The mayor of a town in northern Israel announced that he was suspending future sales of building lots in the community after around half of the winning bids in the most recent phase were from Israeli Arabs.
In a message to residents issued Friday, Kfar Vradim Mayor Sivan Yechieli said he was “responsible for preserving the secular-Jewish-Zionist nature of Kfar Vradim,” adding that he planned to “ask the relevant government bodies to create solutions allowing for the maintenance of demographic balances.”
The controversy erupted when a resident of the community, real estate broker Nati Sheinfeld, reported the results of the sale on Facebook and called on the community to “wake up.”
“Now, before you start saying ‘what a racist you are,’” he wrote, “let’s think for a moment.” Stating that the establishment of Kfar Vradim and other communities was carried out in part to boost the Jewish population of the region, and noting that there was also opposition to ultra-Orthodox Jews moving in because it would change the community’s character, now more than half of the residents of the new neighborhood will be Arab. “Are we growing an Arab village inside Kfar Vradim?” he asked. In his post, he invited responses but said he would delete extreme language. He later told Haaretz that he in fact had to delete many comments.
Among those that he did not delete was one from a man who, referring to the new phase of the community, wrote: “Jews won’t buy homes there. It will turn into another mixed neighborhood with drug dealers and violence. The price of homes will plummet.”
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Sheinfeld insisted to Haaretz that he is not racist. When informed by Haaretz that his post was tweeted by MK Bezalel Smotrich (Habayit Hayehudi) with the caption: “Continue rolling your eyes and clucking all kinds of ‘enlightened’ words while we lose the Jewish majority in the Galilee. This time in Kfar Vradim. You need to wake up!”
Sheinfeld expressed surprise at the tweet but said the issue needs to be discussed. “Over the years, the Israeli government has not allowed [Arab] villages to develop.” He said he understood that as a result, Arab Israelis are bidding on lots in Jewish communities, but added that his reaction would have been the same if it had been 50 ultra-Orthodox families buying land.
“Kfar Vradim is an example of what will happen to the Galilee in the future and in Israel as a whole,” he said. “It’s not reasonable for you to open a bidding process for communities with a certain character and let the whole world and his sister in without a minimum of conduct [administration].”
One of the successful Arab bidders, Elias Haddad of Tarshiha, told Haaretz that several years ago Sheinfeld showed him homes in Kfar Vradim. Sheinfeld confirmed this and said that about 50 Arab families have lived in the community for several years and that relations with them are good. But Sheinfeld added that it was important to him to preserve what he called the Zionist, Jewish, pluralistic character of Kfar Vradim.
For his part, Haddad said the public is not intrinsically racist. “The problem is that [on a regular basis] a government minister speaks out against Arabs. We live here. There are good relations between Jews and Arabs in the region and it’s not thanks to the prime minister but rather to the citizens here.” Haddad said he is not worried about those opposing the Arabs’ successful bids. “They too will come to us to eat in Tarshiha,” he said. Echoing Sheinfeld in explaining that the phenomenon is the result of the inability to expand Arab communities, he quipped: “They’re not going to fly abroad.”
In the neighborhood built around two years ago by Israeli Arab developer Yousif Odeh, one can really get the feel of a utopian community in which residents share life together without regard to religion, race or gender. While Haaretz was speaking with Odeh, a neighbor, Ella Shahaf, popped by for a visit, and when Odeh stepped onto the street, another Jewish woman from the community who had just begun an evening walk waved and stopped for a bit of lively conversation between neighbors.
From Odeh’s living room window looking out onto the beautiful green landscape, it is difficult to tell where the border lies between Kfar Vradim and the neighboring Arab community of Tarshiha But as with many a story that on the surface appears perfect, there are those who are not satisfied with the situation. They may be a minority, but they hold strong views.
Kfar Vradim was established in 1984 as part of industrialist Stef Wertheimer’s effort to develop this area of the northern Galilee. It now has 1,700 households. The 2,200 additional households that are to be built will more than doubling the size of the community. In the first stage of the bidding process for new lots, 58 of the successful bidders on 125 lots were Arab.
There are residents of Kfar Vradim who are concerned that the character of the community that they have become used to will change. As is par for the course, most of the discussion is taking place in social media rather on the streets of the community.
On the street, however, at a shopping center, Dan, who has lived in the community for 30 years, said: “We live in a democratic country and obey the law. At the same time, we hope and want to preserve the Jewish character of the village.” A woman who has lived in Kfar Vradim for 20 years, said: “From my standpoint, one way or another there is coexistence. The houses of Tarshiha are still close by, so what’s the difference? Now they’ll be part of the community. For me, it’s important that they be nice people. I don’t care if they’re Jews or Arabs,” she said, adding that she would like to think that most people in the Galilee believe in coexistence.
But another resident who stopped by made reference to a controversy several years ago over the building of a mikveh, a ritual bath for used by observant Jews: “Those who didn’t what a mikveh now will get a mosque.” A third person added, however, that the fight over the mikveh, which was built in the end, was much more heated than over the Arabs who successfully bid on the new lots. In Tarshiha, residents said they didn’t understand what the fuss was all about, explaining that the land known as Phase 3 of Kfar Vradim had originally been part of Tarshiha and said some of the land is still owned by individual Arab landowners.
Tarshiha and the neighboring Jewish community of Ma’alot are governed as one municipality. Ma’alot-Tarshiha city councilman Nakhleh Tanous told Haaretz that in 1996 Tarshiha residents fought the expansion of Kfar Vradim onto this land, which was the only area that Tarshiha could have expanded onto.
A similar move by Arab residents into Jewish communities has occurred elsewhere in Israel, in Upper Nazareth, for example, to which residents of the Arab city of Nazareth have moved, now representing 20 percent of Upper Nazareth’s residents. In the Jewish city of Afula two years ago, there was an outcry when all of the successful bidders on lots in a new neighborhood were Arab.
Real estate developer Odeh and his wife, Odette, moved to Kfar Vradim temporarily about a year ago while their home in Tarshiha, which they plan to sell, is being renovated. In the meantime, they submitted a winning bid for a lot in Phase 3.