In many cities around the world, tensions exist between the desire to preserve the past and the need to make way for the present. In Jerusalem, the spiritual, historical, and political headquarters of the Jewish people, this “friendly friction” makes its presence all the more felt.
For one thing, almost any time a major earthwork job is scheduled in Israel, and certainly in Jerusalem, a “rescue dig” must first be carried out. This is to ensure that no important archaeological artifacts remain buried and inaccessible beneath a towering skyscraper or other new construction. Such rescue digs can take mere days, or they can go on for months – and there’s always a chance that a given project will not actually be carried out. Plans to build a school in Jerusalem’s Ramat Shlomo neighborhood, for instance, were stopped several years ago when a quarry that supplied the giant stones for the construction of the Temple Mount was found in the intended spot.
Of late, not only are age-old relics being sought, but even those that are only a few decades old. Many Jerusalemites are working enthusiastically to ensure that special sites in “modern” Jerusalem are not harmed or destroyed to make way for new buildings.
On the other hand, the capital city is facing a severe demographic crisis, given the increasing Arab proportion of its populace. Pessimistic predictions foresee the possibility of an Arab mayor by the year 2030 – unless thousands of units of affordable housing are built for growing Jewish families and ways are found to keep them from leaving by the thousands.
Though the situation has improved in recent years, including higher Jewish fertility rates, the Jewish population is still not growing as fast as the Arab sector. Recent statistics show that though there is a need for over 4,000 new apartments each year, only some 2,000 are actually built. This situation has been brought on by political pressures and environmental efforts.
These may make for a prettier city – but if not done correctly, they might also endanger its very future.
Jerusalem’s Council for Conservation of Sites approved last week a list of no fewer than 8,000 (!) buildings or sites that are to be preserved. Though this sounds like a tremendous number, the council’s Yitzik Shweky explains that it “includes many sites where new construction can be built atop the existing building, or aside it. There are only about 150 buildings that by law cannot be changed at all.”
That is to say, the council’s decision does not mean the buildings on the list are now protected by law from being razed or significantly modified. Rather, only if the Local Committee for Planning and Construction, and the municipality, grant an exemption, can a building be taken down.
The new list is actually some 20 years late in fulfilling the national Planning and Construction Law, which requires cities to draw up a list of historically valuable buildings. As could have been expected, the vast areas in Yerushalayim with historic value made the task quite difficult – and builders took advantage of the delay to destroy many of the likely candidate structures and replace them with their own, more profitable ones.
Back in 1968, the city publicized a list of 1,033 sites slated for preservation – yet 400 of them have since been destroyed or modified to the extent that their conservation was rendered no longer relevant. The Waldorf Astoria Jerusalem Hotel at the corner of Agron and King David Streets, for instance, has retained only the outer facade of what was once the historic Palace Hotel (and later Israel’s Ministry of Industry and Trade); though it is impressive, the Preservation Council counts it as a failed preservation effort.
Some neighborhoods – such as the city center, Meah She’arim, Ein Kerem, and the German Colony, among others – are heavily dotted with buildings for preservation, and the entire Old City is to be saved nearly as is. Individual buildings slated for protection include the old Knesset building on King George St., which is to become a Knesset Museum, the old Emek Refaim train station, and many structures in the Russian Compound and along Jaffa Road and HaNeviim Street. Many synagogues are on the list, as are structures in which lived famous personalities, such as Rav Kook in the city center and Shmuel Yosef Agnon in Talpiyot. Many buildings and even entire areas – such as Meah She’arim – were included for their architectural value.
Prof. Saadia Mendel, a leader in the efforts to preserve ancient neighborhoods in Yafo, Tzfat, and of course Yerushalayim, says, “Preservation of sites has nothing to do with nostalgia. It is not just a question of memories and how we once were. It is rather a question of including each element in the larger story and city mosaic. If we destroy a particular building, then the chronological puzzle of the city will be missing a piece – or two pieces.”
For those of us who realize the critical importance of renewing our ties with ancient Jerusalem, it is impossible not to appreciate the efforts of those who wish to do the same for links going back only a few decades.
On the other hand, the city must grow and remain Jewish. Jerusalem faces many challenges in warding off those who would divide it down the middle between Israel and an Arab entity. Among them are the preservation of historical ties, both ancient and modern – and the construction of large quantities of new, affordable housing to ensure that young Jerusalemites remain in the city. Both goals are achievable, as long as we keep our eyes on both at the same time.
To learn how you can help in the campaign to keep Jerusalem growing, united, Jewish, and sovereign, send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit the Keep Jerusalem-Im Eshkachech website at www.keepjerusalem.org.