No doubt about Jerusalem's special character. It ranks as one of the most visited cities, as calculated by the number of overseas tourists in proportion to local residents. Religion is important both to visitors and to many of the residents. Not only are there sites that have been central to Judaism, Christianity and Islam since the beginnings of each faith, but the one-third of the Jewish population that is ultra-Orthodox and the tens of thousands of Muslims who stream toward al-Aqsa on holy days make religion a prominent activity, as well as an occasional source of tension spilling over to violence. Except for clergy and visitors, there is not much of a Christian population remaining in the city. The Central Bureau of Statistics counts 11,500 Arab Christian residents, and perhaps another 2,500 Armenians. http://www1.cbs.gov.il/reader/ Table 2.11 http://jiis.org/?cmd=statistic.293 Table III-14.
Religion does not demand all of the residents' attention. Nearly 800,000 people call the city home, and much of the time they relate to its monuments the way New Yorkers relate to the Statue of Liberty. It's there, but more pressing are issues of work and home, the kids' education, neighbors, finding a parking place, nagging the municipality to empty the trash bins, and finding a way from here to there when crews are tearing up a street in order to fix something old or install something new.
In recent months the cityscape has seen a major something new. Perhaps not the greatest innovation in the 3,000 since David took charge, but maybe the most prominent since Israel made Jerusalem its capital in 1948, and more certainly since the unification of the city in 1967.
After a long time for planning, digging up, construction, finding graves and other archaeological artifacts causing delays and re-routining, Jerusalem's Light Rail began carrying passengers in August. Now it has passed through its breaking-in period of free ridership, and is about to operate like tram systems elsewhere.
Jerusalem has long had a thorough system of public transportation, but the light rail differs from buses that follow one another through narrow and noisy streets, jostle passengers due to bumps in the road or sudden turns and stops, and spend much of the time stalled in traffic. The light rail is quick, quiet, and smooth riding. It has priority at intersections, and the traffic lights are gradually being adjusted to the point where they assure that priority.
The first line to open also touches on one of the most sensitive issues in the city: the tensions between ethnic and religious communities, with frequent charges that municipal services favor someone else. The line begins in Neve Ya'acov, with a heavy working class population of Russian speakers. The fourth through seventh stops are in the Arab neighborhoods of Beit Hanina (upscale) and Shuafat (a former refugee camp often a source of trouble). Then comes French Hill and another mixed, largely Jewish neighborhood, then two stops alongside ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods (Shimon Hatzadik and Shivti Israel), then another major Arab stop close to the Old City and the problematic Damascus Gate, then on to the center of the city, religious and secular Jewish neighborhoods in the western party of the city toward the terminus alongside Mt Hertzl and Yad Vashem.
So far, so good. The media has reported on a number of minor incidents, such as Arab boys putting their feet on the seats then rail personnel having to separate them from Jewish protesters. But also observed have been conversations between Jewish and Arab mothers and grandmothers about how cute are one anothers' children. Ultra-Orthodox activists gained some media attention before the line began to operate with their demand--rejected by authorities--that carriages separate men and women.
Long delays during the construction left Jaffa Road--the main shopping street in the city center--inhospitable to traffic or pedestrians, and added to the deterioration in the quality of shops that had begun with the opening of a shopping mall several kilometers to the southwest. Now Jaffa Road is clean and free of traffic except for the rail lines in its center, and merchants are doing what they can to make it a more attractive place than in past decades.
Optimists see more of the good stuff serving to convince all populations that they have a common stake in the city and its public services. Pessimists are sure there will be a suicide bombing.
Eight more lines are planned, but so far no firm timetable for the start of construction. Hopefully the experience of Line #1 will speed further construction, but what makes Jerusalem special will continue to make improvements difficult. Streets are narrow, merchants and residents are jealous to control or prevent changes in their neighborhoods. There is always a high probability of finding bones or other relics when digging. Old bones are sure to begin protests by religious activists who insist that they are Jewish and must remain undisturbed where they are. They also cause squabbles between religious Jews and archeologists who want to examine them closely. Old stones excite archaeologists who insist on time to learn what is there, and decide if they should use their authority to prevent the artifacts from being bulldozed into the future.
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Posted by Ira Sharkansky at November 15, 2011 04:29 AM