Why isn’t Jerusalem our jewel in the crown?

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 11-5-08

If there was one thing that the many different constantly quarreling Zionists of yesteryear agreed about, it was that Zionism had to end the era of Jewish passivity. Zionism repudiated the religious addiction to waiting for the messiah. Zionism also rebelled against the ghetto tendency to do the oy vay dance whenever faced with a problem: Shrug to the left, sigh to the right, call out gevalt and end with a world weary witticism about how hard life can be.

Imagine how appalled our Zionist forbears would be by the sense of resignation paralyzing the Israeli body politic these days. Kacha zeh, “that’s how it is,” is as debilitating and defeatist as our grandparents’ many disquisitions on how hard it is to be a Jew.

Imagine how shocked our Zionist founders, who willed a state into being, would be by the fact that the future of Jerusalem is at risk because not enough citizens can be bothered to vote.

On November 11, Jerusalemites will have a chance to shape their city’s future. Last time municipal elections were held, only one-third of the city’s Jewish but non-haredi citizens bothered to vote. Nir Barkat, an attractive, creative, energetic candidate who had potential to revive the city, lost by less than 20,000 votes.

They say there are no second acts in show business, but politics is filled with great comeback stories. Five years later, having served in the city council honorably, Barkat is running again, more experienced ­and determined to get out the vote.

JERUSALEM IS the capital of Israel and of the Jewish people, a magical city that romantically meshes the old and the new. It should be the jewel in the crown of the Jewish people, a model city that delights its inhabitants as well as its visitors. Instead, it is a city of great contrasts, of absurdly high real estate prices and devastating poverty, of transcendent spirituality and vulgar corruption, of splendid sites that gleam at night and of litter strewn willy-nilly that stinks during the day. Jerusalem should be compared to Athens, Rome, Washington.

Instead, it often seems like Chelm, that mythical city filled with people who looked wise but acted foolish.

As the real Jerusalem has become infamous for its dysfunction, many residents have adopted this demoralized, depressing, ghetto-like weariness. Facing underfunded schools and overcrowded classrooms, too many change the subject by saying that the home is the most important influence on children anyway. Watching an overpriced, ill-conceived light rail project soar over budget, and clog traffic by ripping up large stretches of crucial roads for months on end, too many Jerusalemites knowingly explain that the fix is in, the contractors are earning too much for anything to be done. Hearing about houses burglarized, cars broken into, precious items people spend their lifetime collecting stolen by brazen robbers, too many citizens wearily ask “what can you do?”

Citizens in others cities have learned that you can fight corruption, revitalize schools, clean up streets, improve public transportation and crack down on crime. A great mayor can help save a city. New York has been blessed by larger than life mayors who revived that great metropolis. Mayor Ed Koch lured major corporations back to Manhattan, stopping the decline it suffered in the 1960s and 1970s. Mayor Rudy Giuliani fought crime by deploying the police strategically and refusing to tolerate the turnstile-jumping and aggressive panhandling that undermined civic values.

The current mayor, Michael Bloomberg, has reformed the schools, fought corruption, and balanced the budget. Beyond New York, Chicago’s Mayor Richard Daley has pioneered private-public partnerships and made America’s second city work. Less well-known is Mayor Randy Kelly who reduced the crime rate in St. Paul, Minnesota by 30 percent in four years. Within Israel, Mayor Moti Sasson has turned Holon, of all places, into a cultural center. And one of the most legendary of mayors remains Jerusalem’s Teddy Kollek, who showed how to parlay the worldwide love affair with Jerusalem into major cultural, architectural and landscaping projects that made the city sparkle.

DESPITE THEIR accomplishments, all these mayors had flaws, of course. And Barkat himself comes with no surefire guarantees. As a hi-tech entrepreneur, he may lack the politician’s light touch essential in such a volatile city. Recently, he made the absurd proposal that foreigners who own mostly unoccupied apartments should be fined ­ even though no one has ever tried inviting these absentee owners to contribute to the city with a voluntary extra-municipal tax fund through the Jerusalem Foundation or a similar charity.

Still, Barkat has been impressive during the campaign, uniting modern Orthodox and secular Jews, denouncing the light rail boondoggle, highlighting the funding disparities in education, culture, infrastructure investment between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

All the hoopla about the mayoral contest overlooks the fact that residents will cast two ballots. The second, equally important, ballot is for the city council. Jerusalemites should not vote for party hacks more concerned with national party politics. The Hitorerut Yerushalmim list offers young idealists, both secular and religious, who want to do what their name promises, revive Jerusalem¹s splendor. The right to vote is a privilege too many of us take for granted. Those of us lucky enough to live in a democracy should not be so blasé. Those of us lucky enough to live in Jerusalem dare not be so lazy.

Jerusalem has experienced periods of grandeur and periods of desolation during its long history. Jerusalem should be thriving in this the 21st century. Everyone who lives in the city should do everything possible to ensure that Jerusalem has the right leadership to make the city the pride of Israel, the Jewish people and the activist, constructive Zionist cause.

The writer, who lives in Jerusalem, is an American historian and the author of Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents and Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today.

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