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A conversation with Shahar Fisher, activist

by simone August 17 2008
InterviewCity planningMunicipal news

Shahar Fisher my bags are packed

After watching too many friends pack their bags and slink off for the shimmering promise of Tel Aviv or other, more foreign, ports, Shahar Fisher decided that the time had come to do something. A fourth generation Jerusalemite and a philosophy major at the Open University, Fisher helped form Hitorerut B'yerushalayim (Wake Up Jerusalem), a political movement designed to fight for Jerusalem's future, and to keep the future in Jerusalem. When he's not busy tending to his cause through planning stunts and maintaining its website's content, Fisher works for the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel.

Your organization is concerned with keeping Jerusalem's youth in the city Where does your passion come from, and what made you decide to stay? I think all Jerusalemites are very patriotic about their city. This passion is not mine alone. Wake Up Jerusalem started with a group of seven, and as we began to hold events and our work got publicized in the media, our organization grew, and we now we have 70 people working for us (on a volunteer basis) and 500 more who are interested. There are 5,000 people on our mailing list. This is in only two months of operation. The situation in Jerusalem - housing, jobs, culture, education - is causing the youth to leave, and no one is giving them a good enough answer to their needs. If there are no young people in Jerusalem, there is no future in Jerusalem, so a group of us decided to do something, to start a moShahar Dancing in Protestvement.

One of the factors affecting youth flight is Jerusalem's soaring housing prices, a large part of which can be attributed to foreign absentee investors. I know that London has a "ghost apartment" tax which is being batted around as a model for Jerusalem. How can Jerusalem strike a balance between measures like these and the important influx of foreign cash? I don't think anyone wants to see Jerusalem closed off to outsiders. Jerusalem is a universal city, a city for everyone - even if you're living out in Wisconsin, Jerusalem is still your city. On the other hand, the problem of "ghost apartments" is really serious. The only apartments being built here these days are luxury apartments, and it's driving prices up to ridiculous highs. We don’t want to kick the foreign owners out; we just want to create solutions where the apartments won't be empty.

There are a number of possible solutions. We can promote the rental of empty apartments to students who will live there and be responsible for the apartment's maintenance. The London tax would help do this by giving owners an incentive not to leave their apartments empty. The municipality can also help by creating affordable housing. In every new complex built, a number of apartments should be earmarked for young couples or other Jerusalemites who can't afford the soaring foreign prices. These are solutions that cities all over world are implementing – they're doing it in New York and in London, and there's no reason why Jerusalem can't do it too.

On the one hand, Jerusalem's young people are known for apathy (low voter turnout, the youth exodus), and on the other hand, we see plenty of signs of vibrancy (your movement seems to be growing at a face past, there still seems to be a lot of youth culture here). How do you reconcile this tension? Jerusalem's youth have a lot of patriotism. They are really proud of their city. They think they have the best luck in the country being born here, but they also feel as if they are being pushed out, as if the city is telling them, "We don’t want you here, we don’t want you to have work here, the education your kids will get here is going to be sub-par, and there won't be a cultural scene for you."

At the same time, they feel like they're giving up when they leave. Charedim are only 22 percent of Jerusalem's population, but they control the city because of this feeling of hopelessness, because the city's non-Charedi youth feel helpless. That’s why we want to wake them up. We want them to realize that you don’t need to leave - you can do something, you can stay and vote and actually change the situation.

What is your plan for garnering votes in the upcoming election? We hold events every week to wake people up and publicize our work. We're also using the internet and all different types of media outlets to get our message out there. We're appealing to people that don't vote a lot, to soldiers and students. We're planning a big event before the elections to encourage people to vote. We're also going to go door to door on election day to get the voters out there. We'll even offer babysitting so young parents can vote. We want to invite youth ambassadors to the municipality to get our agenda out there. We want to throw our support behind people – national-religious and secular – who will take our agenda into account. But we need people to vote in order to do this. It's a really intense time right now: We're working all the time, but people have started to hear about our movement and join it and there's reason for optimism.Youth Flight

Wake Up Jerusalem uses a lot of political theater to attract attention to its cause (symbolically driving cars filled with suitcases out of the city and the like). This type of political activism seems to have its roots in 1960s America. Who are some of your political heroes? What other movements are you turning to for examples? I never thought about it before, but now that you ask, I think all over the world we're witnessing a youth awakening, young people are saying, "We're unhappy with the current situation, the current situation is not good for us and we're going to do something to change it."

The best example of this is Barak Obama in the United States, a calm young presence who has a lot of charisma. But it's happening all over the world, the average age of political leaders is dropping because the youth are taking responsibility. So you can see us as a part of this international movement. We don’t have heroes - we don't have one person that is the flag bearer. Ours is a collective movement. We've become good friends, we all work together, no one is trying to advance themselves, no one is doing this for their own personal gain. We're all working together for change.

Why the decision to go it alone politically? Why not work with other organizations/politicians who support your initiatives? We are running for city council but not for mayor. Our thinking was that there is a limit to what you can do from the outside. There are lots of NGOs etc. that are trying to forward a similar type of initiatives, but they are limited because they're outside city hall. We want to actually influence policy from the inside. This is not the only way to go about it, but it's the beginning. If we have representatives in the city council, we can push initiatives forward more effectively. We are trying to make connections with other lists, because we believe there is strength in numbers. There are lots of smaller parties running that don't think they'll get elected, so if their agenda is close enough to ours, we are willing to incorporate them and hopefully get them in that way.

What are some of your favorite spots in Jerusalem that are emblematic of the city's character? I personally am a big fan of the Church of the Redeemer in the Old City. From its tower, you can see the entire Old City and into the new city as well. I also love Ben Yehuda Street. It's impossible for a Jerusalemite to walk the length of the street without running into someone they know. Technically, it takes approximately three minutes to walk down the pedestrian walkway, but it never takes anyone less than 10 because you're always running into someone. They say that Jerusalem is the biggest kibbutz in all of Israel and Ben Yehuda is the epitome of that. I'm also a big fan of the Nahal Refaim springs right outside the city. In Jerusalem, we don't have the sea, but we have springs.

Photo of Shahar Fisher about to make the symbolic Jerusalem exodus (top) courtesy of Adam Kfir, photo of Shahar dancing in protest (middle) and photo of the suitcase protest (above) courtesy of Guy Segev.



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