Old City in Jerusalem
Old City in Jerusalem Israel news photo: Shimon Cohen

Jerusalem has, for thousands of years, been the center of Jewish life, with Jews living in exiles from California to China longing for a glimpse of the Holy City. Now, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat wants to encourage not only Jews, but everyone else as well, to visit Jerusalem – and he has devised a master plan which he hopes will attract at least 10 million people a year to the city. The plan, residents and analysts say, may or may not attract tourists – but it is guaranteed to increase religious and ethnic tensions in a city that already has too many of both, community leaders say.

In a press conference last month, Barkat laid out his plan to turn Jerusalem into an “international cultural center.” The plan will entail the construction of stadiums, places of entertainment, shopping centers, and an artists' quarter, all centered around the Russian Compound area in the center of the city. “The new complexes will host a large variety of events – starting with international singers' concerts, through the Maccabiah Games, to Israel's leading cinema, acting and art schools,” Barkat said at the press conference. “Jerusalem is taking center stage again, and with the facelift we've announced it will become Israel's leading city.”

Parks and gardens will be refurbished, and the Teddy Stadium will be expanded, with the aim of turning it into a venue for international sporting events, like the Maccabiah Games. Also to be built will be a new national library, and the Bible Lands Museum will be renovated as well.

Known far and wide as a city dedicated to the spiritual, Jerusalem has long had a secular side as well – mostly centered in the Talpiot industrial zone, with nightclubs and restaurants of all types. Barkat's plan aims to capture that spirit and transfer it to the city center and the Russian Compound – but that plan, many believe, will doom the city to endless rounds of protest and controversy, as those areas border Hareidi neighborhoods like Me'ah Shearim and Geula.

A foretaste, perhaps, of what can be expected, community leaders said, was the reaction to the recent Jerusalem Food Festival in the Old City. Called the Old City Flavors Festival, the event, which took place at the end of March, was designed to expose Old City restaurants and culinary creations to tourists and Israelis from outside the city. The event took place in various venues of the city, including the Arab Shuk (marketplace), the Christian and Armenian Quarter, and the central plaza of the Jewish Quarter, outside the Hurva Synagogue. Along with the food there were performances by musical and theatrical groups, and other “festive” elements.

But the event was mired in controversy from the start, as many of the participating restaurants were not kosher, a bone the Orthodox community in the city found hard to swallow. Persistent reports said that the senior leader of the country's Lithuanian Hareidim, Rabbi Yosef Shlomo Elyashiv, had instructed the members of the Degel Hatorah and Agudat Yisrael parties sitting on the Jerusalem City Council to resign their posts if the festival was held. The story was not confirmed, but Council members participated in numerous demonstrations against the festival. Yosef Deutsch, a member of the Degel faction, said in an interview with Ma'ariv that he was bitterly disappointed in Barkat. “Jerusalem has much more to offer on its spiritual side than its gastronomic side,” he said. “Why do we have to sink down to this level, to market Jerusalem as a place of eating and gluttony, instead of marketing it for its pride and joy, the Holy City, with all of the spiritual beauty within the Old City walls?”

It wasn't only Jews who were miffed by the festival. Arab MK Ibrahim Sarsur sent a letter of protest to Barkat, along with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, complaining that the festival was ruining the morals of Muslim youth. “I was shocked to hear that the government allocated a million shekels to fund this festival,” he wrote. “Several sheikhs have complained to me that stands in the festival are selling beer to Muslim youths, steps away from mosques. We are gravely concerned over what we see as an attempt to change the status of the Old City, and consider this event to be a serious violation of the sensitivities of the Muslim population. We demand that the beer stands near the Jaffa Gate be closed down immediately.”

In an attempt to placate both sides, the city announced that all of the food offered in the Jewish quarter would be kosher, and warned that the food in the other areas was not. It also declared that no alcoholic beverages would be sold in the Muslim Quarter, and that there would be no performances featuring women in the Jewish quarter.

Still, even secular politicians slammed the event. Pepe Alalo, the head of the Meretz faction on the City Council, said that while he was generally in favor of cultural events, “and especially of food festivals, I believe that the Old City was not the ideal place to hold this event, because of the honor and history of the place. There are other venues that are far more attractive for such events. I would not do things in the Old City that I would in Mamilla or in the Mahane Yehuda market. When I see the Hareidi opposition to this event, I choke on the food I am eating in the festival,” he said. As a result of the protests, the city decided to cancel a music event that had been scheduled for April, in which concert music was to be performed in synagogues, churches, and mosques in the Old City.

And now, with Barkat's declaration of Jerusalem as a “world cultural capital,” residents and leaders fear that protests will only get louder and longer. “I can imagine what will happen when the music from the concerts in the Russian Compound on Friday nights wafts over to Meah Shearim,” said Yitzchak, a secular resident of the city center. “The protests they held here a few years ago over the parking lots operating on Shabbat will be child's play compared to the riots we can expect.”