Secular Jerusalem Jews take on growing ultra-Orthodox influence

Secular Israelis in the West Jerusalem neighborhood of Kiryat Yovel are fighting the ultra-Orthodox’s growing influence in both the area and the state. The secular say that it’s a struggle for Israel’s identity and that they hope to protect the country’s “pluralism” and democratic space. But is their battle truly pluralistic? And how can we talk about democracy after 64 years of dispossession and discrimination?

On a recent Friday night, I attended a free, outdoor concert just a few blocks from my apartment in Kiryat Yovel. As religious families settled in for a quiet Shabbat, us secular settled onto mats to listen to Greek rebetiko, courtesy of Perach Adom. Because Kiryat Yovel has been the site of tensions between ultra-Orthodox and secular Israelis, I worried that the amplifiers, lights, and donation jar might draw the anger of our neighborhood’s Haredi residents–handling electrical devices and money, among other things, are forbidden on the Sabbath as is playing musical instruments.

Will they throw things at us? I wondered. In other places in Jerusalem, the ultra-Orthodox sometimes stoned passing cars on Shabbat. And, after all, this was concert was a form of protest.


The event was arranged by Free Kiryat Yovel, a local grassroots movement that seeks to build a strong, pluralistic country, starting with our neighborhood. It took place on the Warburg Lot, the piece of land that sparked the battle between the neighborhood’s veteran secular residents and the ultra-Orthodox newcomers. During the summer months, Free Kiryat Yovel sometimes screens movies on Warburg on Friday night.

There are other battle grounds in Jerusalem. At the shuk, ultra-Orthodox women have begun bullying secular women who dare go to the market in tank tops, Ynet reports (Hebrew). Groups of ultra-Orthodox women have started a modesty patrol, pointing at women’s bare shoulders, saying, “The next time, you won’t come to the shuk like this. The next time, you come in sleeves.”

This is the type of behavior that Kiryat Yovel’s secular residents are worried about.

The fight for Kiryat Yovel began on a hot August morning in 2008, when tractors arrived and began digging on Warburg. Residents understood the lot to be public and they used the space to exercise, walk their dogs, and to park cars. Surprised to see the construction, locals rushed out and asked the workers what they were doing.

When the workers hesitated to explain, residents stood in front of the tractors and called the municipality. Eventually, it became clear that the men had come to install two caravans and connect the structures to water and electricity. The buildings would serve as kindergartens to the ultra-Orthodox community, a group that insists upon having its own educational system, separate from both Palestinians and secular Israelis.

But there was no ultra-Orthodox community in Kiryat Yovel. And the workers did not have the appropriate papers from the municipality to carry out the construction. Rather, they had received verbal permission from then-Deputy Mayor Yehoshua Pollack, who is ultra-Orthodox and was later arrested in an unconnected real estate scandal. Among other charges, he was accused of taking bribes.

Dina Azriel is an activist with Free Kiryat Yovel. She says the attempt to build the kindergarten was reminiscent of the founding of some Israeli settlements, “They come, they dig, they put a caravan, and that’s it.”

Just as infrastructure helps pull Israelis across the Green Line, schools and synagogues serve as a magnet to attract new religious residents to traditionally secular neighborhoods of Jerusalem. Additional infrastructure is then built to accommodate the new residents. Religious buyers sometimes come and make secular homeowners generous offers, and little by little the veteran residents are edged out. It has happened across Jerusalem – to the extent that some 20,000 secular Israelis have left the city in recent years.

While secular Israelis represented about 40 per cent of Jerusalem’s population a decade ago, today the city of 800,000 is split almost evenly into thirds between the secular community, Muslim Palestinians, and the ultra-Orthodox.

Though their birthrates have dropped in recent years, the ultra-Orthodox still have more babies than Palestinians, Arab Israelis, and secular Jewish Israelis. It is estimated that 20 percent of the country will be ultra-Orthodox by 2034 – meaning they are expected to change not just the landscape of Jerusalem, but the face of Israel.

But the secular residents of Kiryat Yovel are determined to stay. The day after construction workers attempted to build the ultra-Orthodox kindergarten, Azriel and other locals started a committee to protect the neighborhood.

