Tale of Two Cities

March 15, 2018

by: Nathan Williams, BFP Staff Writer

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Tel Aviv (Photo credit: Dmitry Pistov/shutterstock.com)

Jerusalem is experiencing one of its biggest expansions ever. Mayor Nir Barkat is focused on making Jerusalem a modern metropolis and one of the most accessible cities in Israel. Barkat hopes that new rail lines, business centers and massive residential construction will not only attract new citizens, but also investment from Israeli companies.

During 2018, the newest addition to the Jerusalem transport infrastructure will be officially inaugurated and opened to the public. The King David Line will expand the network of Israel Railways, offering a high-speed link between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv via Ben Gurion Airport. This new route will cut travel time over the 56-km (35-mile) distance to just twenty-eight minutes and link directly to public transport in Jerusalem. While on the one hand it is good news for the citizens of Jerusalem and tourists alike, there is a concern that the rapid modernization of this ancient city will affect its unique character.

The Other Capital

Founded some 100 years ago, the seaside city of Tel Aviv has, by default, carried the title of the unofficial capital city of Israel. When the world refused to recognize Jerusalem or to place their diplomatic missions in the biblical capital, the logical choice for the international community was to look to Tel Aviv. According to historical fact and now added to the chorus, US President Trump, Jerusalem can restate the claim of being the official capital city of Israel. But what may appear to simply be a battle of titles between two cities, also embodies a clash of ideologies that plays out within the rank and file of Israeli citizens. Tel Aviv has become the quintessential model of a modern, liberal, cultural center, while Jerusalem is perceived to be religious, extremist and stiff. Therein lies the crux of this struggle—a clash between secularism and conservatism—that questions the actual identity of the State of Israel and the rights of its religious and secular citizens.

In the Beginning

Old City, Jerusalem (Photo credit: Hannah Taylor/bridgesforpeace.com)

 The origin of the current religious status quo in Israel is attributed to a letter sent by David Ben-Gurion to the United Nations on June 19, 1947. Ben-Gurion feared that he would lose the support of Jewish religious leaders by declaring a secular state instead of a religious one. Consequently a letter was penned outlining that the State of Israel would abide by key policy principles fundamental to Orthodox Judaism. Perhaps not realizing it at the time, the letter would become the guide for the modern State of Israel in defining all future relationships between religion and state. Ben-Gurion covered matters like the Shabbat (Sabbath day of rest), religious Jewish kosher laws regarding food, family laws like marriage and basic education. As the primary identity of the State of Israel is a Jewish one, the government has enforced these fundamental laws of Orthodox Judaism. But periodically in modern history the debate flares up about whether there should be a separation of “church and state,” or rather rabbinate and state, in Israel.

Keep it Holy

In Israeli politics the most recent flare-up on this issue revolved around the observance of the Sabbath day and the rules of state that govern it. On the Sabbath day in Israel, which runs from sunset on Friday to sunset on Saturday, workers are entitled to a day off, all public transportation comes to a halt and malls are closed. Secular residents, particularly in bigger cities such as Tel Aviv and Ashdod, are demanding that public services like transport and entertainment be available on this day of rest. Even some state-owned organizations like Israel Railways are appealing to the government to allow their workers to perform maintenance on the railway lines on the Sabbath when transportation is halted. Increasingly this is becoming a political issue as each side uses political clout to try to change, or to keep, the current laws. Until now the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) factions have succeeded by using their political power to keep the laws of the country in line with what Ben-Gurion envisioned an Orthodox Jewish state would look like. A very definitive line is being drawn in the sand between those who support the intrinsic Jewish identity and values of the State of Israel and those who seek to change them in line with the ways of the world.

Next Stop: Change?

For the most part, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem have managed to remain uniquely defined, each with its own character and moral compass. The question one has to ponder is whether the rapid development, ease of access and liberal influence will forever change the face of the ancient Holy City? Just last year, rainbow-flag-donning Tel Avivians descended upon Jerusalem en masse to participate in the Jerusalem Gay Pride Parade. Not content with only affecting the culture and politics in their city, the secular citizens of Tel Aviv are working hard towards reinventing the Jewish state and its official capital city into something which is more pluralist. This is becoming a hot topic for Israeli voters and is touted to be a key issue in any future national and local elections. Jerusalem will, in our time, go through the most major changes in its long history and we are living through these days. My hope is that Jerusalem and the State of Israel will maintain the identity it has fought for so long to regain.

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