Nir Barkat, the mayor of Jerusalem, is optimistic about the future of his city. He recently spoke to a full house at Greenfield Hebrew Academy, kicking off the school’s newly formed Israeli Speakers Bureau.

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat

He stressed the multicultural nature of Jerusalem, pointing out that historically, the city has always been a place where people lived together in peace and with respect for each other’s traditions.

“In biblical times, the Land of Israel was divided among the tribes, but not Jerusalem,” he said. “No single tribe could lay claim to Jerusalem. For a thousand years, Jerusalem was a foundation of democracy, where everyone felt comfortable.”

He added that now, millions of people from around the world visit each year and see how other faiths live and work together. Barkat then focused on a few statistics – a declining crime rate, expanding school system and rising economy – that offer up only good news for the future of Jerusalem.

“I try to improve the quality of life for all residents,” the mayor said. “This proves to the world that we are worthy and decreases tension.”

During a question-and-answer period, Barkat was asked to explain his policies about illegal building in Jerusalem by Arab residents. He addressed are more than 20,000 apartments in Jerusalem that are not registered:

“If it costs nothing to build, you build,” said the mayor. “But people will get used to paying double and triple for illegal buildings. We are systematically getting people to acknowledge that legal is best. It’s not perfect, but it’s better to deal with reality than not to deal with reality.”

Barkat was also asked if Jerusalem will ever become the capital of a Palestinian State. His answer was short and unequivocal.

“No,” he said, but added that “Jerusalem is open and inviting, a place where there is freedom of movement and freedom of choice.”

The mayor went on to say that there are no examples of split cities that have worked.

“Either they are dysfunctional or they are reunited,” Barkat said. “Even if you had a moderate group of Muslims, in an instant they’d be replaced by radicals. Israel takes many risks, but I don’t see us risking Jerusalem.”

The Mayor was then asked about tensions between ultra-Orthodox sects and the secular Jewish community in Israel, and in response, Barkat said he is optimistic about the two sides finding common ground.

He pointed out that his coalition includes many ultra-Orthodox Jews and that their community is changing and becoming part of the work force and even the IDF.

“They know that if the city is drained of secular people, they will suffer.” Barkat said of the ultra-Orthodox. “All groups have extremists. I’m optimistic that we’ll get along better than we have in the past.”

The mayor also pointed out the need to compromise.

“It’s Jerusalem; the tensions will always be there.” he said. “But everyone must accept that in Jerusalem, no one gets everything their own way.”

The ultra-Orthodox know that restaurants are open on Shabbat in Jerusalem; the secular know that there’s no public transportation in Jerusalem on Shabbat.

“And when issues arise,” he concluded, “we deal with them very cautiously, so as not to create too much tension.”

BY LEAH LEVY / For the Atlanta Jewish Times

Leah Levy is a paraprofessional at GHA and the author of “The Waiting Wall,” a Sydney Taylor Notable Book for 2010.