There was a time when Jerusalem was the end of the road, the backwater capital of the Jewish state; where Highway 1, still littered with the remnant of armored cars from the War of Independence, wound its way until it became Jaffa Road that ended in a huge barricade on the edge of the Old City walls on forbidden Jordanian side.
The highway still runs to Jerusalem but it’s now four lanes wide in each direction. Just in time for this year’s Jerusalem Day it was to have branched off before the entrance into a multi-lane superhighway that cuts through tunnels and over bridges to link up with the road to Ma’aleh Adumim, Jericho and Jordan. But officials have temporarily halted its opening because the contractors had “forgotten” to put in the passages for the wild animals.
But this wasn’t the only reason for the colossal traffic jams as the city marked its 40th anniversary of unification. Perhaps it was the unnatural slow down by awed drivers as they entered the city and passed under the span of the breathtaking “Bridge of Strings.” This suspension bridge designed by renowned Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava is already changing the city’s skyline as it curves over the main road like King David’s harp, supporting the new light rail line from its single tower. It’s expected to be finished later this year, but for the festivities the cables were lit up like, well, like a Christmas tree.
This year, Jerusalem Day was particularly colorful since the hometown soccer team Beitar was crowned the national champions. Victory celebrations in the Saker Park turned into a huge party amid giant yellow and black banners representing the team’s colors.
While the actual Jerusalem Day celebrations took place in the shadow of the Palestinian rocket attacks in the south, the city welcomed thousands of celebrants who flocked to the Old City and Western Wall. It was here that David Rubinger took the most famous of photographs of the 1967 war when he captured the emotionally charged young paratroopers standing before the Wall, thus signifying a mighty return from 2,000 years of exile. Forty years later, the paratrooper veterans - some pot-bellied, all grey or bald - returned to recreate the historic shot for the next day headlines.
Suddenly, the skies opened up with a freak May thunder storm which caused some flooding, snarled traffic and drenched marchers striding down Jaffa Road. It also washed out the traditional celebrations at Ammunition Hill. Some sages said it was God’s wrath over the abandonment of the Bible, but most Israelis shrugged it off and continued with the celebrations. Maestro Zubin Mehta was coming to town to conduct the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and a 10-day cultural festival was beginning.
It wasn’t always so lively in this city. The social scene in Jerusalem used to be so bad that the running joke was: “How does a Jerusalemite have a good time? They go out, catch a movie, maybe a falafel and get home in time to watch the 9:00 news.” Once, Jerusalemites in search of a good night life would flee in convoys to the hedonistic Tel Aviv coast.
Nowadays, the city is a multicultural, nightlife hub with downtown hosting a strip of fancy restaurants, tapas bars and pubs and the Talpiot neighborhood providing a wicked nightclub scene of live music and dancing. The scene is replicated in East Jerusalem where nightclubs like Iskadinya draw both a Jewish and Arab clientele.
Nevertheless, the largest city in Israel still has a reputation of a boondocks town of sorts with a pious air. Not everyone visits since it’s “up the hill.” The last two embassies have recently abandoned Jerusalem which means that no country officially recognizes it as the country’s declared capital.
The city has become more haredi (ultra-orthodox) and more Muslim at the expense of the shrinking secular and knitted-kippa majority. This Jerusalem Day, Mayor Uri Lupoliansky and a few others predicted that the city was on the track of having an Arab majority in a decade or two. Most Israelis have learned not to take all these tidings too seriously.
Jerusalem no doubt is the city of gold – a beacon of hope and yearning for millennia - but for Israelis it is also a city, an urban jungle of stone and forests and malls and industrial zones.
Israel’s leaders once offered to give part of it to the Palestinians, albeit a god-forsaken distant neighborhood. An earthquake didn’t happen because Yasser Arafat rejected the offer before Israelis could fathom it. But it did give Jerusalemites a sense that an Israeli readiness for concessions doesn’t pave the way for an agreement with the Palestinians. The much maligned security barrier that cuts through the eastern Arab neighborhoods has brought an enormous sense of safety to its residents. In fact, the city bears little of the scars of the eighteen suicide bombing attacks it suffered during the past decade’s unrest with the Palestinians. There are a few small monuments, but the sites of the attacks, Hillel café, Moment pub, Sbarros, various bus stops and the Mahaneh Yehuda market to name a few, were all quickly renovated so that life in this 3,000-year-old city can go on and face the challenges of the next 40 years.
*By Arieh O’Sullivan, ADL’s Director of Communications in Jerusalem.