Jerusalem: Clashing values alter a city’s face

Times Staff Writer

Jerusalem — YEARS after Israel seized a hilltop artillery post from Jordan in the 1967 Middle East War and turned it into a Jewish neighborhood, a civic-minded resident launched a turf battle of her own.

Ruth Geva thought that Ramot Allon, a community originally built for secular Jews, needed a police station. But she had to campaign eight years for a place to put one. Ultra-Orthodox Jewish families, known to Israelis as haredim, were moving in and seeking space for synagogues and religious schools.

In 2004 the community got its station. Then last year Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox mayor ordered it closed on a month’s notice and handed the building to an ultra-Orthodox kindergarten.

Furious over the decision and weary of the demands of her devout neighbors, Geva is giving up and moving to Israel’s Mediterranean coast.


“They get all the services and the city remains poor,” said Geva, 59, a community safety consultant. “They take a little bite each time, and finally people like me no longer feel comfortable here.”

Forty years ago, when Israel captured East Jerusalem and absorbed the Arab neighborhoods, it set out to maintain a large and sustainable Jewish majority in the city it was declaring its eternal and undivided capital. Instead, Jerusalem is gradually becoming more Palestinian and less Jewish.

Thousands of Jews leave the city each year, many of them alienated by an ascendant ultra-Orthodox minority that is asserting its socially conservative values and political power. Even as Jerusalem attracts a growing number of Palestinians, polls show that many less devout Jews are becoming estranged from it and are more willing to consider dividing it again.

Palestinians made up about a quarter of the city’s residents after the 1967 war; today they account for more than a third of the population of 732,100. Demographers say that if current trends continue, Israelis sooner or later will face a painful choice: Give up parts of the city to the Palestinians, who aspire to make East Jerusalem the capital of their own state, or become a minority in a city of profound religious and historical significance.

Israel’s postwar planners had every reason to believe they could maintain Jerusalem’s solid majority of Jews after the 1967 war.

They began planting neighborhoods such as Ramot Allon on annexed West Bank land, some for devout Jews drawn to the city by the Western Wall and other holy sites taken from Jordan’s control. Haredim, whose families on average have seven children, were the fastest-growing group in the city.


The ultra-Orthodox have enabled Jews to maintain an overall birthrate only slightly below that of Palestinians in the city. But the growing number of haredim also has fed the rise of a political movement with an agenda that has polarized the Jewish populace.

Mayor Uri Lupolianski and four of his five deputies are ultra-Orthodox rabbis. Since they were elected in 2003, their administration has channeled more municipal land and spending to their religious community, often over fierce objections by other Jews.

In interviews, Lupolianski and Deputy Mayor Uri Maklev argued that many of those who are leaving are seeking better jobs or more affordable housing. Maklev said the ultra-Orthodox have long suffered neglect and now expect “the minimal services they deserve in education, synagogues and playgrounds near their homes.”

“Why,” he asked, “should this cause dispute and polarization?”

Critics answer that it is not just a matter of providing services to the ultra-Orthodox where they live: City Hall also is encouraging them to move into less devout neighborhoods, where they often insist on strict observance of Jewish religious law.

“This process has been underway for years and serves as a catalyst for outward migration from the city,” said Avi Kostelitz, a modern Orthodox Jew and opposition City Council member from Ramot Allon.

Intertwined conflicts

THOUGH outsiders tend to view Jerusalem as an Arab-Israeli tinderbox, the city is in fact fragmented into three adverse populations: Palestinians, ultra-Orthodox Jews and less devout Jews. Their conflicts are intertwined, and all are influenced by population trends.

Roughly 20% of the city is haredi, a Hebrew term that means “fearful” or one who fears God. Members of the community are distinguishable by their black frock coats and hats and long dresses. They follow complex and demanding rituals spelled out in Jewish law, which requires prayer and quiet on the Sabbath.

Drawn to pray at Jerusalem’s holy sites, most haredi men are religious scholars who have large families, live in voluntary poverty and pay minimal taxes for the benefits they receive.

For Palestinians, 34% of the population, Jerusalem also is a magnet, offering more jobs than any city in the West Bank or Gaza Strip.

The remaining 46% are secular and modern Orthodox Jews, categories often lumped together by demographers even though their practices differ widely.

Members of this last group work in universities, government agencies and the tourist trade. They tend to be repelled by the city’s poverty, threats of Palestinian violence and tensions with haredim, who have thrown rocks to stop Jerusalem traffic on the Sabbath and burned clothing stores for selling “immodest” attire. These less devout Jews often look to Tel Aviv and other Israeli cities as more attractive alternatives.

