JERUSALEM – While 2020 was a disaster for Israel’s capital city, 2021 is hardly looking any better.
The Holy City of Jerusalem – Israel’s political and religious epicenter, and the nation’s largest and most diverse city – is facing one threat after another.
And the stakes could not be higher.
COVID cases are spiking
Hospitals are at or near their capacity
Violence and lawlessness is erupting in ultra-Orthodox communities that refuse to follow the COVID rules and are battling police who they claim are oppressing them.
Jerusalem’s all-important tourism industry is suffocating – some say dying – because no foreign visitors have been allowed into the country for nearly a year.
Now Ben-Gurion International Airport has been shut down even to Israelis trying to get home and even to plane loads of new Jewish immigrants trying to get to their new country.
Everyone and their mother is on the Internet for school, for work or just to watch Netflix, Amazon Prime or the other streaming services, causing frustrating outages and slowdowns.
Where do we go from here?
To get some answers, I interviewed Fleur Hassan-Nahoum, Jerusalem’s Deputy Mayor.
Originally from Gibraltar, she made Aliyah in 2001 with her husband. They settled in Jerusalem, learned Hebrew, raised their family, and then Fleur got drawn into politics, being elected to Jerusalem’s City Council, and then becoming the city’s #2 most powerful official. (And we at ALL ISRAEL NEWS have her at #10 in our Top 21 Israelis to Watch in 2021.)
“Jerusalem is always where it all plays out, because we are the most diverse city in the country,” she told me. “We have the largest challenges in the country. So, it's kind of a microcosm and a lab for all the challenges of the country. But it's also the place where we solve those challenges very well.”
She gives high marks to Mayor Moshe Lion, her boss, whom she says has a remarkable way of being able to solve problems and work well with highly diverse communities.
That said, Moshe and Fleur have barely been in office two years. They entered the mayor’s office on Dec. 4, 2018, and they are presently facing the toughest challenges of their careers.
As we pray for the peace – and health and safety – of Jerusalem, they need our prayers for wisdom and discernment.
Here is the video of a portion of our conversation.
Here, too, is the transcript of this portion of our conversation. Please note that this transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
ROSENBERG: Hi, this is Joel Rosenberg, founder and editor-in-chief of All Israel News, and I'm honored to interview the Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem Fleur Hassan-Nahoum.
She and I met at a conference of Evangelicals and Latinos in Jerusalem, overlooking the Kotel, the Western Wall. And then we had a chance to have coffee together in Dubai, of all places, as I was covering the Abraham Accords and all the developments there, and she was there on behalf of the mayor's office, building relationships in the Arab world to eventually welcome Arab and Muslim tourists here to Israel.
So, Fleur, thank you so much for taking the time. I know we're having some Internet troubles. We'll see how this goes.
DEPUTY MAYOR HASSAN-NAHOUM: Joel, it’s great to be here. Let's hope the Jerusalem Internet service holds up.
ROSENBERG: Well, you and I, we've been commiserating on our mutual [Internet] troubles. And COVID has put a huge pressure on the Israeli Internet system. Do you and the mayor – let’s start there, make some news – [can you] tell us that you and the mayor and the prime minister are doing something to radically overhaul the Internet?
DEPUTY MAYOR HASSAN-NAHOUM: Well, actually, we're supposed to be ushering in the new era of 5G into the city. And this is actually something the American government was crucial in pushing here in Jerusalem. So, hopefully, if we all have 5G soon, we won't have these woes.
ROSENBERG: Let's pray for that. Amen.
Okay, you and I are speaking on a day when the cabinet is meeting to decide whether we're shutting the entire country down, shutting the airport down – and only for a week? Help me understand what's the thinking here. Because, you know, you and I, we were in Dubai together. You had to get a test before you went. You got a test when you landed [in the UAE]. You and I both separately went to Bahrain later. We had to get another test [upon arrival in Bahrain]. Nobody shut the airports down. Tell us, what's going on here in Israel?
DEPUTY MAYOR HASSAN-NAHOUM: I think there's a combination of things going on I don't understand. I think that Israel, in general, has handled the crisis quite well. But I think the one place where we really didn't do what we were supposed to do was at the airport. Because from the beginning, all we needed to do was ask foreign countries to [require travelers to] take a PCR test before coming to Israel and then [give them] another one upon landing.
