Critics deny Jerusalem’s past and its future

A plan for cable cars to take worshippers to the Old City is debatable, but calling it a nefarious Israeli plan to ‘Judaize’ the capital reveals the motivations of some critics.

Tourists take in the view of the Dome of the Rock and Temple Mount from the Mount of Olives platform overlooking the Old City of Jerusalem, on Oct. 11, 2018. Photo by Hadas Parush/Flash90.
Tourists take in the view of the Dome of the Rock and Temple Mount from the Mount of Olives platform overlooking the Old City of Jerusalem, on Oct. 11, 2018. Photo by Hadas Parush/Flash90.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

Its critics have accused Israel of a lot of terrible things over the course of its 71 years of existence, but The New York Times has now added one more to the list that will particularly resonate with intellectuals. While Israeli policies in Jerusalem since its reunification in 1967 have often been blasted, a recently approved proposal to deal with the city’s seemingly insoluble traffic problems is being put down as “Disneyfication.”

The accusation that Jews are trashing the holy city and turning it into a theme park was the focus of a feature published this week by the Times. The cable-car scheme is fair game for criticism from architects and others who worry about the potential aesthetic damage to the ancient capital. But the subtext of the campaign against the initiative goes far deeper than whether or not it will make Jerusalem look like a Swiss ski resort or even Disneyworld. For Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman and many of the Israel-bashers he quotes in his piece, the real story is about how Israel is seeking to emphasize Jerusalem’s Jewish history.

The object of their scorn is a cable car that will start its journey at the First Station cultural complex in western Jerusalem and then travel over the Hinnom Valley to a stop at Mount Zion before landing in the City of David archeological park in eastern Jerusalem. There, visitors and worshippers will be able to tour the historic excavations at the site and walk to the Western Wall via recently excavated underground passageways that were taken by pilgrims on their way to the Second Temple 2,000 years ago. If planners have their way, this line will be the first of many that will crisscross the city in the future, delivering people to destinations that would otherwise require them to navigate jammed streets.

The project is a solution to a problem that is readily apparent to anyone who visits Jerusalem—and other ancient cities, for that matter, that were not built for modern-day concerns. The bustling urban center simply doesn’t have the infrastructure in terms of roads or mass transit to deal with the traffic that is created by everyday business, let alone the massive numbers of tourists of all religions who journey there to see the holy places in the Old City. The cable-car idea has been touted by its supporters as the only logical, as well as the greenest, solution to a dilemma faced by a city that for obvious reasons cannot build an underground subway system. That would require digging through layers of history. Nor can it construct  a network of highways that would do far more damage to the integrity of a world heritage site and cause a host of other issues as well.

The opposition of many architects to the scheme is understandable.

The image of a holy city over which cable cars will soon float isn’t exactly the Jerusalem of anyone’s dreams. In that sense, comparisons to Disney aren’t entirely inappropriate. Cable-station architect Mendy Rosenfeld compared the cars to the awful glass pyramid interloper placed in the medieval courtyard of the Louvre in Paris by I.M. Pei and claimed that now “everyone loves it.” But that is hardly an argument that will resonate for most lovers of art or architecture.

As much as the notion of Jerusalem’s skyline being pockmarked by cable-car wires and the structures needed to propel them may be unsettling, arguments against the plan betray the motivations of the critics.

The problem here is not so much aesthetics as it is politics.

Kimmelman and the Palestinians opposed to the project are offended by the fact that the cable-car system is part of an effort to keep the city united and functional. But they also seem particularly disturbed by the fact that the route of the car to the Western Wall will celebrate the city’s Jewish history.

Much like the outrage generated when U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman used a hammer to symbolically break through a wall during the opening of the ancient underground passageway from the City of David to the Old City, the focus of the critics’ anger is the reminder of Jerusalem’s history. Palestinians and their foreign friends think every action that reinforces Jerusalem’s status as the center of Jewish life for the past 3,000 years is part of a Zionist plot to “Judaize” the city. A primarily Jewish city can’t be Judaized. But what Israel’s opponents want is to erase history, not preserve it.

The Palestinian Authority and Hamas don’t just deny Jewish history by absurdly claiming that the ancient temples were not situated on the Temple Mount; they regard every effort that reinforces the unity of the city or the historic rights of Jews as a crime. The Arabs don’t really care about the aesthetics of a city that they did nothing to develop or preserve, while at the same time vandalizing Jewish sites, when half of it was under illegal Jordanian occupation from 1949 to 1967.

They claim that the new system will marginalize Arabs living in neighborhoods over which the cars will travel and allow travelers to ignore their people. But their real beef is with the excavations of Jewish history in Silwan and the City of David that they would have preferred to go undiscovered.

The cable cars will be a clever, if not necessarily attractive, addition to a city renowned for its beauty. But as much as its essential character and the holy places must be protected, Jerusalem shouldn’t be preserved in amber as an artifact. It is a living, breathing city that must—as all things must—change in some ways if it is to go on functioning. If cable cars help more people enjoy the city’s heritage and ease to some extent traffic problem for its citizens (as the modern light-rail system has done since August 2011), then they will be worth it. The resistance to the cars on grounds that they are solidifying the hold of the Jews—the one people to whom it has always been their capital and the focus of their faith—is not merely wrongheaded, but rooted in anti-Jewish prejudice.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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