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Neviim Street, Jerusalem Preservation Project

One of Jerusalem's greatest charms is the omnipresence of history, and one of the best spots to feel history is Neviim Street, or the Street of the Prophets. Beyond its esthetic appeal, the street is home to numerous turn-of-the-century historic buildings and landmarks. It was there that Zionist founding father Theodore Herzl met with Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany to solicit support for a Jewish state in Palestine. One building served as the home of Israel's longtime chief rabbi, Avaraham Kook. The Ethiopian Church still enchants visitors with its stately elegance. Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, rejuvenator of the Hebrew language and compiler of the first modern Hebrew dictionary, lived on the street. Built in a variety of styles that reflect the ethnic diversity that long prevailed in Jerusalem, Neviim Street's buildings have rich architectural value. One wonders why anybody would want to disturb the area.

Yet the Jerusalem municipality has been developing plans to turn Neviim Street into a six-lane highway. Local residents were outraged that the pristine, historic street would become a major thoroughfare. To fight the municipality's plan, they organized the Committee to Save Neviim Street. Rich in dedication and commitment, but lacking some of the skills and experience necessary for effective activism, the Committee turned to Shatil, the New Israel Fund's Capacity-Building Center for Social Change Organizations, for assistance. Established in 1992, Shatil promotes democracy, tolerance, and social justice in Israel by providing training, consultation, and coalition-building assistance to hundreds of environmental groups-including those, like the Committee to Save Neviim Street, that focus on historic preservation.

Assisted by Shatil, the Committee resolved to mobilize public opposition to the plan by increasing the neighborhood's public recognition as an historic area worthy of preservation. Realizing the importance of building support among popular decision makers, the Committee gave Israeli pop star Yehoram Gaon a tour of Neviim Street's main attractions. Pressed by the Committee, Gaon, a Jerusalem city council member who holds the municipality's culture portfolio, convinced the municipality to organize and finance a gala Neviim Street festival. The festival, which featured music, art, actors in late-19th century garb, and reenactments of historic events, attracted several thousand people. Attendees explored the hidden courtyards and arched passageways of Neviim Street's historic buildings, watched a performance by Turkish belly dancers, saw Rabbi Kook have it out with a secular Zionist, and heard Ben-Yehuda expound on the fine points of the revival of the Hebrew language.

The Committee to Save Neviim Street, in turn, made sure that the festival led to more than just public exposure for the street. The organization's activists used the event as a fundraiser. They collected thousands of signatures against the municipality's highway plan and distributed fliers highlighting the potential tragedy of ruining the street for the sake of private transportation. The Jerusalem City Council took note of the public's concern -so much so that it offered the Committee a spot on the Neviim Street Planning Commission. A Committee representative now sits on the Commission, along with the architect working with the Committee and the Council for the Preservation of Historic Landmarks. Thanks to concerted, creative grassroots activism, citizens have won a voice on the Commission determining the future of one of Jerusalem's most precious areas.

Further, their success shows how capacity-building support can help environmental preservation groups. Shatil has provided ongoing assistance to the Committee to Save Neviim Street, helping it develop ways to secure financial support for the street festival and capitalize on the unique opportunity that festival presented. And Shatil continues to help the Committee negotiate with the Jerusalem municipality to save Neviim Street from the rush of oncoming traffic.

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last update: 1/25/00