The planned construction of an ultra-Orthodox education complex authorized by the Jerusalem city council last week is sparking concerns of an increasingly tight Haredi hold on two of the city's northern neighborhoods.
Secular residents of northern Jerusalem have expressed concern that the three Haredi schools and about 10 preschools due to be built in Ramat Eshkol will further entrench the extensive ultra-Orthodox character of the neighborhood. They also said the schools could draw more Haredim to nearby French Hill.
"The establishment of a Haredi education complex will effectively clinch an ultra-Orthodox takeover in northern Jerusalem," Yossi Havilio, an attorney representing Jerusalem residents campaigning against the construction, wrote to Mayor Nir Barkat. "It will bring about a situation in which the Hebrew University of Jerusalem on Mount Scopus will be the only secular institution in the region."
Municipal officials said the schools, which were approved at a tempestuous city council meeting Thursday, are necessary because of a dire shortage of suitable classrooms for ultra-Orthodox children, who typically attend separate Haredi schools.
Barkat's office said Ramat Eshkol will also be the site of a new branch of a college expected to attract thousands of students to its dormitories, thereby serving as a counterweight to the Haredi schools. The Ramat Eshkol campus of the Lander Institute-Jerusalem Academic Center will be built before the Haredi school complex, and the Lander campus will be four times the size, municipal officials said.
"Some 4,000 students who come to the neighborhood to attend the Lander Institute will constitute a pluralistic anchor that attracts many young people and strengthens the neighborhood," the municipality said in a statement. "Establishing a Zionist anchor in Ramat Eshkol is part of a series of efforts undertaken by the municipality to strengthen the Zionist population in the city's northern areas."
The Lander Institute currently operates a branch in Jerusalem that attracts many Haredim, but it has said its Ramat Eshkol campus will be pluralistic.
The residents campaigning against the Haredi schools predicted that the Ramat Eshkol branch of Lander could eventually become Haredi too.
"How can a secular college survive in a Haredi setting?" asked Sam Vaturi, a French Hill resident who has been one of the leaders of the campaign against the ultra-Orthodox schools. "Either it will become a Haredi campus or its students will come to an enclave solely to study. The demographic trends are not on our side. We don't want to be swept away by a Haredi wave."
In Vaturi's view, it is in the interest of Jerusalem and the country at large that French Hill not be "conquered" by the ultra-Orthodox, and that the Hebrew University campus not become a secular enclave.
Ramat Eshkol is located between the ultra-Orthodox Sanhedria neighborhood and the secular French Hill neighborhood. Ultra-Orthodox influence has grown rapidly in the neighborhood over the past two decades, and it is estimated that a majority of its residents are now Haredi.
Rachel Azaria, a city council member whom Barkat accused of being hypocritical for opposing the construction of the Haredi schools, accused the mayor of turning his back on his core constituency.
"Barkat is sacrificing secular residents of French Hill and Ramat Eshkol in order to placate the extremist Haredi coalition he leads," she said, adding that the mayor "seems determined when it comes to meeting the demands of Haredi functionaries."
"It's too bad he doesn't display the same determination with regard to cleaning up the city, improving its public transportation system and improving its educational system," said Azaria.
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