Washington Jewish Week / November 12, 2009
By Larry Luxner
Affordable housing for both Jews and Arabs, massive investment in high-tech jobs and the welcoming of 10 million tourists annually by 2019 — all these are crucial elements of Mayor Nir Barkat's vision for his beloved Jerusalem.
Barkat, 50, was elected mayor of Israel's capital city exactly one year ago. He spoke last Friday at George Washington University, on the last day of a U.S. tour that also included a visit to Denver and a meeting with New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The 20-minute speech to some 250 students and faculty was organized by the Institute for Middle East Studies, a division of GWU's Elliott School of International Affairs.
"Jerusalem is not only a city of 800,000 residents, but also the heart and soul of the Jewish people, and for over three billion other people of faith who have expressed an interest to come to Jerusalem at least once in their lifetimes," said the mayor, speaking in impeccable, barely accented English.
"We are a destination for pilgrims, Jews and non-Jews alike," he said. "I'm eager to challenge the Catholics, the Evangelicals, the Jews and the Muslims — and anybody else — to think of Jerusalem like a shareholder would. How can we increase tourism and enable people to enjoy a rich cultural experience? There's no other city in the world that could offer such a heavy experience like the city of Jerusalem."
Barkat told his audience that his favorite place within the municipality he governs is the City of David, just outside the Old City walls near Jaffa Gate.
"Two-thirds of the Bible's history was written on that little hill," said the mayor, describing one of Israel's most important archaeological sites. "What we find in a week there, the world doesn't find in a year."
Since Jersualem's reunification in 1967 following the Six-Day War, he said, the city has been open to all people, regardless of religious beliefs. In fact, he said, "the only ones who are restricted are the Jews, who are not allowed to pray on the Temple Mount."
Yet according to Barkat, the Jewish population of Jerusalem has shrunk from 70% to 65% over the last 15 years. Of that 65%, about a third are ultra-Orthodox. The remaining 35% are Arabs, the vast majority of them Muslim.
"Unfortunately, Jerusalem has become the poorest city in Israel in the last decade," he said. "Half of the kids are under the poverty line. When you understand those dramatic numbers, you realize that we really have to get our act together and bring Jerusalem back to where it should be as the nation's capital."
Barkat said the average annual income of Jerusalem's Jewish population is around $16,000, compared to $24,000 a year for Tel Aviv and its environs.
"That's why there's such strong migration from Jerusalem's Jews to the center of the country," he said, estimating that 6,000 Jews leave his city every year. On the other hand, "the average income of our Arab population is $4,000 a year, compared to $800 in the West Bank, so Arabs want to come because the quality of life in Jerusalem is so much higher than in the West Bank."
The best way to strengthen Jerusalem's economy, says Barkat, is to boost tourism arrivals substantially.
"Mayor Bloomberg told me the other day that New York received 48 million tourists in 2008. The mayor of Rome said he had 40 million tourists in 2008. It's a shame that Jerusalem had only two million tourists last year," he said. "My long-term goal for Jerusalem, 10 years from now, is to have 10 million tourists annually. It's a big step from where we are now, but that's relatively tiny compared to Jerusalem's potential."
Ten million tourists a year, he said, means 10 million ambassadors of peace. "People who come there and understand how it is to practice their religion freely become ambassadors of peace. It also translates into 140,000 jobs."
He added: "In every region of the world, wherever poverty strikes, you have more riots and anger. Where there's prosperity and the economy flourishes, people become more moderate. My vision is to create peace from the bottom up, not from the top down. And my role is to get people to buy into this vision."
Barkat proudly described how his governing 30-member coalition includes "ultra-Orthodox, secular Jews, right-wingers, left-wingers — all buying into this vision."
Barkat's background is in business; he co-founded BRM Technologies, a venture-capital firm specializing in anti-virus computer software. Later on, the company became an incubator venture firm that invested in other companies like Check Point and Backweb.
He entered politics in January 2003, running for mayor of Jerusalem but losing to ultra-Orthodox candidate Uri Lupoliansky. He then became head of the opposition on the city council until the 2008 election, when he ran again. This time he won with 52% of the vote, defeating his ultra-Orthodox rival, Meir Porush.
In his speech, Barkat steered clear of controversial political subjects. But in the Q&A that followed, the mayor was hit with some rather difficult questions. An Arab student who said he came from "Ramallah, Palestine" asked how Jerusalem could remain the capital of an undivided Israel at the expense of the Palestinians.
"Jerusalem will not be able to fulfill its role if, God forbid, it's divided. It has to stay united," Barkat told the young man, who appeared not to be convinced. "There's no city in the world that works. The root of the word Yerushalayim in Hebrew is shalem, meaning whole. We must make the pieces work better together."
Another student asked Barkat about the demolition of Arab houses by the Israeli government.
"This year, about 100 houses were demolished, all under the instructions of the court of law — 45 houses in West Jerusalem and 55 in East Jerusalem. People have to obey the law, and I know some people question that. But telling any municipal government to prejudice demolishing houses by nationality or race is absurd," Barkat said, adding that he's "committed to making it easier for Arabs in East Jerusalem to get a license to build."
"Just imagine if somebody built an illegal house in the middle of Central Park. I think I know what Mayor Bloomberg's administration would do," he added. "I feel the world expects double standards from us. Yes, Jerusalem has gaps in the planning process, but I'm obliged to maintain law and order."
Barkat sidestepped a question about the legality of Israel's 1980 annexation of East Jerusalem and gently criticized the Obama administration in response to a question about U.S.-Israeli relations.
"We don't understand the current policies," he said. "I realize the United States has higher priorities to deal with at this point. But I think we have to communicate. Right now, there's not enough engagement. Hopefully, we'll get more transparency in the future."