processes, which determine Israeli government policies, respond with lack of confidence when Palestine honors Hamas and similar groups.

In the meantime, Mayor Barkat has his work cut out for him as he seeks to make the city as united in development as it is in government rhetoric-and, against the odds, lead it to prosperity.