Jews slowly leaving the holy city

Jewish population continues to shift amid final status talks

November 24, 1999|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM -- At the same time Israel is struggling to keep Jerusalem as the undivided, eternal capital of the Jewish state, many Jews are moving away from the holy city.

During the past 20 years, the proportion of Jews in the city has been slowly but steadily shrinking, to the point where Jews now account for less than 70 percent of the population of 633,000, with Arabs making up most of the rest.

Last year, the Jewish population grew by 1 percent, compared with a 3.5 percent increase for Arabs, according to a study by the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Affairs, a research organization.

"Despite the policy pursued by successive Israeli governments to buttress the Jewish population in the capital, Jews are leaving the city in massive numbers," the newspaper Haaretz declared in a recent editorial.

The exodus includes young families, including the ultra-Orthodox, fleeing the high cost of housing in the city and skilled professionals seeking job opportunities, particularly in high-tech and finance, more prevalent in the center of the country. It also includes people weary of an atmosphere of tension between observant and nonobservant Jews, and between Jews and Muslims.

"It was in the air," said Sharon Lang-Penchas, who moved with her husband, an investment banker, to Tel Aviv last fall. "If it was the only factor, I don't suppose we would have moved. But [taking] everything together, we wanted to move."

The Jewish population continues to increase, largely because of the high birthrate among the very Orthodox, for whom nine to 12 children per couple is common. But the Arab population of East Jerusalem is growing faster. And for every Jewish family that leaves, there's a Palestinian jumping through bureaucratic hoops to gain or keep the right to live here.

"The trends are very dangerous," said Jerusalem's right-wing mayor, Ehud Olmert. "In the long run, it's likely to lead to a different proportion of Jews and Palestinians in Jerusalem. I don't want it to happen. I want to have more Jews than Arabs here."

The gradual population shift has gained new importance because of the peace process. The future of Jerusalem is possibly the most explosive of the "final status" issues being negotiated between Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

With serious talks under way, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak hopes to achieve a framework agreement by February and a final deal by September.

But for that to happen, a solution must be found to two seemingly irreconcilable positions on Jerusalem. Israel insists that a united Jerusalem is its eternal capital; Palestinians want the city to be divided, with the historically Arab eastern part becoming the capital of a Palestinian state.

"If there are more Arabs, or an equal number of Arabs, they will feel stronger in their demand for political sovereignty," Olmert said.

Perhaps no other place on Earth excites such a mix of religious and nationalist passions as this city, which is sacred to Jews, Muslims and Christians.

"What is the soul to the body? Can you describe it?" asked Rabbi Menachem Porush, leader of the ultra-Orthodox Agudath Israel Party, which has its headquarters in Jerusalem, in trying to explain Jews' attachment to the city of David. "Jerusalem is our soul. It gives us life."

Porush, 83, a seventh-generation Jerusalemite, remembers running to pray at the Western Wall an hour after Israeli soldiers captured the Old City in June 1967.

Holy city, hellish problems

The third holiest shrine in Islam after Mecca and Medina, Jerusalem is the place where the prophet Mohammed is believed to have ascended to heaven. For Christians, it is the site of many important moments in the life of Christ, including his final suffering and burial.

Jerusalem's religious and historical importance tends to obscure the fact that it is also a municipality where ethnic and religious divisions compound the prosaic urban problems of pollution, traffic, taxes and crowded housing.

Filmmaker and writer Danny Verete, 47, says he left when faced with spending two hours a day in traffic jams while driving his children to school or taking them to after-school activities.

In Jerusalem, Arab, ultra-Orthodox and secular neighborhoods stand cheek by jowl. This gives the city its vibrant richness. But the various populations notoriously get on each others' nerves.

For secular Jerusalemites, one source of tension has been the growth of the ultra-Orthodox population, spreading beyond its traditional neighborhood and gaining in local political power.

"In the Old City, there has been a change in the social structure. Almost all the secular people moved out and the National Religious moved out," said David Blumberg, chairman of the Bank of Jerusalem. Blumberg, who counts himself among the National Religious, relatively liberal Orthodox Jews, moved from the Old City to the more secular Greek Colony neighborhood. Many of his friends have left the city altogether, he said.

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