Article Library / Structured Jewish World Dialogue

Jerusalem and the Jewish People: Unity and Division

“The Arab population is violently oppressed in Jerusalem,” was an opinion expressed by at least one Dialogue participant in New York.[1] “When I visit I can’t help focus on the Jewish Arab conflict,” said a Washington participant. A participant in Australia argued that there is a need “to bring more Jews to live in the city in order to balance the number of Arabs living there.”[2]  “Discrimination in East Jerusalem most pressing problem”, concluded another participant in New York.[3] In several groups –New York and Ann Arbor among others – several participants opted to elect the Arab “mayoral candidate” in the mock election game that was played during discussions, because, as one of the participants said, they “care about the two-state solution.”[4]

Dialogue participants expressed three main concerns when speaking about Jewish-Arab relations in Jerusalem.

  1. The conditions in which Jerusalem’s Arab residents live, and Israel’s obligation to improve these conditions.
  2. The number of Jerusalem’s Arab residents and what this means for the future of the city as a center of Jewish life.
  3. The role Jerusalem plays in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the role that the Arab side of the city plays in it.

Last year, JPPI submitted to the Israeli government a report dealing with demographic trends in Jerusalem, by JPPI Senior Fellow, Prof. Uzi Rebhun.[5] As we mentioned earlier in this report, on the eve of the state’s founding Jerusalem was home to 164,000 residents (graph 12). Following the 1967 reunification, the number of citizens stood at slightly more than a quarter million. Jerusalem’s population today is 850,000, Israel’s largest city.

Naturally, with the reunification of the city (and partially because of the still-controversial decision to include many Arab dominated areas within its municipal territory), a large sector of non-Jewish residents was added to Jerusalem. The proportion of Jews was reduced to three-quarters, and with time was kept declining to the current 62.8 percent of the city’s population. Almost all the residents in the western part of the city are Jewish, in the eastern part, Jews make up 40 percent of the population. In absolute terms, 200,000 Jews reside in the Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem’s eastern part or its Old City.

The presence of large percentage of Arabs in Jerusalem contributes significantly to the fact that this is a relatively poor city.[6] More than a third of Jerusalem’s families are defined as “poor” by Israeli standards. Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem do not receive sufficient municipal services and are neglected.[7] According to Amir Efrati, writing for the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), “the gradual worsening of the economic state of East Jerusalem Arabs can be traced back to 2002, when the Israeli government commenced construction of the security fence, which cut off the neighborhoods of East Jerusalem from the Palestinian villages surrounding the city and the West Bank. For the residents of these neighborhoods, who commonly worked in the hotel and restaurant industries (25 percent), education (19 percent), and general services (19 percent), the geographic division dealt what in many respects was a fatal blow.”

According to the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, in 2015 75.4 percent of all Jerusalem’s Arab residents, and 83.9 percent of Arab children were living under the poverty line.[8] In 2011, according to the Jerusalem Institute for Israel studies, “37% of the families in Jerusalem lived below the poverty line. The extent of poverty within the non-Jewish population of Jerusalem was significantly higher than within the Jewish population. 73% of the families and 85% of the children in the non-Jewish population lived below the poverty line, compared to 24% of the families and 43% of the children in the Jewish population.”[9]

So, worries concerning both the growth of the Arab segment in Jerusalem, and the economic conditions this Arab segment endures, are well founded (the issue of the two- state solution will be discussed in a later chapter). Some participants worried about both these issues, while others focused primarily on one of them – and political undertones could often be detected as Dialogue participants laid out their concerns.

On one side of the political spectrum there were participants who said things such as “a Jewish state cannot let people leave in such poverty, this is not what we call Jewish values” (a participant in Ann Arbor). In Curitiba, Brazil, a young discussant asserted “with the Arab population there is a criminal negligence. The Arabs would be less hostile with the Jews if we had been more just and if we had given to their neighborhoods similar treatment that we have done for the Jewish neighborhoods.”[10]

On the other side were those mostly concerned with the demographic reality, and with the possibility that Arabs will constitute an even larger share of the population. “I don’t want to sound racist or bigoted. I want to be inclusive. But I was leaning toward strong agreement that Jews should make up the majority of the population in Jerusalem,” said a participant in Palm Beach. Another one warned: “If non-Jews are the majority they can vote Jews out!”

We presented Dialogue participants with the statement: “Jerusalem’s non-Jewish population has been growing in recent decades and currently constitutes more than a third of Jerusalem’s total population.” We then asked them to asses in several ways whether this growth of the Arab sector was a positive or negative development on a scale from 1 to 4 (graph 13). All in all, most participants did not see this demographic trend as positive. The statement “I prefer that Jerusalem have a clear Jewish majority” averaged 3, with a clear 71 percent majority of participants agreeing with it “somewhat” (32 percent) or “strongly” (39 percent).

Naturally, the issue of a Jewish majority in the city is sensitive, as was considering the option of having an Arab mayor in Jerusalem. In Ann Arbor participants struggled with it, and some expressed unease with even raising the issue of a Jewish majority. One of them even remarked that this sounds “racist to me.” But in Melbourne, Australia “over 50 percent of participants” said that they “couldn’t vote for a Muslim Arab to be mayor of Jerusalem, irrespective of their policies. In St. Louis, a participant sympathetic to Palestinian national aspirations, still “couldn’t accept an Arab mayor of the Jewish capital.” In Chicago, a participant argued that “Jerusalem without a Jewish majority will be in danger of losing its soul.” In several communities, participants raised concerns about the security of Jews if the city becomes less Jewish and more Arab.[11]

[1] HUC seminar.

[2]  Caulfield South, Melbourne, Australia.

[3]  NY Federation group 4.

[4]  Yusuf, the Arab candidate in this mock election game, was the only candidate supportive of a Palestinian state.

[5] See: JPPI’s 2016 Annual Assessment. Chapter 8, The Population of Israel, with a special section on Jerusalem.

[6] See: Analysis: Why Jerusalem is the poorest city in the country, Jerusalem Post, June 23, 2016.

[7] See: A Troubling Correlation: The Ongoing Economic Deterioration in East Jerusalem and the Current Wave of Terror, Amit Afrati, INSS, 2016.

[8] East Jerusalem 2015: Facts and Figures, Updated: May 12, 2015.

[9]  Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, Jerusalem: Facts and Trends 2013.

[10]  Curitiba, Brazil, March 19, 2017. Moderators: Sergio Napchan and Alberto Milkewitz. This group was “a miscellaneous of representatives of the community, from young people of the youth movements like Dror Habonim, to women of Wizo and Naamat, the community school, the Shoah Museum, the Federation, Bnai Brith, the Jewish Federation, the community, men and women, teachers and people of different ages.

[11] The statement “binational Jerusalem is likely to produce violence” got a 2.7 level of agreement on a scale of 1-4.