The Jewish Quarter in Jerusalem

This August, the Jerusalem district court was petitioned to "freeze" four auctions to be conducted by the Jerusalem Developmen

This August, the Jerusalem district court was petitioned to "freeze" four auctions to be conducted by the Jerusalem Development Company, claiming that the auctions would result in the transfer of additional assets from the Jewish Quarter to Orthodox institutions. The petition was submitted by Arnon Yekutieli, a Jerusalem city council member, together with the Old Settlement Museum and law professor, Pinchas Shiffman.

Another battle, apparently, in the ongoing cultural war between secular and religious for the character of the city. This time, however, with a slightly different angle. The initiative came from the religious but non-Orthodox residents of the Jewish Quarter who fear the "Orthodoxation" process. Most non-religious residents have long since abandoned the Quarter and the 8% who remain are considering leaving. Although the streets are alive with children at play, the children "must be seen yet not seen".

The enormous yeshivas (centers of religious study) and religious shelters leave little room for residential purposes, let alone for non-religious educational facilities. Even the few activities conducted in the Quarters community center are held under strict separation between men and women. Despite the advantages a religious community offers, the communal harmony and rich, colorful urban atmosphere it provides, the extreme orthodoxation process has made life impossible for secular residents of the Quarter. How has the quarter, a site crucial to Jewish history, become dispensable to its religious residents? There is no doubt that the renovated Jewish Quarter is impressive and exciting. The renovations, launched immediately after the Six Day War enable the visitor to experience the Old Citys rich history. It includes sections of the Western Wall from the First Temple period and the Cardo from the Byzantine period. However, from an urban standpoint, the Jewish Quarter is substantially problematic. For some reason, the original renovation plans spoke of populating the Quarter with 60% non-religious residents with various religious institutions scattered among them, as if this were an equation for success.

Even if this equation was relevant at the time, developments in the area exhibit a total lack of long-range planning. Like any other place, the Quarter stood no chance of realizing non-religious life among religious institutions. It was unrealistic to believe that in an area of 45,000 square meters, it would be possible to integrate religious institutions, secular culture, artists workshops, and tourist locations. This impaired calculation was based on the fact that in 1948 the Quarter was a neglected, poor neighborhood with a Jewish population of around 2,000. A more thorough analysis would have revealed that at the turn of the century the Jewish population of the quarter reached 19,000.

The imposing of a religious character upon the Jewish Quarter of the past is understandable. As long as the country was under foreign control, the sacredness of the place was a pretext the local government could not object to. With the rise of Jewish immigration in the mid-nineteenth century, religious organizations formed the principal foundation of the Quarter. Ashkenazi synagogues - Hurvah and Tiferet Israel - were established, and the Sephardi synagogues were rebuilt.

Jerusalem has fallen under the control of different nations and governments throughout the centuries, a factor which contributed to the rise of the Old Citys three religions as the central ones. Today, under Israeli rule, each sect uses its holy sites as a pretext for retaining parts of the Old City. A classic example is Waqfs hold over the Temple Mount.

The reunification of Jerusalem in 1967 caused the dilemma of the Jewish Quarters status within the Old City walls to resurface and gave the Quarter special status among the general public. One might even say that Orthodox zeal has greatly increased the citys value on an international scale; the fate of the city lies at the heart of the struggle to determine the terms of permanent agreement between Israel and Palestine.

The inclination to abandon the Quarter as a result of faulty political planning is new. During the thirty years of the British Mandate, the Zionist movement focused on the development of Jewish settlement in the western part of the city, where the central institutions were established. The Jewish Quarter was designated for religious and scholarly purposes. As a result most of the residents moved outside the Old Citys walls.