The Jewish majority’s steady erosion became clear in the mid-1990s. Alarmed, secular political leaders began weighing proposals to split off Arab neighborhoods as part of a peace agreement that would give the Palestinians their own state. Peace talks collapsed in late 2000, and the demographic trend continued.


Last year, 17,200 people moved out of Jerusalem and 10,900 moved in, according to the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, a think tank. Virtually all those leaving were Israelis and as many as 70% were secular and modern Orthodox Jews.

Although prospects for new talks have faded, 58% of Israelis today are prepared to make concessions on Jerusalem if that would end fighting with the Palestinians, according to a Jerusalem Institute poll. Various surveys over the last decade show steady growth in that position among Israelis.

By contrast, three-quarters of religious Jews, a category that includes haredim, are opposed.

Israeli analysts say one reason many Israelis would accept dividing Jerusalem is their estrangement from the city. The Jerusalem Institute poll showed that nearly two-thirds of Israelis thought of their capital as “a city of the ultra-Orthodox,” nearly half said it was poor, and one-third considered it “scary to live in.”

“Jerusalem is dismal, depressing. People there are nervous, agitated and cross,” said Sharon Daya, 38, a swimming instructor who lived in the city all her life until she moved five years ago to a western suburb with her husband and three children. “I miss nothing about it. I go to great pains to avoid going there.”

Daya said Israel’s vision of a unified Jerusalem had given way to political and religious intolerance.

“Ultimately there will be no escaping the need to divide it … like it was in the past,” she said.


If Palestinians were to achieve a majority in undivided Jerusalem, said geographer Shlomo Hasson, Israel would face a dilemma: Exclude the Palestinians from politics to preserve Jewish dominance or accept the prospect of an electoral outcome that would give them at least a share of power, in effect acknowledging Jerusalem’s dual character as a Jewish and Arab city.

“Either we undermine our democracy or the nature of our nationality,” said Hasson, a Hebrew University professor and founder of the Futura Institute, a Jerusalem think tank. “Both scenarios are devastating for Israel.”

Secular suspicions

YOSEF Weil’s search for an apartment shows how Jerusalem’s rival Jewish worlds collide.

The 35-year-old Talmud scholar decided three years ago to move his family to Jerusalem from an ultra-Orthodox enclave outside the city after his wife tired of the two-hour commute to her secretarial job. He looked in north Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods but found that their rapid growth had pushed rents beyond his reach.

In Ramot Allon he found a place for $500 a month, and he and his family joined the haredi influx that Geva, the community safety consultant, and other secular Jews say is driving them out.

Secular and modern Orthodox Jews suspect an orchestrated takeover of the sprawling hilltop neighborhood of spacious bungalows and tight rows of stone-sided apartment buildings. Real estate agents say haredim are moving in with the approval of their rabbis, who normally frown upon living among secular Jews but view Ramot Allon as an emerging ultra-Orthodox community.

The ultra-Orthodox accounted for roughly half of Ramot Allon’s 40,000 residents in 2005 and now are a clear majority. The Colony real estate agency has handled sales of 35 private homes and 50 apartments in the neighborhood this year and reports that only haredim are buying.

Weil finds it an awkward mix. For most haredim it is not enough to be observant in their own homes — their spiritual values must be reflected in their surroundings. Soft-spoken and polite, Weil does not confront his neighbors when they turn up the radio on Friday night and Saturday. Instead he calls the police, to no avail.


“What am I supposed to say to my daughter when she sees a secular person desecrating the Sabbath?” he said. “That he’s a bad man? Yes, that’s what I tell her, but it’s not a pleasant thing to say about a brother.”

Weil and his wife live in a two-bedroom apartment with their seven children, all younger than 13. They get by each month “with heavenly help,” he said, on her $1,000 salary, $640 in child subsidies from the state and his $625 scholar’s stipend, part of which comes from the state and part from his yeshiva.

According to a Jerusalem Institute study, members of Jerusalem’s haredi community pay one-seventh what other Jews pay per person in taxes, and more than two-thirds of the members live below the poverty line.

In a poll last year for Tsav Pius, an Israeli group that promotes dialogue between secular and religious Jews, half the secular respondents agreed with the statement that “most haredim exploit the state.”

Weil said it was unfair that his children’s private school is a cramped trailer while public schools, losing students, have classrooms to spare. Ultra-Orthodox parents have acquired some spare classrooms through lobbying or forceful takeovers, prompting lawsuits and tire-burning protests by secular Jews.

The two sides also are fighting over a community center with a library, gym, pool and meeting hall. The neighborhood board that runs it is self-selected, excludes haredim and refuses to hold elections, suspecting that the ultra-Orthodox would win and take over the facilities. The board is trying to evict a more modest haredi community center run by Asher Kuperstok.

