Jerusalem in jeopardy

jerusalem | No one stopped as Yossi Cohen stood at the door of his gift shop, arms folded behind his back, waiting for customers.

The veteran shopkeeper at the Rasco passage in downtown Jerusalem had low expectations. Waiting for the next customer has become his natural state of mind. Waiting — for lack of anything else to do.

Wednesday, May 19, marked the 37th “Jerusalem Day,” the anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem during the 1967 Six-Day War, when the eastern part of the city fell into Israeli hands after Jordanian fighters failed to hold onto the Old City.

But 3 1/2 years after the start of the Palestinian intifada, Jerusalem still is somewhat separated from the rest of the country — and Cohen was in no mood for festivities.

“Business is bad,” Cohen said. “Real bad.”

Though shoppers have returned to Jerusalem’s city center since the peak of Palestinian terrorism, going to downtown Jerusalem is no longer considered a leisurely outing. People come, take care of their business and hurry home.

“Obviously, if there is peace, there will be tourists, and if there are tourists, things will change,” Cohen said.

Then he smiled sadly.

“Perhaps things will change, but it will take a few more years. In the meantime, Jerusalem is dead,” he said.

Dead sounds rather merciless; seriously ill would be more accurate.

Outside of city residents and foreign visitors — more often than not religious pilgrims of some sort — Jerusalem has been shunned by many Israelis.

“When I ask my friends in Tel Aviv, ‘Does anyone need a ride to Jerusalem?’ they look at me pitifully,” said writer, satirist and playwright Ephraim Sidon.

“For residents of Tel Aviv, going to Jerusalem is a rather risky business,” he said, referring to the numerous terrorist attacks in the capital over the past 3 1/2 years.

The number of residents leaving Jerusalem is greater than those moving in, according to the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies. In 2002, the latest year for which data is available, 16,400 people moved out of the city, while only 9,700 moved in.

At the end of last year, Jerusalem had 692,300 residents, 67 percent of them Jews. Some 30 percent of them are fervently religious, or haredi.

Over the past 14 years, Jerusalem has lost some 100,000 residents, most of them young, secular Jews. But many of them also have been fervently religious, who move out of Jerusalem to less-expensive places such as Beitar Illit and the Orthodox neighborhoods of Beit Shemesh.

On the face of it, there is no reason why Jerusalem should not be one of the liveliest places in Israel, despite the drop in tourism. With 42,000 students, the plurality of them at Hebrew University, and 60 high-tech companies, predominantly in biotechnology, the city has the potential to attract young, educated Israelis.

Sidon, however, remains skeptical.

“As long as there is not even a train which would run from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv in 20 minutes, there is no choice for people like me but to leave the city,” he said.

Tel Aviv is Israel’s modern cultural and business center.

Sidon says Jerusalem needs much more than a PR campaign to succeed.

“If the city becomes haredi, I have no problem with that, but if you want to preserve its secular character as well, one needs to do something about it,’ he said.