“We blocked the entrance to the lot with cars so tractors couldn’t enter,” Azriel recalls. The community also filed a lawsuit that effectively prevented the ultra-Orthodox from using the land for their own purposes.

Still, the ultra-Orthodox community have made inroads in Kiryat Yovel. They have a visible presence in the neighborhood and managed to open a kindergarten next to a secular kindergarten. To the alarm of many secular and some ultra-Orthodox residents, the city erected a separation fence between the two schools. And, because the ultra-Orthodox complained that their children would see secular Israelis with immodest dress and little boys without kippot through the fence, the barrier was covered with a blue tarp.

Azriel and her husband, Danny Unger, emphasise that they and other members of Free Kiryat Yovel do not take issue with the ultra-Orthodox themselves. Rather, they are concerned by the anti-pluralist and anti-democratic trends that, they say, come with the community.

“The problem is not that they’re coming,” Unger remarks. “We’ll gladly accept them. The problem begins when you come and want to make a separation [between yourself and the existing community].”

Azriel and Unger are also concerned about the allocation of the city’s resources. They say that public space should be used for the good of the whole neighbourhood, not for a specific population that is new to the area and that will keep others out.

“Public space has to stay equal and open to everyone,” Azriel says.

City councilwoman Laura Wharton shares this sentiment. “This is my position also about East Jerusalem,” she says, where Palestinians receive services that are disproportionately less than those received by their Jewish counterparts, despite the fact that Palestinian residents pay taxes. “The resources of a given area [should be] devoted to the people who live there.”

Wharton lives in Beit HaKarem, a predominately secular neighbourhood where a park was bulldozed to make way for a mikveh despite the fact that the area is home to only a handful of ultra-Orthodox residents.

While they remain a minority in both Jerusalem and Israel, the ultra-Orthodox wield a disproportionate amount of political power because they tend to vote in a bloc. And perks like subsidised housing and financial assistance for large families come with that power.

The ultra-Orthodox are, for the most part, poor and don’t pay a lot of taxes. Because Jerusalem is struggling to stay afloat financially, the municipality has given developers the green light to build luxury apartment buildings and commercial spaces in the place of apartment buildings that are home to low and middle-income Israelis. The occupants of these new buildings will pay more taxes, carrying those in the city who don’t pay enough.

As Israel moves away from the welfare state that characterized the country’s early days and becomes increasingly capitalist, in part to keep the ultra-Orthodox afloat, more Israelis are attracted to the ultra-Orthodox’s ranks.

“A lot of their appeal is related to the growing socioeconomic disparities,” Wharton explains. “Because the ultra-Orthodox are well-organised and they raise money abroad and obtain funding for things, not always legally, they can do things like offer kindergartens that work until later.”

Wharton points out that the ultra-Orthodox have gotten a stronger foothold in poor areas of Kiryat Yovel, where residents need the services once provided by the state.

But the ultra-Orthodox struggle with housing and infrastructure issues of their own. As their population has outgrown their traditional neighborhoods, they head toward secular areas – or the illegal settlements over the Green Line.

“The biggest and fastest-growing settlements… are ultra-Orthodox,” says Wharton, who is also a political science lecturer at Hebrew University. “The current government is interested in attracting settlers, and they offer land for free and really good mortgages and really good social systems … so the state uses the [ultra-Orthodox] and the [ultra-Orthodox] use the state.”

Which is exactly what Azriel and Unger don’t want to see in Kiryat Yovel. “Israel can be a democratic state,” Azriel says. “But there has to be a separation between religion and state.”

But should there be limits on Israel’s “democracy” and “pluralism” to safeguard these values? Azriel and Unger say yes.

I’m not sure. I’m a more than a little cynical about the talk of keeping public spaces open and equal and, by extension, keeping Israel pluralistic and democratic. The country isn’t pluralistic just because there are different types of Jews here; and a Palestinian minority that is systematically discriminated against by both public institutions as well as members of the Jewish majority does not make this place a bastion of pluralism, either. Rather than calling Israel a democracy, we ought to be calling it an ethnocracy and talking about the defined democratic space that exists within the country.

And if secular Israelis wanted true pluralism and democracy, their struggle should have begun much earlier–64 years earlier. What is happening in West Jerusalem now is the natural outcome of decades of discrimination and of privileging one group over others.

Portions of this article first appeared on Al Jazeera English.