A Jerusalem Mayor’s Challenge in a Time of Pandemic (VIDEO INTERVIEW)
Mayor Moshe Lion in Conversation with The Media Line’s Felice Friedson
The office “Mayor of Jerusalem” is the State of Israel’s calling card to the world. A position of unique importance to the country’s image, it is the first point of contact with many millions of followers of the Abrahamic religions of the world.
Mayor Moshe Lion headed the Jerusalem Development Authority before ascending to the top floor of Safra Square at the end of 2018. He spoke with The Media Line’s Felice Friedson.
A full transcript follows.
The Media Line: Mayor Moshe Leon, thank you so much for taking time out at a very difficult time in Jerusalem.
Moshe Lion: Thank you very much. I think that it’s a very interesting period and difficult. It’s not so easy to see a lot of people who are suffering from this virus, but it’s a big challenge for a mayor.
TML: What has happened here in the city? People are concerned. So how do you deal with this?
ML: You have to understand… this is a sort of case that we didn’t know about in the past. In our generation, we didn’t know a period like this. It’s not a security problem. We didn’t know about this virus – ever. And it’s in all the world. It’s not only in Israel or it’s not only in Jerusalem, it’s in other areas. And all over the world [they] are learning about this problem. We don’t know what will be later. We don’t know what will be [in the] next two weeks. We don’t know. We have to try to return to work. But we don’t know what will happen. And because of this, we have to go step-by-step and open businesses. Then, the schools later, slowly but surely.
TML: I was in Mahane Yehuda, the [famous open-air] market that is known by every tourist, every resident. And as you know, it was a very difficult situation for the store owners. One person unfortunately committed suicide, as you know, there. What can you do to help them?
ML: Yes, I must tell you something good: that we are going to open the Mahane Yehuda market on this Friday. And we have to start with the opening. We take the responsibility for all the people that are coming there, that we have to check them and we have to check them that they don’t have the virus. And it’s a big responsibility.
TML: Mayor, we’re talking about an 80% loss here. What other opportunities are there that you can offer some of these people? You know, you’re talking a total loss of business, a total loss of money to pay their rent.
ML: Okay, first of all, we know that there is big aid from the government that is going to help the business that lost a lot of money, and we are waiting for this help from the government. I think that it will be within the next two weeks. I, as mayor, think that it’s very important that we will help businesses to work. They will not have a problem with the work, and we call for people that will come for the restaurant, for example. And for the cafe hours and all this… All these businesses, we are going to help to call the people to use the restaurants.
TML: One of the things they’re saying is that what the government is giving may not come to them. In some cases, if they make too much money, very often that money does not trickle down.
ML: I think that it takes time, but the people, the businesses, will get what they have to get from the government.
TML: Social distancing, wearing masks.
TML: It’s a new thing around the world. How long do you think this is going to go on?
ML: Oh, I think that there is not anyone that knows how long it will take. But I think that this is very important to use it as long as you can, because this is good for this situation. This is very important. This message, it’s very important, to not be ill with this virus.
TML: Kids are going back to school slowly.
ML: Yes, they started yesterday.
TML: However, Mayor Lion, there are families that are afraid to send their kids because maybe somebody in the family might get sick if the child is exposed. How do you handle a situation like this?
ML: I think that… time will [take care of] this and I think…. Listen, we opened the schools for the kids, from the first to the third grade, and we know that about 70% came to class yesterday. I think that after them, it will increase. And I think that at the end of this week, most of the children will come.
TML: Tourism is the life-blood of Jerusalem. Probably one of the biggest concerns.
ML: You know, we need the flights, and it depends on the flights that we start to work, and afterwards we will work with the hotels. I think that the hotels will be happy to start to work with the people, but we are looking at what happened in the world, and the flights are from [around] the world. So we have to wait.
TML: Isn’t there a concern that all of a sudden, flights resume and countries are not on the same level, so people get infected again and you go through a second phase?
ML: Yes, yes. But because of this, there is a government that is thinking about it, about this, and everything we are doing is step-by-step. But we have to [adhere to] the directives from the government. And I think that if we do it, it will be successful.
