Religious Intolerance Drives Moderate Jews Out of Jerusalem

13myre_graphic_261_600Greg Myre of The New York Times published an important story about the demographics of Jerusalem today.

The article analyzes some of the implications of the statistics illustrated in the graph at left:

"In a 1967 census taken shortly after the war, the population of Jerusalem was 74 percent Jewish and 26 percent Arab. Today, the city is 66 percent Jewish and 34 percent Arab, with the gap narrowing by about 1 percentage point a year, according to the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies.

Jerusalem’s profound religious and historical significance makes its status perhaps the single most explosive issue in the Arab-Israeli conflict. And that status clearly would become even more contentious were the balance of the population to tip toward the Arabs. This is a specter that worries Israelis, even as the 40th anniversary of their victory in the June 1967 war approaches."

The article goes on to describe the well-known fact that Jerusalem remains highly segregated, in fact, it remains two separate cities– West Jerusalem, which is largely Jewish, and East Jerusalem, which is largely Arab.  While the author mentions the city’s weak economy, he does not state clearly that Jerusalem is, in fact, the poorest city in all of Israel.

The article also notes that the large majority of Israelis treasure Jerusalem but would not want to live there:

"A poll released last week captured the Israeli ambivalence over Jerusalem. More than 60 percent of Israelis said they would not want to give up Israeli control of the city’s holy sites, even as part of a peace agreement with the Palestinians. Yet 78 percent of Israelis said they would not consider living in Jerusalem or would prefer to live elsewhere in Israel."

One anecdote from a Jewish woman who decided to leave Jerusalem after being harassed by an ultra-orthodox woman who disapproved of her attire captures some of the angst that people feel about living in Jerusalem, but, in my view, this brief story only scratches the surface of the intolerance that ultra-Orthodox Jews, the haredim, have toward other Jews, not to mention anyone else of a different persuasion or ethnicity.

In my own experiences visiting Jerusalem on eleven occasions, I have felt unwelcome at the Kotel (this is the general description of the site of the Western Wall) almost every time that I go to pray at the Western Wall.  I’ve been harassed by the ultra-orthodox on multiple occasions.  Unlike many non-Orthodox Jews who now avoid going to the Wall to avoid being harassed, I’ve developed my own way of dealing with it:  I make sure to go to the Western Wall as many times as possible in order to assert the fact that the Holiest place in Judaism is not the exclusive territory of the haredim.

According to the article, Jews are leaving Jerusalem because a minority of Jewish fundamentalists are, in effect, chasing them away.  Unfortunately, this trend will only have the residual effect among Jews of leaving more polarized and intolerant people in Jerusalem.

The haredim are not likely to change their ways anytime soon.  If the Israeli government would officially recognize the legitimacy of Conservative and Reform Judaism and take concrete steps to officially allow greater religious pluralism among Jews in Israel, perhaps more Jews in Israel would want to live in Jerusalem and this would not be the poorest city in the State of Israel.  Such contructive change might have a positive ripple effect across a wide range of the socio-economic issues that plague Jerusalem.  Well, I can at least dream…   

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