Jerusalem Mayor Makes Historic Deal With ultra-Orthodox Rabbis on Dividing City

Political rivals say it includes a deal not to run a Haredi candidate against Barkat in next mayoral election

An ultra Orthodox Jewish youth rides a push scooter past a building under construction in Ramat Shlomo, a Jewish settlement in the mainly Palestinian eastern sector of Jerusalem, on June 5, 2014.
AFP PHOTO /AHMAD GHARABLI

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat has reached wide-ranging agreement that will further solidify the presence of the ultra-Orthodox community in the capital.

The deal, reached with a committee of rabbis representing Jerusalem’s Haredi community, includes understandings as to the character of neighborhoods containing both Haredi and non-Haredi residents, the location of future ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods and where cultural centers for the nonreligious will be allowed to be built in the city.

Some nonreligious city council members say Barkat cut the deal to secure Haredi support in the next mayoral elections in 2018.

Accords between Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat and the ultra-Orthodox

Avraham Kreuzer, the mayor’s adviser on Haredi affairs, was behind the agreement. He denies the deal has any political aspects, but did confirm the new agreement “would make the next elections boring.”

The Haredi committee was established by Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman, the rabbinical leader of the Degel Hatorah party in Jerusalem. Three members of the party’s Council of Torah Sages sat on the committee: Rabbi Baruch Soloveitchik, Rabbi Yosef Efrati and Rabbi David Cohen. Kreuzer negotiated on the municipality’s behalf along with the city’s director general Amnon Merhav. The negotiations took 10 months.

According to the agreement, in neighborhoods where many Haredim have already moved in, a process referred to as Haredization, the city will encourage more Haredim moving in, providing educational and community services will be provided for the ultra-Orthodox community in such areas. In neighborhoods where Haredization is in its early stages, basic services for the Haredi community will be provided, such as preschools. The rest of the services needed will be offered in nearby Haredi neighborhoods or in areas between the neighborhoods.

For example, the Ramot neighborhood has a Haredi majority with a large non-religious minority. This neighborhood is expected to become increasingly Haredi. New housing projects in the neighborhood will target the ultra-Orthodox community. However, the Ramot Bet part of the neighborhood will remain a sort of “secular reserve” where Haredi families will not be encouraged to move in.

A neighborhood such as Ramat Eshkol, which has become almost completely Haredi, will “officially” be recognized as such and a new, large Haredi educational complex will be built there. The nearby non-Haredi neighborhood of French Hill will remain non-religious and will not have Haredi institutions.

In the Kiryat Hayovel neighborhood, which has been undergoing Haredization for years, preschools will be built for the Haredi residents – but not schools. The non-religious experimental elementary school in Kiryat Hayovel will be expanded to include junior high school, while the schools for the Haredi community will be built on the border with Bayit Vegan, the Haredi neighborhood next door. Similar solutions will be found for other neighborhoods, too, such as Gilo.

Kreuzer says he is not necessarily pleased with all the results, but he must find practical solutions to provide services to local residents.

A gathering of Haredi Jews in Jerusalem's Ramat Eshkol neighborhood, June 1, 2017.
Lior Mizrahi

“I don’t decide the character of the neighborhood,” he said. “I follow the residents, but I must provide services.”

Deputy Mayor Ofer Berkowitz says the most interesting aspect of the agreement is the political part, which was not released. Barkat has not yet announced he is running for reelection officially next year, but he is widely expected to run for another term. Barkat would very much like to have an easy campaign without a Haredi candidate running against him. Berkowitz, who heads the Hitorerut party, the largest non-religious party in the city council, calls the agreement a new strategic partnership between Barkat and the Ashkenazi Haredim – instead of his previous partnership with the national religious camp, with whom he has won two previous terms.

Berkowitz harshly criticized the agreement, calling it “unethical, illegal and illegitimate.” He called it a political deal, whose main goal was to guarantee Barkat’s political future. The timing is not a coincidence either, and the agreement was signed behind closed doors, says Berkowitz. “Such an agreement, a year before an election campaign, is required to be published, by law,” he said.

Kreuzer said that in any case Barkat would not face any serious Haredi opponent, but still denies any political deal. This is not a signed agreement that can be presented to the public but a series of understandings on a municipal work plan for the near future, he asserted. Some of the understandings will be implemented through decisions on Tuesday by the Jerusalem regional planning and building committee on building a new Haredi educational complex in Ramat Eshkol, while the Haredim will agree to the approval of a plan for a secular cultural and recreational complex in Kiryat Hayovel, said Kreuzer.

Berkowitz says the two projects were held up for years by the city so they could be used as bargaining chips against the Haredim .

“It’s nonsense, there’s no political agreement,” Barkat commented. “Anybody who knows how the Haredi sector works knows that they decide at the last minute.” According to the mayor, everyone also knew about the plans and no one was surprised. “Just in the last two weeks I presented the maps to Hitorerut and Shas,” Barkat said, adding that he had held meetings with all the heads of the neighborhood administrations. However, the mayor conceded that most of the discussions were only with the rabbinic committee. “The moment that you open all the discussions to everyone, the extremists always pop up. I’m not against anybody, I’ve for everybody, if a deal like this is already coming together,” said Barkat. “The vast majority of the Haredi public and most of the secular public is not against this deal. It’s going on a broad basis of partnership.”