This is, like you say, what happened in Dubai, what happened in Bahrain, what happened in France, in many other countries around the world – you needed to get a PCR test to get on the plane, and you needed one upon landing.
ROSENBERG: Why has that taken so long here? I don’t understand.
DEPUTY MAYOR HASSAN-NAHOUM: Well, from October already, the test center in Ben Gurion Airport opened up.
ROSENBERG: Yes, I’ve been there.
DEPUTY MAYOR HASSAN-NAHOUM: It’s a question of – look, the Transportion Ministry, did not manage the airport [well]. I think it was really a crack in a very good system that we have. But I think now, it's a combination of two things.
One is they're trying to make up for lost time of not having done what it was supposed to do eight months ago.
I think that the other element – and we can't downplay this – is the new mutations that people are very concerned about, the British mutation that everybody was in a panic about until it was confirmed that the vaccines, especially the ones that we've got here, the Pfizer ones, do deal with the mutation. But the worrying thing which I was reading about today is that the South African mutation – apparently – it is not something the vaccine can help with. So, I think it's the panic about this new South Africa mutation, which is actually coming also from Dubai, and a combination of we're trying to do too much, too late.
ROSENBERG: You know, we are known as the “Start-Up Nation.” But we're in danger of becoming a “Shut-Down Nation.” I would just disagree with you about how well Israel has done. I think we did really well in the first round, and I think it's been messy ever since. And you see tensions now between the Haredim [ultra-Orthodox] community and a major rabbi just saying, “I'm opening my schools – come arrest me.” What has happened?
DEPUTY MAYOR HASSAN-NAHOUM: I think what's happened is the very dangerous point that we never thought we'd get to with the ultra-Orthodox community, that for many years were given autonomy in many things. And we were funding their autonomy, because it was politically convenient for us to fund their autonomy. So, they had their own independent school system that we were funding 80% of it. They had their own religious services system. They had their own not-go-to-work system. And that was okay, because there was no public health emergency that they needed to follow the rules [like] the rest of the country.
This has shown that their autonomy has gotten to a very dangerous place, and I think what's going to be interesting is to see whether the next election is going to be at all about that, and about checking their power. And, of course, we have a coalition system in Israel and the small parties have disproportionate amount of power. And it's not like America where there's a winner and a loser. In Israel, you never know who's going to win because it's not about the person who got the most seats. It's about the person who can cobble together the coalition. And because of the electoral system being the way that it is, small parties have a disproportionate amount of power. And the ultra-Orthodox parties are small parties with a disproportionate amount of power.
And we're paying for that now, when there's a public health breakdown. And we can't separate ourselves from the ultra-Orthodox. You know, the virus doesn’t check itself at the edge of the neighborhood. And therefore we need to go and kind of re-do our social contract with the ultra-Orthodox. The corona[virus] has put a mirror in front of our faces in terms of the social gaps and in terms of these types of groups that are not adhering to regular public health rules.
But I have to say, Joel, at the same time, you know, it's not just the ultra-Orthodox community. We've had lots of different [groups] flouting of the rules. And let's be honest, you know, all the people who have been nonstop demonstrating against the government for the last few months, are also flouting the rules. But they have a democratic reason to say we're not flouting the rules. So, they're going in, they're doing parties and they're doing [inaudible] outside the prime minister's house under the guise of a political demonstration. They're still spreading the same type of danger in terms of the COVID than the ultra-Orthodox weddings. And the ultra-Orthodox see this. And then they say, “Well, why should we follow the rules when there's 5,000 people outside the prime minister's house, and that's okay in the name of democracy?”
So, again, this has put a mirror in front of our face. I think the COVID has put a mirror in front of every country's face. In other countries, what we've seen are very defective health care systems. In our case, we have a very well-functioning health care system. What we don't have is a very cohesive social contract with all the groups in this country. And I think that mirror is an opportunity to fix something.
ROSENBERG: It's very interesting, Fleur, because my wife and I are we really are olim chadashim, we really are “new immigrants,” coming just six and a half years ago. You came, I think, in 2001, you and your husband and children.
