Amid this week’s Jerusalem Day celebrations is an annual tradition not nearly as festive. Every year, the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics issues Jerusalem Day figures reflecting demographic, economic, cultural and educational changes that offer a broad perspective on the city’s development.
No matter what Jerusalem Day statistics reveal this year, we know this: Jerusalem 2016 hardly resembles Jerusalem of a decade, two decades or five decades ago.
Some of Jerusalem’s transformations are visible to any visitor who has returned time and time again to witness the astounding physical changes in the city. Other changes are less obvious, unless, of course, you are one of the 830,000 Jerusalemites whose perspective is different than those passing through.
As someone who divides her time between Jerusalem and Rome, I know that to truly understand Jerusalem you must experience it – its past and its present. Jerusalem is revered for its ancient history and its religious significance to three monotheistic faiths, yet true appreciation of Jerusalem also comes from seeing opportunities in modern-day challenges.
On 10 June 1967, the euphoria of the Six Day War and the reunification of Jerusalem quickly dissolved into a new reality. Jerusalem’s story in the ensuing years is one of vast demographic changes.
On that day, 49 years ago, 25 percent of the city was Arab and 17 percent was ultra-Orthodox. Today, 37 percent of Jerusalem’s residents are Arab and 34 percent ultra-Orthodox, making up more than 70 percent of the city’s populace.
To truly appreciate Jerusalem is to understand what is behind annual statistics and recognise what is needed to build a vibrant and thriving city for all residents – Jews, Arabs and Christians, secular and ultra-Orthodox, young and old.
To truly ‘feel’ Jerusalem is to have one’s finger on the pulse, attentiveness to all residents, knowing that the south western neighbourhoods of Gonenim and Gilo have different needs but are no more important than those in east Jerusalem’s Wadi Al Joz or Sur Baher.
To truly make a difference in Jerusalem means developing trust and credibility with population groups whose cultural mores don’t easily allow for change.
No one understood the city better than legendary Mayor Teddy Kollek, who presided over a rapidly changing Jerusalem from 1966 until 1993.
Fifty years ago he founded The Jerusalem Foundation, an institution with location-based experts on Jerusalem who live and breathe this city, closely monitoring trends all year round, who not only understand its challenges but look for the opportunities to address them.
They know that behind the annual statistics lies a Holocaust survivor who needs support; an East Jerusalem child who needs a community centre for after school activities; an Ethiopian immigrant who cannot read; an ultra-Orthodox child for whom science is foreign; a musically gifted child who cannot afford to lessons to allow him to thrive and shine.
During times of relative calm it is easy to practice what we all preach, the principles of mutual respect and understanding. Yet values of tolerance and cultural awareness are tested during times of insecurity, and a community foundation cannot fail that test when it operates in one of the world’s most complex cities.
Instead, we hold fast to these core values, identify and empathise with all residents – on the one hand grateful to security forces who protect innocent children on their way to kindergarten while recognising the discomfort those same forces may bring as a nurse in a hijab makes her way to work.
Jerusalem Day’s statistics aren’t newsworthy for those who experience the city every day. What is newsworthy is the energy devoted by so many who will not give up hope, who will not succumb in difficult times and who devote themselves to Jerusalem’s future so it can be a source of inspiration for its people and the world.