Jerusalem’s mayor is building for the future

Moshe Lion speaks to the JC on a visit to London


Jerusalem’s first Sephardi mayor, Moshe Lion, says “every day in one of the most complicated cities in the world is a new challenge”.

Despite that, the genial mayor, who has been in office for two and a half years — and is intent on running for a second term — has embarked on a range of ambitious building projects in both the west and east of the city. He vows to be “a mayor for every citizen. Really, the main challenge is to bring everyone to live together”.

Mayor Lion was on a flying visit to the UK to meet British donors to the Jerusalem Foundation, who have raised a remarkable $10 million of the $15 million needed for the city’s latest project, the Hassadna Music Conservatoire building. “The conservatoire is probably the best music school in Israel, but it needs a new building. It will be built in the German Colony [a neighbourhood south of the city centre] and will be open to all children of whatever background”.

The conservatoire was established in 1973 but with an estimated 650 school-age students has outgrown its quarters and is in urgent need of new, dedicated premises. The mayor expects the building to be completed in the next two years and says the municipality will make up the shortfall in costs if the UK donors do not manage to raise the rest of the money.

Meanwhile, in conjunction with the Jerusalem Foundation, founded in 1966 by legendary city mayor Teddy Kollek, building schemes continue apace. At the Botanical Gardens, plans are in place, says Mr Lion, for a new entrance and some magnificent new orchid pavilions.

“And for the first time, we are going to build a sports club with a swimming pool on the east side of Jerusalem, in Beit Hanina. There are 15 sports clubs in west Jerusalem, but this will be the first in the east of the city”. He expects it to cost about $10 million and speaks of it as “a game-changer for Jerusalem”.

Also on his desk are plans for a new children’s education centre based at the Jerusalem Zoo, with projects such as animal therapy and wildlife appreciation in the mix.

But however shiny the new projects are, any Jerusalem mayor has more gritty problems on a daily basis. “I can’t tell you exactly what the challenges are, because every day there is something new to deal with”. Mayor Lion has the unenviable task of presiding over several different communities and making the city liveable for each grouping: secular Jews, strictly Orthodox Jews, Arabs. “I have to be the mayor for all of them and to give each person the feeling that he is getting what he needs”.

During the intensive vaccination roll-out, he says, he made dedicated approaches to each separate community and was rewarded with an 80 per cent city-wide take-up from all Jerusalemites. “Because of this, Jerusalem has survived Covid-19 — even today when there is a little bit of a rise in Covid elsewhere in Israel, it has not affected Jerusalem.”

Post-Covid, the mayor says his focus is on building “a lot of apartments” to try to attract young people and families to the capital. The new-builds are mainly tower blocks which have attracted criticism but Mr Lion sees no other possibility and is busy demolishing old, low-rise neighbourhoods and putting the high-rise blocks in their place. He is also a firm believer in providing new office space, as he is convinced that people will return to office life after the pandemic.

Genial though he may be, Mr Lion is less keen to discuss some of the more public problems facing Jerusalem. On the day of our meeting the Israel Religious Action Centre had filed a petition in the Jerusalem District Court against the municipality for “lack of action against the vandalism of women’s images in the public domain”. The action had been triggered by the repeated vandalism of a picture of a Holocaust survivor at an exhibition in Safra Square — home of the city council over which Mr Lion presides.

“I am against it, I condemn it. I want to stop it but it’s very difficult to find those responsible.” But the mayor insisted: “I am not responsible for the police”, adding that he did not believe it was a persistent problem. IRAC would disagree: they have been tracking this phenomenon for five years and have repeatedly written to the municipality to complain.

A question about separate demolition orders in Silwan and Sheikh Jarrar produces a flurry of Hebrew consultation with the several advisors Mr Lion has on hand. Eventually he says that, on Silwan, “it is a long-standing problem of many years and it’s not something which can be deferred indefinitely. The bottom line is that there was illegal building which ultimately stopped development in the neighbourhood — and there was not a uniform response by all the residents”.

On Sheikh Jarrar, “it’s a completely different situation. The houses did belong at one time to Jewish residents and over time Arab residents entered the houses. Jewish residents said they wanted the houses back and now it’s a legal decision for the courts. We are now waiting for the Supreme Court ruling”.

And the mayor similarly brushes aside reports of conflict with the Charedi community in Jerusalem, adding that he hopes to build his next election list from both Charedi and secular groups. Despite fears from secular voters, however, that Mr Lion’s Charedi support would mean Jerusalem being much more closed on Shabbat, the reverse has been the case, with many more facilities open to the public than had been expected.

Moshe Lion likes to relax with his family — he has nine grandchildren. But most of all he likes to sing — he has a fine voice and loves chazanut, the music of the synagogue. Recently he wowed a crowd at an event for the Jerusalem Zoo by taking to the stage and singing “Jerusalem of Gold” with the Shalva Band, whose eight members are talented musicians with disabilities.


Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive