Jerusalem Officials Push for ultra-Orthodox Schools in Mixed Neighborhoods

Mayor Moshe Leon, whose major supporter is the Haredi party Degel Hatorah, urged to expand agreement that demarcated ultra-Orthodox areas

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Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Leon in a meeting, April 2016.
Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Leon in a meeting, April 2016.Credit: Emil Salman

Ultra-Orthodox officials in the Jerusalem Municipality have been pushing Mayor Moshe Leon to build religious schools in neighborhoods with mixed secular, religious and ultra-Orthodox residents, municipal and other sources said.

Secular and religious residents in these neighborhoods fear that Leon will succumb to the pressure and make moves that would violate the status quo and make their neighborhoods Haredi.

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The ultra-Orthodox officials are demanding the building of additional ultra-Orthodox schools in the mainstream neighborhoods of Ramot, Kiryat Yovel, Ramat Sharett, Gilo and French Hill in the northern part of East Jerusalem. They seek to expand an agreement from 2017  signed with then mayor Nir Barkat regulating public services to the ultra-Orthodox communities in non-Haredi neighborhoods.

The agreement, which demarcated the ultra-Orthodox areas in the city’s neighborhoods, was slammed by secular activists in the capital.

The demand is spearheaded by the Degel Hatorah party’s faction in the municipality, to which most ultra-Orthodox communities in the mixed neighborhoods are affiliated. Degel Hatorah is also Leon’s major supporter, having provided him with the Haredi votes to defeat secular candidate Ofer Berkowitz in the 2018 election. Leon himself has no representatives in the city council and his coalition depends on the Haredi councilmen’s support.

The ultra-Orthodox councilmen started to pressure Leon to change the agreement and alter the status quo in the neighborhoods as soon as he was elected, and talks are now in full swing, sources in and out of the municipality said.

Deputy Mayor Eliezer Rauchberger (Degel Hatorah) is applying the main pressure, using his power as chairman of the local planning and building committee to stall plans for the benefit of the city’s general population, the sources said.

Rauchberger said he is not familiar with this report.

Municipal sources said Leon wishes to reach an overall agreement about ultra-Orthodox influence in the city’s mixed secular-religious neighborhoods, and is negotiating this with Degel Hatorah leaders, as Barkat did.

Several senior city officials, department managers and advisers to the mayor are involved in the talks.

Ultra-Orthodox officials are also demanding elections to community administrations, which are statutory neighborhood organizations wielding substantial authority in Jerusalem. Such elections haven’t been held for a decade and the ultra-Orthodox officials estimate they would bolster their strength significantly, especially in neighborhoods with mixed secular, religious and ultra-Orthodox residents.

The Ramot neighborhood in northern Jerusalem, whose population is some 55,000, is being subjected to the heaviest pressure. While the proportion of its Haredi residents has been growing steadily, it has a large minority of secular and traditionally religious residents, as well as Haredim who are not affiliated to one of the major factions.

During Barkat’s term, Ramot’s secular and religious residents advanced the building of a state ultra-Orthodox school, which would offer basic subjects and full matriculation studies as well as Bible studies. Degel Hatorah rabbis strongly object to the school and the ultra-Orthodox officials in the municipality are acting to block its emergence, city sources said.

In recent months the Haredi officials have been demanding allocation of parts of the planned school’s building to a new ultra-Orthodox girls school of the promnent Beit Yaakov stream. They also demand the opening of a new ultra-Orthodox boys school in the neighborhood.

Sources said Haredi officials are threatening to quash the plan to build a state high school and to delay the planned opening of a sports center and swimming pool in the neighborhood, unless their demands are met.

Degel Hatorah officials are also seeking to expand their hold on the secular Sharett neighborhood in the southwest, bordering on the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood Bayit Vagan. The ultra-Orthodox officials insist on moving a field in the Sharett neighborhood’s jurisdiction, which is designated for public structures, to Bayit Vagan, where they want to build ultra-Orthodox schools.

A group of city officials have recently toured the nearby Kiryat Yovel neighborhood, parts of which have become increasingly ultra-Orthodox in the past two decades, in search of a site suitable for an Haredi school. One of the areas they inspected was the Warburg Lot, which for years has been a hot spot in the struggle between the city’s secular and ultra-Orthodox residents.

The agreement signed by Barkat stipulates that the field is to serve the secular community’s needs.

Leon declined to comment. Senior city officials said the mayor is resisting the pressure and refuses to change the mixed neighborhoods’ character.

They said Leon will pay the ultra-Orthodox politicians in other ways, like increasing funds for ultra-Orthodox culture or building public structures in their neighborhoods.

Deputy Mayor Hagit Moshe (Habayit Hayehudi) said “there is no overall agreement, everything will be agreed on. The mayor is making sure the general public receives everything it needs.”

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