Residents of Central Israel City Protest Construction of ultra-Orthodox Synagogue

Dozens of residents gathered outside mayor's home, brandishing signs that read 'anxious about the future of the neighborhood'

Protestors in Rishon Letzion, confronted by the local Shas representative, October 19, 2018.
Moti Milrod

Dozens of residents from Rishon Letzion, a city in central Israel, protested Friday morning outside the mayor's home against the construction of a new synagogue that is supposed to be built on public land.

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Residents of three neighborhoods – Nahalat Yehuda, Khidmat Rishon and Ne'urim – object to the building of the proposed building, with an expected height of 20 meters, on public land in the Nahalat Yehuda neighborhood. According to them, the presented building plan includes a large library and events hall, which the protestors take as evidence that the space is intended for use by ultra-Orthodox Yeshiva students.

The protestors rallied under the slogan, "Rishon Letzion will not become Beit Shemesh," and carried signs that read "Anxious about the future of the neighborhood" (in Hebrew, the words for "anxious" and "ultra-Orthodox" are spelled the same). Counter-protestors, many of them religious, stood nearby and could be heard shouting phrases like "scum" and "anti-Jewish" at the protesters. Police arrived at the scene and separated the two sides. 

According to the protesters, they do not object to the construction of a synagogue, but rather to the dedication of the space to the activities of Yeshiva students. Mayor Dov Zur described the space on Facebook a month ago, he spoke of a synagogue alone.

Two weeks ago, the objectors planned to protest in front of Zur's home, but the protest did not take place following a message from the entrepreneur responsible for the project, who told the residents he would withdraw his application and open up a dialogue with them. According to the protestors, he has not contacted them since.

One of the organizers, David Vogel, who lives across the street from the site of the proposed synagogue, told Haaretz, "I'm not against the construction of a two-story synagogue, but the original plan was for a 380 square meter building, and it received a building allocation for a 1,500 square meter building. It will change the character of the neighborhood. As we protested this morning, vehicles full of Shas members immediately arrived to harass us."

The chairman of Shas in Rishon Letzion, Rabbi Arye Cohen, confronted the protestors and said afterward, "This is about the elections. They're trying to arouse the secular public to gather votes. They are looking for provocation to get people to the polls. I, unlike them, was born and raised in this city, and know it well. The religious and secular people have always lived here in brotherhood, peace and friendship."

Zur said in response that "Rishon Letzion has always been a city free of religious tensions due to open communication between all sectors of the community. It's a shame that misguided politicians are simply seeking ammunition."

Zur ascribed the motivation behind the protest to upcoming elections, saying, "This is a cynical political attempt by a candidate facing upcoming elections who is trying to inflame voters' passions, over nothing, through false and irresponsible manipulation."

The mayor claims that the project managers and developers held many meetings with representatives from the community, and made changes based on their requests. Zur added, "The synagogue includes a women's section and a mikveh, answering many real needs of the community."