Jerusalem locals fight to save swimming pool

By Ben Lynfield, June 3, 2010
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The Jerusalem Pool, used by religious and secular alike, is under pressure to close to make way for developers

The Jerusalem Pool, used by religious and secular alike, is under pressure to close to make way for developers

One of the few fun alternatives to going to shul on Shabbat morning in Jerusalem appears to be in danger.

At the Jerusalem Pool on Emek Refaim Street in the German Colony neighbourhood last Saturday, six-year- olds with inflatables were screeching with delight in azure water. Nearby, in lanes, older swimmers were doing breaststroke laps and a snack bar was offering up hafuch - Israeli cappuccino - along with rusty coloured sausages.

Despite the easy-going atmosphere, stalwarts of the pool are anything but relaxed about the future of the facility. They allege it is falling prey to developers who are trying to force it to shut in order to build on the prime real-estate land, thereby depriving the area of a cherished five-decade-old institution.

But the fight is really a microcosm of the battle taking place across Jerusalem over the nature of the capital's neighbourhoods. The pool is essentially a pluralistic haven, used by religious and non-religious alike in a city increasingly at war with itself.

Residents fear that if the pool disappears, life in the capital will become even less attractive to its secular residents, who have been fleeing in droves. They worry that one of the few Jerusalem neighbourhoods in which religious and secular live side by side will have lost one of its key public spaces.

The German Colony area is full of Anglos and its main thoroughfare, the trendy Emek Refaim street, is popular with British and American tourists as well. But the character of the neighbourhood is also about to change - or erode, depending on your view - with plans for a luxury hotel to dwarf the old Armenian church at the corner of Emek Refaim Street and Derech Beit Lehem.

"We can't bring the sea to Jerusalem, so at least we should keep the pool,'' says Pepe Alalou, a deputy mayor pushing to keep the facility open. "We want developers, but in the public's interest, not at the public's expense .''

Rivka Orion, a representative of the Action Committee to Save the Jerusalem Pool, says the very character of Jerusalem is at stake.

"If we do not take a stand, all of Jerusalem will eventually be transformed into a city of Charedim, of wealthy people who come from abroad for the holidays for two weeks and of Arabs. If the means for living in the city such as the pool are shut down, it will all look like Shabbat Square,'' she says, referring to a junction in the strictly Orthodox Meah Shearim neighbourhood.

"The pool is a place where the population is mixed and everyone can use it in an equal way,'' she adds.

The committee alleges that the pool's owners, Moshav Shoresh and the Ela Brothers - who are building contractors - are intent on making it financially inviable so that they can then press for it to be transformed into a parking lot and luxury flats. It notes that subscription prices were doubled this year.

The owners have made it clear that they intend to keep the facility open only during the summer, not all year round. This, the committee says, is forcing subscribers to look for other pools. They also claim that the owners have let its work-out machines fall into disrepair.

"They do not want us as subscribers,'' Ms Orion claims. Owner Rami Ella declined to be interviewed.

The legal status of the area is unusual. In 1980, the municipality signed an agreement with owners committing them to operate the facility for 49 years as a public pool at affordable prices. The agreement was amended in 1992 and, despite Mr Alalou's stance, Mayor Nir Barkat's office seems to be interpreting the documents in a way that does not necessarily oblige the owners to keep it running as a pool.

"It's a private place but we hope it will keep open as a swimming pool,'' said Mr Barkat's spokesman, Gidi Schmerling.

Negotiations between city hall and lawyers of the owners are due to take place next week.

    Last updated: 2:07pm, June 3 2010