Fear and loathing in North Tel Aviv
Last week there was a rare sight in Tel Aviv. About 670 residents of Kochav Hatsafon flocked to the polling place on Abba Kovner Street during the afternoon to vote for the neighborhood committee. It was the highest voter turnout in recent years for a neighborhood committee in Tel Aviv: 28 percent of those entitled to vote. By way of comparison, the turnout in Tel Aviv for the 2003 municipal elections was 29 percent.
This didn't happen by chance. A storm raged in the neighborhood between two groups and a recurring narrative in the city's northern neighborhoods.
The first group consists of representatives of the previous neighborhood committee, who until a year ago looked as though they would be continuing in their role in untroubled waters. The second group, also neighborhood residents, includes familiar figures like former basketball player Shimon Amselem and pediatrician Dr. Tzachi Grossman. This group is headed by attorney Eitan Erez, deputy chair of he Israel Bar Association.
The Erez group, say those associated with the previous committee, is connected to Chabad and its implicit aim is to infiltrate Kochav Hatsafon and obtain land allocations for Chabad institutions. This is liable to further change to the neighborhood's secular character.
This is a very sensitive claim, especially in North Tel Aviv. In adjacent Ramat Aviv, a residents' committee is waging a fierce and well-publicized battle against what they say is an attempt at messianic religious coercion. There, too, they are attacking Chabad people.
Erez says he and his group have no connection to Chabad and no intention of changing the neighborhood's complexion. The previous committee, he says, failed with respect to routine neighborhood issues like a bank, a post office and a health clinic, and neglected them for years. The group diverted the campaign from such matters to "horror propaganda," he says.
Battle over a synagogue
The fight against Chabad in Kochav Hatsafon began about two years ago, when the Kochav Hatsafon Tel Aviv Community Synagogue Association tried to establish a synagogue in the neighborhood. Behind this association are Chabad figures who, according to the old neighborhood committee, mostly do not even live in Kochav Hatsafon. The committee refused to allocate a plot for a synagogue.
Sarit Shani, who served on that committee and was reelected, says: "After we thwarted allocation of land for a synagogue the way the association asked, they realized that the power is in the committee's hands, and they decided to get rid of the committee. There are another 17 dunams in the neighborhood slated for construction of public buildings. There could be a Wizo or Na'amat kindergarten, or there could also be a religious day-care center. Anything is possible, and a lot of allocations could be tipped in other directions."
Members of the previous committee note several facts about the synagogue association, which to them reveals the connection between the group that ran against them for the neighborhood committee and Chabad. A lawyer from Erez's firm verified the names of the association's founders on the form submitted to the Registrar of Associations. In a letter on behalf of the association, it is noted that Erez himself was present at a meeting between the association and members of the previous committee concerning allocation of land for the synagogue. Moreover, one of the seven founders of the association ran on the list of the group Erez leads.
Erez says: "Two and a half years ago a lawyer on my behalf verified the signatures on an application to register an association. This is a legal and permitted activity in my work as a lawyer." As for the founding member of the association who is running for the neighborhood committee on his group's list, Erez has said: "He is a member of the association and it is permissible to want to establish a synagogue. Is it necessary to apologize if a person wants to be a member of an association and establish a synagogue?"
Shani says that about a year ago Erez's group began to collect residents' signatures for a change in the committee on the grounds it has not done enough. Later, she says, about a month and a half ago, Erez's group invited residents to an election meeting at the Carlton Hotel, and that there is proof the hall was reserved by Chabad representatives.
According to Erez, the hall was paid for a private individual unconnected to Chabad.
Shani says: "There, too, they explained that the previous committee hadn't done anything, that it had to be replaced and that a synagogue is needed in the neighborhood. They also said there was no connection to Chabad." She calls this the opening shot that catapulted the previous committee into the fray. It issued flyers, listing achievements and goals, initiated one-on-one conversations, assigned activists to various buildings and to e-mailing. And the committee set forth its claims about connections between the rival list and Chabad, along with the desire to preserve the neighborhood's current character.
This campaign apparently succeeded. Five members of the newly elected committee are representatives and supporters of the previous list while the other group managed to get only two representatives on the committee - Erez and Dr. Grossman, who received the smallest number of votes and have said they are considering what to do. For sure, they have been left with a very bitter aftertaste.
The campaign constitutes a disaster for the neighborhood's social fabric in their eyes. "The ugly campaign conducted by one side has left a battered and scarred neighborhood up to its neck in needless hatred," says Erez. "People living in the same building aren't talking to one another. Our campaign, which was dignified and to the point, focused on the real problems of the neighborhood, in which there is no bank, post office, health clinic, school, community center or pharmacy... The local committee failed in all these matters that were neglected for years and to cover this up, it diverted the whole campaign from issues of neighborhood development to horror propaganda. During the 10 years the outgoing committee was in office it did not bring about even the planning of an open public area of 17 dunams, and in this it failed." As for the synagogue, Erez says, "It is untenable that in a neighborhood of 7,000 Jewish residents there will not be a synagogue. Every Yom Kippur 500 people need to crowd into a tent that costs NIS 60,000 each year. I am a traditional person and I wear a skullcap in my everyday life. My connection to the Chabad movement is only that when I visit countries like China or Thailand, and I want a Friday night dinner with the blessing over the wine, I go to the Chabad House."
Erez adds: "If they were to claim in Europe that they don't want Jews to have a synagogue and they don't want to see religious men with bears who lay phylacteries, we would be calling that anti-Semitism. It's hard to deal with a campaign of slander and defamation like this with fair means. "
The neighborhood committee calls Erez' remarks "cheap demagoguery" and not reliable and say many things have been done: A successful battle was waged against the construction of a multistory building that was approved and construction of Beit Maccabi Tel Aviv was stopped. Moreover: "The existing and elected committee is in favor of a synagogue and among its members are religious people who attend synagogue and have also established and association that has requested an allocation from the municipality for a synagogue. We do not want to be associated with one stream or another, but rather we want the character to be decided by residents of the neighborhood and not by external organizations."