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Jerusalem Bridge Points to a Divide

The new Chords Bridge, designed to look something like a biblical harp, is a symbol of discord between the ultra-Orthodox and the secular Jewish populations of Jerusalem.
The new Chords Bridge, designed to look something like a biblical harp, is a symbol of discord between the ultra-Orthodox and the secular Jewish populations of Jerusalem. (Israeli Government Press Office Via Getty Images)
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Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, July 11, 2008; Page A08

JERUSALEM -- The new Chords Bridge is made of steel and glass, and it soars nearly 400 feet into the sky above an intersection at the entrance to this holy city, its mast and supports evoking a biblical harp.

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The design, which can be seen for miles around, is distinctive. The architect, Santiago Calatrava, is world-class. And after years of construction work that left motorists pounding their horns amid unending traffic jams, the bridge is finally complete.

Yet when it came time to open the bridge to the Israeli pu blic late last month, the mood could hardly have been more discordant.

First, there was the problem of the cost -- more than $70 million for a bridge that many in Israel griped could have been built for a fraction of that price, if only planners had been willing to settle for something a bit less snazzy.

Then there was the look -- sleek and modern in a city that prefers its most recognizable symbols to be dusty and ancient. Unsure what to make of it, residents have already derided the bridge with the moniker "Jerusalem's Clothesline."

But the biggest problem of all was the dancing girls.

A troupe of dancers between the ages of 13 and 16 had rehearsed for weeks in anticipation of the opening ceremony, where they were scheduled to perform as part of a program that also featured fireworks and a speech by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Hours before the ceremony began, however, the dancers were told that they would need a new wardrobe. Their short-sleeve shirts and ankle-length white trousers were simply too revealing. And their dances -- involving tambourines and balloons -- were downright "promiscuous," according to the city's deputy mayor.

So the girls took the stage instead in flowing brown cloaks and -- despite the summer heat -- black woolen caps. Forced to cut their most suggestive moves, they barely danced at all.

"They stood like statues," the group's artistic director, Yaniv Hoffman, later told reporters.

The city's ultra-Orthodox community, which dominated the crowd, heartily approved.

The reaction among secular Israelis was less enthusiastic.

"The Taliban Are Here" was the banner headline in the next day's Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel's largest-circulation daily paper.

"In the end, what we will remember from the ceremony that took place last night is sad and embarrassing and not at all respectable," the paper intoned. "We will remember the dancers who were compelled to put on sackcloth and woolen hats just because they are women."

Yair Ettinger, writing in the daily Haaretz, said that for Jerusalem's less devout, the night was "yet another stage in the city's ongoing fall into the hands of ultra-Orthodox extremists."

But Deputy Mayor Yehoshua Pollak, who like the mayor is ultra-Orthodox, was proud to have forced the changes. The girls, Pollak said, had been dressed offensively and would have interfered with residents' enjoyment of the show. Because of their more modest attire and toned-down moves, he said, everyone was able to have a good time.

The ultra-Orthodox, drawn to Jerusalem for spiritual reasons, have been a rapidly growing segment of the city's population in recent years. They now make up a third of the city's Jews, and their children represent more than half the students in Jerusalem's Hebrew-language schools. Secular Israelis, meanwhile, have been deserting the city in droves.

The Chords Bridge was intended to create a 21st-century gateway to Jerusalem. But experts say it could end up contributing to the demographic shift. In two years, it will carry light-rail train service, allowing speedy commutes from the suburbs and from Tel Aviv for those who need to work in Jerusalem but who no longer care to live here.

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