With reunification, the Israeli government made Jerusalem their first priority and began to re-cultivate the city as the eternal capital of Israel. The guiding principle that all historical sites must be preserved (not only religious sites) represented a turning point. A ministerial committee, headed by the Prime Minister Levy Eshkol was appointed to oversee renovations. A year later, the Association for the Development & Renovation of Jerusalem - The Jewish Quarter was established, headed by Yehuda Tamir. Eshkol was unable to disclose to Tamir the governments intentions towards the Quarter, although it was evident that after Israeli law was applied to the Eastern part of Jerusalem, there would be a need to lay down ground rules for the anticipated future negotiations between Israel and Jordan.

First, the Quarters borders were defined and then surveying and mapping processes began. At this stage the Arab population of the Quarter reached approximately 1,000, most of whom were refugees who had appropriated houses in 1949, and then fled in fear of revenge in 1967. Levy Eshkols demand that these residents not be forcefully evacuated from the area, led to the reinstatement of Arab residents in the Quarter. With Menachem Begins rise to power in 1977, he ordered that 25 Arab families be allowed to remain in the Jewish Quarter as a gesture of good will. The rest of the families, those who had not fled during the Six-Day War, were offered compensation in return for their evacuation: most declined.

When construction began, the houses in the Quarter were neglected and dilapidated. The synagogues, converted during Jordanian rule into warehouses and stables, were in large part destroyed. At least two of the more distinguished synagogues had been purposely destroyed -Hurvah and Tiferet Israel - had been destroyed by the Jordanians as "Jewish military positions". In 1963, King Hussein planned to convert the Quarter into a park, but the plans fell through although some buildings were demolished.

The Mograbi neighborhood near the Western Wall was destroyed by the Israelis - although it is still unclear who issued the order, perhaps Moshe Dayan - in order to create space for the hordes of visitors and tourists, and the physical planning of the Quarter began. Emphasis was put on planning for residents, not tourists. As a result, a hierarchy was created among the various delegations of Habad and Yehudim streets, and a new axis was forged to link them to the Western Wall. The rest of the alleys were deliberately blocked.

From the very beginning, two opposing approaches were taken. Some wanted to reproduce the pre-war Quarter, others to develop a new, modern neighborhood. A compromise was reached. It was decided to reproduce and preserve as much of the old Quarter as possible and to reconstruct the destroyed religious establishments in their original form. All the yeshivas and synagogues were reinstated, with the exception of the Hurvah, which was kept in its ruined state to mark the Quarters destruction. At the same time, it was decided to build in Modern Eastern style. There was talk of reviving the lost glory of the place, but it was never clear which glory and which period was referred to.

Two groups of architects were involved in the construction process. The Association for the Renovation of the Quarter was appointed to oversee the general construction. At the head of the planning team architect was Shalom Gardi. The master plan was overseen by Ehud Netzer, Joe Savitzky and Arie Sonino, joined at a later stage by architects Nechemia Bikson and Yoel Bar-Dor. The team included twelve architects, among them Ronit Soan, Noga Landver, Uri Ponger, Yoel Shoham, Max Loterman, Jonathan Shiloni, Claude Rosenkovitch and David Bar. A second group of architects were responsible for the restoration and preservation of specific buildings: Safdie, Yaar, Frankel, Tanai, Schoenberg, Kalman Katz, Marco, Best and Tamir. Engineers Gordon and Achbert carried out most of the construction work.

The first project was the restoration of The Shelters, a series of buildings dating from the 1860s. It was entrusted to the group of architects that had collaborated on the renovations of Old Jaffa - Eliezer Frankel, Yaacov Yaar and Saadia Mendel. The decision to use this team was of strategic importance as the renovations in Jaffa emphasized the preservation of the atmosphere of the buildings. It is difficult to evaluate how many of the buildings in the Quarter can be considered "preserved", as a great deal of them were only preserved on the interior while the exterior was enveloped in a new face. In other cases, the exterior was preserved and a new interior introduced.

