A City With Many Divisions Comes Together to Fight Coronavirus
In Jerusalem – the largest and poorest city in the country – the public, private, and voluntary sectors have pulled together to ensure that the most vulnerable are not forgotten
We are in uncharted waters. Jerusalem has faced many challenges in the past decades: wars, intifadas, long snowstorms – but coronavirus is something that we, as well as the rest of the country and world, were not prepared for and few could have foreseen.
There are several reasons why unfortunately this crisis is hitting us where it hurts the most. Jerusalem is the largest city in the country with approximately 920,000 residents, followed by Tel Aviv with half that population. We are also the poorest city in the country, mainly because we are home to the two most economically challenged minorities in our country: the ultra-Orthodox and the Arab communities. In fact, we are the largest Arab city (37% of the population) and the largest ultra-Orthodox city (25% of the population) in the country. Both of these populations are dogged by low workforce participation, and the workforce participation rate of Arab women is among the lowest in the Middle East. You can blame a bankrupt education system courtesy of the Palestinian Authority and UNRWA, with no Hebrew language instruction, for this dreadful statistic, but that’s the reality. For the ultra-Orthodox, the problem is the opposite: Low workforce participation among the men places half the population below the poverty line. This is the direct result of the community’s spiritual leaders, who decided many years ago that ultra-Orthodox boys should not learn core curriculum subjects, essentially condemning them to a life of poverty, especially as the workforce becomes more technologically oriented.
These complexities make local government decisions all the more complicated. Of course we work hard to move the needle for both these populations, and like most change, it happens slowly. More Arab women than ever are attending Jerusalem colleges after an intense period of subsidized Hebrew education. We are sponsoring many worthwhile initiatives encouraging women’s entrepreneurship in the Arab community with much success. The needle has shifted from 19% to 25% workforce participation – still a long way to go but moving in the right direction.
With ultra-Orthodox men, the positive change can be felt more on the micro than the macro level. While the needle may seem like it has moved very little, there are endless opportunities for scholarships and the numbers of ultra-Orthodox men in higher education and high-tech jobs is steadily increasing.
Essentially, even with all our efforts, these two communities remain economically and socially marginalized – a combination that has proved devastating during the coronavirus pandemic. The ultra-Orthodox have been once again let down by their leaders, who were too late to react and directly or indirectly passed the message that God-fearing people would somehow be immune, as long as prayer services and religious learning continued. The Arab community in Jerusalem lacks leadership and the message was not received properly or at all until last week.
Another painful challenge is that our economy is heavily based on the service industry: tourism, food and entertainment, and culture. The entire industry, with few exceptions, has completely crashed, and tens of thousands of people have been left without income. While the city made great efforts to develop more technology-based jobs over the last seven years, the coronavirus proved that we need more of these jobs, and fast.
How are we confronting the tsunami of devastation that the coronavirus has brought upon our city? On the humanitarian front, we have set in place an impressive volunteer army of organizations to ensure that the elderly and special needs families are not alone. In addition, we created a food distribution campaign, so no one goes hungry. In the last week, 17,000 food packages were distributed to young and old, Jew and Arab, all who cannot physically go out and buy for themselves or cannot afford to buy for themselves. People in need receive generous boxes filled with staple food items that act as a life vest for families with no income. Our social workers are working around the clock, dealing with a myriad of mental health issues that arise during a crisis like this one.
Furthermore, the city has put a number of measures in place to try and alleviate this abrupt recession as we struggle to cope with the scale of the economic disaster. We have set up a virtual mall for Jerusalem-based businesses and are encouraging Jerusalem residents to buy local. We are harnessing the power of our university students and offering all businesses a free website that will be custom-made and built for them at no cost. We are helping small businesses apply for government loans with no fees. We are also creating a network of volunteer advisers – made up of lawyers, accountants and business mentors – in order to help our small businesses avoid bankruptcy. We are creating an online network, filled with webinars on a variety of relevant subjects. Once a government is finally formed, we hope a recovery fund will be created to help businesses get back on their feet.
We are facing a time of great uncertainty and distress for all humanity. Here in Jerusalem, I witness great acts of solidarity and kindness every day: hundreds of volunteers working around the clock to ensure people are not alone and can subsist; local importers donating large containers of food, diapers, and games for special-needs children; as well as individuals and foundations that are donating.
As a people whose history stretches from time immemorial, we know all too well the importance of unity and faith as key to our resilience and ability to get back on our feet. In a city often perceived as divided, we are facing an invisible enemy together and we are all determined to overcome.