DEPUTY MAYOR HASSAN-NAHOUM: That’s right.
ROSENBERG: You have four [children]. We have four. You came from Gibraltar. We came from Washington. By the way, I'm a big fan of Gibraltar. We've been there several times. But what's interesting is we noticed – we're trying to figure out the first, second, third shutdowns – and my wife said, “Listen, I think I've got this. I think the first shutdown Israelis responded at a national emergency. And Israelis are really good at national emergencies. They kick into gear. They do what we were seeing – lines, and masks, and it was so orderly. And then what we know of – what we think of Israeli culture – started to kick in. ‘I know it's better. I know what's right. You can't tell me.’” And so, you're right. I think we've got a social contract problem and you’re right, it's not just the Haredim [ultra-Orthodox]. And I have every respect for this community, and to the religious freedom, and their political voice, but something has broken down and it's troubling. And I think that there has been a convergence of these issues in Jerusalem.
DEPUTY MAYOR HASSAN-NAHOUM: Jerusalem is always where it all plays out, because we are the most diverse city in the country. We have the largest challenges in the country. So, it's kind of a microcosm and a lab for all the challenges of the country. But it's also the place where we solve those challenges very well.
ROSENBERG: Okay, well, solve the Internet problems. Solve the airport problems….
I'm supposed to go back to the States for meetings in a few weeks from now, and now I’m hearing that [the airport is being] shut down. So, solve the airport. Solve the Internet. And get the social contract taken care of, and then that's good.
Listen, let's deal with a very specific issue that's a little bit larger and broader. And that is the question of when the country will reopen for tourism. You're involved in these meetings. You know, we're in a crisis now. But there is a positive sense in which Israel is vaccinating faster than many countries, most countries even. So, that's good. We are the VACCI-NATION, and that’s encouraging, right?
DEPUTY MAYOR HASSAN-NAHOUM: Very.
ROSENBERG: So, you're the essentially the foreign minister, as it were, the secretary of state of Jerusalem. That’s big part of your role, and it suits you. So, when are we going to reopen? For Christians all over the world – that's our main audience, not our only audience – but what they are trying to [understand] is, can we plan for [coming in] the summer? Can we plan for the fall? What do you see? How should people plan?
DEPUTY MAYOR HASSAN-NAHOUM: You know, Joel, every day it changes.
If you had asked me this question last week when we were vaccinating almost a quarter of a million people a day, I would have said to you, “By Passover, we're going to be out of this.” And our Christian friends, you know, a big part of the work that I do is that outreach to the Christian communities that always come to Jerusalem. For us, the Christian community and the Christian pilgrims are the bread and butter of our tourism industry – 70% percent of our [tour] groups. And the city is suffering from the fact that the Christians cannot come, that our Christian friends cannot come and visit us.
So, if you would have asked me last week or so, I would have said, “Joel, by Passover, you know, the worst will be behind us.” But, every day there's a new mutation. Every day there's a new story. And I'm not quite sure that we're out of this now.
I just heard that that was the guy from Microsoft – Bill Gates – is saying that basically he predicts [it will be over by] the end of 2021. I think we will definitely be open before end of 2021. But let me just say this: If the rest of the world is not vaccinating, and Israel is all vaccinated, then the last thing we're going to want it to open up and kind of cause a second type of wave.
So, what I would say is that the solution to all of this is the “green passport,” vaccination passport. In other words, everybody who is vaccinated needs to show proof that they are vaccinated and that those people have the right to travel around without fearing that are spreading this disease. I'm hoping that we’ll open in stages. So ,what I would like to predict is that by Passover, maybe people with homes in the country, or family in the country. can come. By summer, hopefully, we will be able to open up to everybody else.
That really is my hope, because I can tell you that the Israeli – the Jerusalem – tourism industry is drowning. We need, for the sake of the livelihoods of tens of thousands of people, we need to open up to our foreign tourism.
Joel C. Rosenberg is the editor-in-chief of ALL ISRAEL NEWS and ALL ARAB NEWS and the President and CEO of Near East Media. A New York Times best-selling author, Middle East analyst, and Evangelical leader, he lives in Jerusalem with his wife and sons.