Archeologist Meir Ben-Dov, an assistant in archeological work conducted during the construction and reconstruction of the Quarter, estimates that only 20% of the buildings were actually preserved. A third of the construction was brand new. In the case of The Shelters, there is no doubt that the conservation was thorough. Another preserved building is the Rothschild House, used for a long time as the Associations offices, and now a candidate for Orthodox acquisition.

Architects Aronson, Bugod and Niv won the only architectural competition for the planning of the complicated construction of the area between Hayehudim street and Habad street as the main commercial axis of the quarter - the Cardo. One of the more distinguished supporters of the renovation of the quarter was Dr. Paul Yaacovi, Chairman of the Association for the Development of Jerusalem. Professor Nachman Avigad of the Hebrew University was asked to head the archeological team working in cooperation with the team of planners.

It was determined that the construction and preservation of the Quarter would be carried out with maximum precision and minimum unpermitted building, which contributed somewhat to the sterility and lack of spontaneous construction. Only two houses were privately built, the home of the State Comptroller, Izchak Nevanzel, and the apartment of Deputy Prime Minister Yigal Alon. The latter building is now a candidate for housing a center for Talmud studies, through the proposed auctions by the Association for the Development of Jerusalem.

In the early stages of the rehabilitation process, the ratio of religious to secular cultural institutions, was forseen as problematic. The Temple Mount and the Western Wall understandably served as a magnet for other religious institutions. However, the desire to resurrect the Quarter was not interpreted correctly by the planners. Unpermitted building - an indication of reality - is usually a major factor in correcting any faults in a plan. Here the massive unauthorized building on the most part came from the religious institutions.

Representatives of the National Religious Party required that the Jewish Quarter house not only Orthodox institutions as in the past, but also new institutions of National Religious Judaism. The Yeshiva Hakotel was established in an irregular manner, not only because of the decision to preserve the number of religious residents, but also in its physical planning. The yeshiva was permitted to build above the originally determined height. After the remains of a Second Temple neighborhood were discovered in its foundations, the decision made was to preserve it. After 1977, political pressure led to the building of the Esh Hatorah yeshiva and others.

The large number of religious institutions affected not only the atmosphere and image of the present day Quarter, but also its future. Although the populating committees acted on the premise that the majority of residents be intellectuals, artists and distinguished secular personalities, political influence from the National Religious Party put a stop to this growing trend. It is very likely that as a result of lack of secular infrastructure in the physical planning, the Quarter would have been Orthodoxized anyway. Without kindergartens, schools and social services, a secular population would not survive.

The secular communitys initial enthusiasm to settle in the Quarter faded quite rapidly and many of those whose residence was authorized by the populating council did not take up their offer. The cumbersome system (including the evacuation of the Arab population), difficulties in transportation and parking, lack of moral support from the establishment, and in particular, the limitations that arose from Orthodoxation were contributing factors. Today more than 600 religious families and yeshiva students reside in the quarter, totalling over 4,000 in number. As a result, there is not one loose stone to be found, and only the few grocery stores covered in gaudy advertisements, the dirty public garden and broken wooden blinds remind the outsider that he is not in the Diaspora.

What does the future hold for the Jewish Quarter of the Old City? The petition to the court represents only a small step in the right direction. The rest must come from those who are reluctant that the Jewish Quarter become the Orthodox Quarter. The secular population, it is safe to assume, will continue to come to the Old City as tourists, although it is unlikely that the Jewish Quarter will be included on their routes.

What is happening in the Jewish Quarter is possibly an extreme example of what may occur throughout the entire city of Jerusalem. Failing a drastic change, it will be impossible to turn back the clock. The city of Jerusalem is fast losing its appeal to the secular community who are still in a majority today. The non-religious residents that have abandoned the Jewish Quarter argue they are not willing to be confined to a religious straitjacket without the right to express their own lifestyle. The secular population, apparently, is not willing to endure discomfort even in return for a handful of aesthetics and three thousand years of Jewish history.


חזרה לגליון 39    back to issue 39