The capital's growing Jewish exodus raises concern over city's future

By Robert Sarner, Canadian Jewish News, June 25, 1998

Next month, my brother-in-law and his wife will leave Jerusalem to move to a small village in the north of the country. They say it won't happen a moment too soon. Both were born and raised in Jerusalem. Both speak fondly of how wonderful it was to grow up here. Now, both insist daily life in the capital has become intolerable.

They're not alone. When they bid farewell to their hometown, they'll be joining a fast-growing legion of former Jerusalemites who have left in recent years. Many have settled in satellite communities near Jerusalem, some further afield in Tel Aviv, others in the countryside; and a small minority have left Israel altogether.

The defection of Jerusalemites is not new. What is different is the sense that it's now become a hemorrhaging of young, secular Jewish adults who see little future for themselves in the Holy City. That's the perception, if not the total reality, and it is the object of increasing debate among demographers, statisticians and politicians. Recent numbers paint a more complex picture with two key questions dominating discussion: Just who is actually leaving and what is the impact of their departure on those left behind?

This month, in a new study on the outward migration, the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies (JIIS) published data that does not augur well if the city is to remain "the eternal capital of the Jewish people." The departure of Jewish residents, the JIIS reports, is a major factor in explaining why the number of Arabs in Jerusalem is now growing four times faster than the city's Jewish population. The high birth rate in the Arab sector plays a minor role as it is matched by an equally prolific haredi community.

It doesn't take a professional survey to know that Jewish residents are leaving in droves. Within my own circle of friends, relatives and colleagues, I know at least two dozen people who have left Jerusalem in recent years and others who will soon follow. Almost all the defectors are non-Orthodox, between 25 and 45 years old, who felt less and less comfortable in Jerusalem.

Much like with the migration of Jews out of Quebec in the last 25 years, those left behind start feeling like a threatened species. Every month or two, with disturbing frequency, you hear of yet another person or young family who is leaving the city. Invariably, they cite the same litany of grievances - insanely high housing prices (even with the current slump in the real estate market), poor job prospects, and the growing power and influence of the ultra-Orthodox (haredi) community, which now represents close to one-third of the city's Jewish population.

There's nothing extraordinary about urban folk leaving for what they take to be greener pastures away from the city. But in Jerusalem, where anything that threatens the uneasy status quo is cause for controversy, the shifting demographics are attracting increased attention, especially in advance of future negotiations between Israel and Palestinians on the city's future political role.

According to the JIIS study, in 20 years, Jerusalem's Arab residents are expected to reach almost half (45 percent) of the city's population, up considerably from the present 30 percent. Mayor Ehud Olmert lost no time in calling a press conference to use the new data to bolster his controversial campaign to add more Jewish residents to the capital by annexing large tracts of land (including several existing communities) west of the city.

The same study also explored why people leave Jerusalem. In 1996, the last year for which statistics were available, close to 6,000 more residents left the city than moved in. The reason most cited for leavingwas the high cost of housing.

Jerusalem, whose current population stands at slightly more than 600,000, has the dubious distinction of being the poorest large city in the country, second to the haredi bastion of Bnei Brak where many residents don't work. The loss to Jerusalem of thousands of young professionals every year isn't helping. In response, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently agreed to a hefty financial package to help students, young couples and new immigrants stay in the city, and to create more jobs as part of an effort to strengthen the Jewish presence in the city.

In 1990, when my Jerusalem-born and I left France for Israel, we never thought of living in Jerusalem after Paris. Tel Aviv, with its urban, cosmopolitan, more tolerant and secular lifestyle, corresponded much more to our sensibility and was our natural choice. But circumstances (including daycare considerations and professional opportunities) intervened and we settled in Jerusalem. Over time, the city has even got into my system.

Today, nearly eight years later, we're still here, but it's starting to feel increasingly lonely.

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