Planned Nursery Schools Reignite Secular Jerusalem Neighborhood's Fight Against ultra-Orthodox

For the first time, city hall will establish and operate schools for the ultra-Orthodox in the southwest Jerusalem neighborhood, which has been pushing back against the encroaching Haredi population for eight years.

A playground in Jerusalem's Kiryat Hayovel, September 22, 2016.
Emil Salman

For almost a decade, Kiryat Hayovel in southwest Jerusalem has been the main battlefield in nonreligious residents’ fight against the ultra-Orthodox takeover of many of the capital’s neighborhoods.

The secular residents began their struggle in 2008 when activists cut the wires of the city’s eruv, an artificial boundary, mostly formed of poles and wires, that according to Jewish law turns the space into a “private domain.” This lets people perform acts on the Sabbath that otherwise would be forbidden.

The secular activists cut the eruv around the neighborhood in protest against ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, families moving in. They said the eruv wires had been set up without permits.

Later came battles against the exclusion of women, and the Haredim’s opening of unauthorized day care centers and nursery schools.

Now the struggle is focusing on city hall’s intentions to open nursery schools for the Haredim in the heart of Kiryat Hayovel next year. This will be the first time since ultra-Orthodox families began moving in that the municipality will establish and operate schools for Haredim in Kiryat Hayovel.

Activists against the preschools say this is a critical point for the future of Kiryat Hayovel and nonreligious people in the capital in general.

“I understand the claim that the Haredim need somewhere to live and go to school, and I have no personal problem with them. But there is no precedent for a mixed Haredi neighborhood; there’s no such animal,” says Shai Zahavi, a nonreligious resident of Kiryat Hayovel.

“We don’t care if they’re here, we worry that we won’t be here in the end. Look at what happened in other places; in Har Nof there were once religious Zionists even they’re no longer there. I don’t want to be a refugee.”

It’s hard to quantify how many Haredim live in Kiryat Hayovel. In previous elections, at the polls in the neighborhood’s north where most of the Haredim live, some 18 percent of the vote went to ultra-Orthodox parties.

Taking into account the high voter turnout among the ultra-Orthodox, even though not all of them have yet to change their addresses to Kiryat Hayovel, the assumption is that today over 10 years after the first Haredi families moved in Haredi families make up no more than 20 percent of the neighborhood’s households. Haredim live mostly on streets with cheaper apartments, so secular people in those areas feel that the neighborhood has completely changed.

“Sometimes they comment on the way you dress, or in the nursery school the children say the this seesaw is for girls and that one is for boys,” says a resident who asked not to be named.

The secular residents know they can’t prevent Haredim from buying homes and moving into the neighborhood, so they’re focusing their fight on the provision of services to the Haredim. In his last two election campaigns, Mayor Nir Barkat has promised not to support the establishment of Haredi educational institutions in nonreligious neighborhoods.

In 2009, when the city opened a synagogue for the Haredi community not far away, Barkat said this was an essential service. But he objected to opening schools, saying educational institutions should be based on the neighborhood’s character.

Barkat’s office said he still objected to a Haredi school in Kiryat Hayovel, but secular residents note that the children who attend the nursery schools and kindergartens next year will grow up. In the future the mayor or his successor won’t be able to withstand the pressure. A Haredi education system in the neighborhood would only further encourage more ultra-Orthodox families to move in and secular families to leave.

But the city council’s finance committee approved the budget for building the complex this week. The day care complex is expected to include six to eight nursery schools and kindergartens.

They will be built very close to the experimental school that was put up seven years ago with Barkat’s support and is considered a great success of pluralism in Jerusalem.

For its part, the municipality said “the mayor has acted greatly to preserve the neighborhood’s character, while providing a response to the needs of the Haredi minority there too, based on the legal requirements and with the necessary sensitivity. In this framework, it has always been stated that the construction of nursery schools and kindergartens for the Haredi community will be allowed in accordance with the law.”