JERUSALEM — U.S. President Barack Obama criticized Israel’s plans to add 1,000 housing units to Jerusalem neighborhoods in the area of the city conquered by Israel in 1967 this week. Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded that “Jerusalem is the capital of the state of Israel” and he intends to build wherever he likes.
What kind of place is Jerusalem? Sure, most of us know that there’s a Green Line somewhere north to south that divides West Jerusalem — now Israeli since the country’s independence in 1948 — and East Jerusalem, which was governed by Jordan until the 1967 Six-Day War and whose population used to be almost all Arab. But what else do we know?
It’s a place with great symbolic significance and deep political sensitivities, often with no basis in reality.
Here are some facts about the city.
Jerusalem’s population of 800,000 is 35 percent Arab. The rest is Jewish. Some of the Arabs have Israeli citizenship, but most don’t, though they receive health and social benefits from the Israeli state. In Israel’s other two big towns, the proportion of Arabs in the population is 10 percent in Haifa and 4 percent in Tel Aviv.
Almost 500,000 of Jerusalem’s people live in areas that weren't Israeli in 1967, either because they were in Jordan or they didn't exist. That’s 60 percent of the population. About half are Jews living in neighborhoods whose construction successive American governments have opposed.
When Obama said Tuesday that he was “concerned that we’re not seeing each side make the extra effort involved to get a breakthrough,” he was of course talking to the complacent Palestinian government, which seems content to sit on its hands while Israel builds new settlements and makes an eventual territorial deal less favorable to them. But his main target was the continued expansion of these Israeli neighborhoods in East Jerusalem. They more or less encircle the Arab areas and make it very hard to imagine a way to create a Palestinian state in the West Bank that would have a land link with the Palestinian areas of Jerusalem.
Netanyahu wants to continue building in those neighborhoods because he needs to boost the city’s Jewish population, which grows at 2 percent a year. The Arab population goes up 3 percent a year. His assumption is that if he builds, the population will expand to fill the real estate. It helps that the new apartment blocks might help complete the circle and cut off chances of splitting Jerusalem in
peace talks, with the eastern part going to the Palestinians.
It’s a long-term issue for Israeli governments. Since 1967, the Jewish population of the city is up 150 percent. The Arab population has grown 290 percent from what it was when the Jordanian’s surrendered the place.
That demographic battle means it’s a city where birthrates count. I was at the bar mitzvah of a friend’s son last month. He stood up and introduced his two children to the crowd. Only two kids? For a moment, I wondered if there was something wrong, perhaps some fertility issue, so accustomed have I become to seeing large families after a decade and a half living in Jerusalem. After all, women average about four kids here.
Those kids don’t die as often as they used to, particularly in the Arab sectors of the population. Infant mortality among Jerusalem’s Arabs was 45 deaths per 1,000 births in 1972. Now it’s 6 per 1,000. For Jews, it’s 2.6.
That makes for a youthful city (though you wouldn’t know it by the nightlife.) Of Arabs, 41 percent are less than 14 years old. The median age for the entire city is 23, meaning that half the population is less than 23.
Though Palestinians often make much of their lack of rights, despite centuries in the city, compared to immigrant Israelis, only 9 percent of the population is made up of Israelis who immigrated since 1990. Most are from the former Soviet Union, though in the last decade Americans predominate.
Of the city’s Jews, 29 percent are ultra-Orthodox — four times the rate in Israel as a whole. Only 20 percent of Jerusalem’s Jews describe themselves as secular.
The perceived increase in the religious population’s power among secular Israelis has lead to a steady drain of Jews, compared to those who come to live in Jerusalem from elsewhere in Israel. There’s an annual deficit of about 5,000.
The large ultra-Orthodox population makes for poverty because many of the men study in yeshivas and don’t work. So 43 percent of people in Jerusalem live below the poverty line.
Only 45 percent of the population works a job, and among Palestinians it’s only 38 percent. Average household income is about $3,000 a month. But remember all those kids. These are big households to live on such a paltry sum.
They live tightly, too. In Jewish households, there’s one person per room in 150,000 apartments. In Arab neighborhoods, there are two people per room and only 41,000 apartments.
Despite the Israeli announcement this week, building has been in decline for years.
Statistics from the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, the muncipality of Jerusalem, and the Jerusalem Development Agency.