Religious war waged in the suburbs

By Anshel Pfeffer, May 21, 2009
A Chasid and a secular resident of Jerusalem clash, as battles over the city’s religious makeup intensify

A Chasid and a secular resident of Jerusalem clash, as battles over the city’s religious makeup intensify

Israel’s Charedi and secular communities are squaring up once again — this time in the central neighbourhoods of the country’s two largest cities.

Kiryat Yovel, the largest remaining secular area in Jerusalem, is facing an influx of dozens of Charedi families who failed to find flats in nearby religious Bayit Vegan. Secular residents have tried to convince neighbours not to rent or sell flats to Charedi families.

Similar developments are taking place in Tel Aviv’s largest northern suburb, the upscale Ramat Aviv. Two weeks ago, 100 secular residents held a demonstration against Charedi organisations which have set up a yeshivah and kindergartens in the neighbourhood.

The residents are planning to set up stalls near schools and supermarkets — opposite those of the Chabad movement, where activists hand out religious literature and encourage men to lay tefillin.

In Kiryat Yovel, violent confrontations repeatedly broke out when Charedi activists tried to erect a private eruv around the area. There is a municipal eruv around Jerusalem but the strictly Orthodox do not accept it. Last week, a special committee set up by Mayor Nir Barkat reached a compromise whereby the new eruv would be set up outside the neighbourhood, far away from the residents’ houses.

Shachar Ilan, a journalist specialising in religious affairs and a Kiryat Yovel resident who is part of a group setting up a new organisation for “freedom of religion” in Israel, says that the eruv compromise will not help the secular residents.

“It may have solved the aesthetic problem and now we won’t see ugly poles in the street, but it will be easier now for more Charedi families to move into the area. I don’t blame the strictly Orthodox, they need a place to live. It is the fault of successive city administrations and the environmentalists that no new neighbourhoods have been built for their community and they have little choice but to move into secular areas.”

Mr Ilan sees the Tel Aviv situation differently. “I don’t believe there is any real chance that Ramat Aviv will become Charedi, the demographics are different. What is motivating the residents there is the fear that they may lose their children to religion, which is a trauma for many secular families.”

The religious demography of both cities has radically changed over the past couple of decades. Most previously secular and mixed areas of northern Jerusalem are now predominantly Charedi. The city’s secular community is ageing, with many young couples leaving the city, while the Charedi families have a never-ending need for more homes.

On the other hand, dozens of shuttered shuls throughout the old neighbourhoods of Tel Aviv are silent witness to an era when vibrant Charedi communities lived happily within secular areas. A new generation preferred living in the new homogenous religious building projects, which also offered cheaper and larger flats.

For decades, the major conflicts between the two communities were over religious principles. Pitched battles were fought in the streets and in the Knesset over the sale of pork and chametz on Pesach, the opening of cinemas on Shabbat, archaeologists digging up graves, pathologists carrying out post-mortems and, of course, the legal and political wrangling over the right of yeshivah students not to serve in the army.

In recent years, many of these issues have receded into the background. Most leading rabbis have repeatedly ruled against the mass outdoor protests which were de rigueur until the late 1990s; and the anti-Charedi political party, Shinui, disbanded after failing to cross the electoral threshold in the 2006 elections.

The rabbis have realised that protests expose their followers to the outside world and are hard to control, while serving to galvanise secular opposition. Now they believe that they can achieve a lot more through effective consumer action and a much higher birthrate.

Last updated: 12:04pm, May 21 2009