TML: Some are considering a point system of evaluating how to move forward. Is this something that’s also being discussed at the level of the municipality – of rating who should go back to work and what the criteria might be?
ML: No, we are done making the criteria, and now we are listening to the criteria from the government, and we are doing what the government tells us.
TML: Are you giving special assistance to those in tourism? You’re talking about hotels.
TML: You’re talking about the individual tour guide.
TML: You’re talking… on so many levels.
ML: We are going to make a big campaign domestically and world-wide to encourage the people to come here to Jerusalem. I think especially in this weather, in the summer. The summer in Jerusalem, you know, is very good. And we are calling for the other people from Israel, and afterwards from the world, to come to Jerusalem. Now we have a problem that all of the world knows, and because of this, I think for Jerusalem it will be easier [to succeed].
‘The summer in Jerusalem, you know, is very good.’ (TML)
TML: New York has been hit very hard by the coronavirus, so if people come from New York, it would be months before normalcy is returned, would it not?
ML: Yes, I think that we have to wait about one month before we start [rebuilding] the tourism [sector]. But I think that when the tourists come here, I think there will be more directive issued by the government to keep.
TML: The Arab-Israelis say that they are getting less assistance than their counterparts in west Jerusalem. Is that true?
ML: No, I don’t think that they are saying it, because I have a big friendship with the Arabs on the east side. And I think that in this case of the virus, we did a lot to assist all the Arabs in the east[ern part of the city]. And I think that they are very satisfied. From my point of view, the east and the west is the same, and there is no difference from my side, and I think that they felt it.
TML: The Palestinian Authority might differ with you. They’ve been having campaigns about this in particular, that the Israeli government is not giving the assistance to the Palestinians equally. Do you think it’s more of a political agenda?
ML: Yes. It’s all only political. It’s not true. And we don’t have to respond to [what] they are saying.
TML: There have been health issues. There’s been a lot to deal with. You have the ultra-Orthodox haredi community, where you’ve had to set them up in quarantine in a particular area. Do you feel that we’re over the hump there yet? Have we gotten past the most difficult time?
ML: I think that all of us didn’t know about this [particular outbreak], and you know, it was very difficult for the ultra-Orthodox and other people. Don’t pray in the synagogue or not to be more than five [or ten] people together. But at the end of the day, I think that now we can say that all of the people in Jerusalem understand all the directives from the government and they are following them. Most of them are.
TML: When do you think the synagogues, the mosques, the churches will re-open?
ML: I must tell you that I am waiting for the opening of the synagogues, but I think that if you ask me, I think that it will be in two weeks. It depends on the government. But I think that this is what we’re going to [do]. On the Jewish festival of Shavuot, I think that we will be in the synagogues. Not all the people, yes, but we will start.
TML: Mayor Lion, what has been the biggest obstacle for you? This pandemic is not easy.
ML: No, no. It’s not easy. There were a lot of challenges and a lot of details that I didn’t know about before[hand]. And it was a very interesting period. It’s not finished yet, but I think that this period is very interesting.
TML: The biggest challenge. What is it? What was the hardest thing right now?
ML: To keep the directives from the government. It’s not so easy to convince all the people and to check if they are keeping the directives or not. It’s not easy. And also, the old people that we dealt with. We made the best effort to help the old people that have to be in the house and not go outside. A lot of volunteers came and helped the old people and all the people that needed help. There were volunteers here in Jerusalem, and I think that it’s something special for Jerusalem and they are proud of it.
TML: Mayor Lion, there are going to be people who lose their businesses….
TML: Who lose their homes…. What do you do there?
ML: We will help them. I think that in a short time, most of the people will come back to the workplace. It takes maybe a little time, but I think because this problem is belonging to all the world, I think that the coming to work will be easier than we think.
TML: On a personal note, you go home, you’re also quarantined in some way. There are things you can’t do. What do you miss most?
ML: My grandchildren. A lot. I have not seen them in about two months. It’s a lot of time. It is a lot of time.
TML: Mayor Lion, thank you so much for taking time with The Media Line.
ML: Thank you very much.
TML: And I wish you a lot of success during these very difficult pandemic times.
ML: Thank you. Thank you.