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A Few Things
by Judy Lash Balint
Israel Insider
January 4, 2004

There's an odd atmosphere around Jerusalem these days. On the one hand, there's the distinct upswing in the mood of the city caused by the noticeable influx of tourists who have chosen to spend their Chanukah/Xmas/ New Year's vacation with us. Shops are full of customers, impossible wait times are the norm at popular restaurants, and streets clog with tour buses and the chatter of a variety of English accents fills the streets and hotel lobbies.

Rabbinic conferences and solidarity groups add to the clamor, and then there's birthright. More than 9,000 18-26 year olds from countries including Uruguay, Brazil, France, Russia, Ukraine and the US are traversing Israel's tourist sites and hiking trails. The subsidized trips are for young people who have never before been on an organized tour to Israel. Banners on the main thoroughfares welcome the students. The head of the Israeli Hotel Association is heard on radio spots throughout the day lauding the arrival of birthright groups and noting that the visits have helped hotels retain many of their workers.

But despite all this, more and more people have the perception that in many facets of life, Israel is gradually sliding backwards to the point of having much in common with Third World countries. In recent days, I have heard both native Israelis and visitors from abroad independently make this assessment. The natives note the increase in gangster-style violence, corruption in the corporate and government sectors and the stranglehold of the Histadrut Labor Federation,
which has kept government services from being delivered for almost four months now. Unacceptably high numbers of children living under the poverty line and the dismal state of Israeli education complete the picture. In the cold, damp Jerusalem winter, thousands of homes are without heat. Many Jerusalemites rely on kerosene heaters, or simply pile on the blankets and sweatshirts to shiver through the cold nights.

Visitors from abroad make the Third World assessment after a short visit downtown. Streets have been torn up for almost two years as the light rail project drags on. Dust and torn-up sidewalks predominate the landscape, and poorly dressed people with tension in their eyes mingle with the Arabs on Jaffa Road. The Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall has gone to seed, the result of a combination of factors. Sporadic tourism, the effects of the construction and the simple fact that it's become pass´┐Ż have forced shops to close. The street has become dilapidated and lost its one-time energy and charm.

Meantime, municipal tax bills arrived in this week's mail, including a 3 per cent hike in fees. Mayor Lupolianski was forced to announce pay cuts in the exorbitant salaries he's been paying to his six, yes six, deputy mayors.

On the national political front, the right is digging in its heels over the potential dismantling of Jewish communities in Judea, Samaria and Gaza. "Israel Does Not Want to Give In" is the motto blaring from posters all over the country announcing the next rally to be held on January 12 in Tel Aviv. No doubt the event will bring out 100,000 people, with high school and hesder yeshiva students bused in en masse. Media coverage will be scant and the next day it will be business as usual. There's little thought given to real community organizing to mobilize the silent majority who instinctively feel that turning Jews out of their homes will not assuage the enemy.

Yet another factor adding to the strained atmosphere of these days is the barrage of accusations hurled at Israel from many corners of the world. Recently we were told by hundreds of thousands of Europeans in a multi-national survey that we're the greatest threat to world peace.

The latest accusation appeared in print on the op ed pages of the International Herald Tribune last week. [In Israel the English language edition of Haaretz comes as an insert of the IHT.]

The director of the Center for Arab and Islamic Studies at the Australian National University labels "hard line Zionists from Israel" as one of three groups that "have emerged as dangerously destabilizing actors in world politics." The other two? Al Quaeda and American "reborn Christians and neoconservatives." The learned professor goes on to assert "if these extremists are not marginalized, they could succeed in creating a world order with devastating consequences for generations to come."

As one of those hard line Zionists from Israel, I can reassure the professor that until things are changed significantly on the home front, we won't be causing any upheaval in the world order.