“This is first-rate chutzpah!” Kuperstok declared.

“But … why fight?” he added with a smile. The bigger community center “will all fall into our hands in another three years, maybe five years. Just watch the moving trucks and you’ll see clearly who’s packing and who’s unpacking. I don’t need to fight. I can just wait.”

Incident on a bus

NOVELIST and playwright Naomi Ragen already has fled two neighborhoods to avoid emerging ultra-Orthodox majorities. Now Ramot Allon’s most famous resident is thinking about leaving Jerusalem altogether.

Ragen felt the latest affront when her neighborhood supermarket stopped selling cat food. Haredim, now the store’s main clientele, rarely keep pets. The shelves are now filled with food at discount prices, labeled with the strictest kosher certifications and packed in family-size boxes and bottles.

But her apprehensions run much deeper.

Jerusalem, she said, risks falling under a kind of Jewish Taliban “in the same way radical Muslims have corrupted Islam and turned it into something abusive of women.”

Ragen was riding near the front of a No. 40 bus from central Jerusalem to Ramot Allon three summers ago when, she said, a haredi man demanded that she move to the rear.

“Show me where in the code of Jewish law it says I cannot sit in this seat and then I will move,” she recalled telling him. “Until then get out of my face.”

The incident made Ragen a feminist cause celebre. But her outcry did not stop the growth of gender-segregated bus lines; there are at least 30 here and elsewhere in Israel. Last year a Canadian Jew riding to pray at the Western Wall was spat at, punched and beaten to the floor by four haredi men as she, too, refused to move to the back of the bus.

A modern Orthodox Jew raised in New York, Ragen shudders at billboards in central Jerusalem admonishing women to wear long skirts, long sleeves and buttoned-up collars in public.

“People here misconstrue Jewish law, radicalize it beyond recognition and call that ‘being more religious,’ ” she said.

The author is building a home in the Galilee and said she might live there full time.

She has thought about the consequences of Jerusalem’s Jewish flight and growing Palestinian population. Palestinians and haredim would increasingly dominate the city and might get along just fine, she said with a tone of irony.


“Their women tend to dress alike, all covered up. That could be a recipe for harmony.”

“I love Jerusalem,” she added, turning serious. “I hate to see the city turned into a fundamentalist backwater…. But it will always be my touchstone, the center of my religion, even if now is not a particularly good time for me to live here.”

Obstacle to consensus

MANY less devout Jews acknowledge that the rule of rabbi-politicians has not altered Jerusalem’s character as much as they had feared.

The city is relatively staid, but on weekends, secular residents visit bars, cafes, restaurants and discos — places shunned by haredim. More such establishments are open in secular neighborhoods today than a generation ago.

Lupolianski, the mayor, has not moved to close those places on the Sabbath. He has cut deals to end rock-throwing protests by haredim against Sabbath traffic and defuse other skirmishes.

Yet the religious-secular divide has blocked consensus on how to strengthen the city’s Jewish majority.

A plan initially backed by the mayor would have stretched Jerusalem’s boundaries into the western hills, cut down forests and built 20,000 homes, primarily for secular Jews. Protests forced the government to shelve the plan in February. Secular critics argued that it would harm the environment and draw middle-class Jews away from central and southern Jerusalem, opening those areas to takeover by the ultra-Orthodox, who are outgrowing their traditional neighborhoods in the north.

To many haredim, keeping a Jewish majority in Jerusalem is not the main point.

The more ultra-Orthodox the city’s Jewish population becomes, they say, the more likely that Jerusalem will remain anchored to its religious roots and the harder Israel will strive to hold on to the land until its long-awaited redemption.

Jews have “a right to the land of Israel because the creator gave it to them,” said Yakov Zonenfeld, a Jerusalem activist in Chabad Lubavitch, a Hasidic movement that is part of the haredi world. He believes that trading Jewish land for peace is against the Torah, but acknowledged that it was something politicians eventually might feel compelled to do.


“We hope for the Messiah to come redeem us so this entire question will soon be irrelevant,” he said.

Other Israelis say ultra-Orthodox domination is choking off the holy city from many who rejoiced at its reunification four decades ago.

“More secular Israelis are beginning to relate to Jerusalem as culturally alien,” said Yossi Klein-Halevy, a senior fellow at the Shalem Center, a Jerusalem research institute.

“That is potentially devastating for Jerusalem’s centrality in Israel and within world Jewry,” he said. “The more Jerusalem turns haredi, the more secular Israelis will turn away, and that will have political consequences as future Israeli leaders decide whether to keep the city intact.”

Times special correspondents Batsheva Sobelman and Shlomi Simhi contributed to this report.