Bad Fences Make Bad Neighbors

The separation fence erected recently in a Jerusalem playground serving Haredi and secular children didn't last long, but it exemplified the growing tensions between two groups with very different values and lifestyles

It's a gloomy sight, located in Jerusalem's Kiryat Hayovel neighborhood. About three weeks ago, a separation fence went up, in the yard of a nursery school, with the purpose of separating ultra-Orthodox and secular children.

The school is in the backyard of one of the most impoverished areas in the city, and looks out on looming blocks of gray concrete, with row upon row of narrow, barred windows. The air conditioners, and the lines stretched between the bars, on which hang clothing and blankets, complete the whole, unappealing picture.

Tomer Appelbaum

The broad area that stretches between the apartment buildings and the nursery school has gone to seed and is strewn with garbage. One can distinguish rusty auto parts half-buried in the ground. On what seems like a placid and well-kept island in the heart of this urban jungle stands the nursery school; its small yard is clean and orderly, the walls of the building are painted an orange-pink and whitish curtains wave in the wind.

Up until about three weeks ago, a Haredi nursery school run by the Orthodox nursery-school network Etz Hada'at (Tree of Knowledge ) and a secular one called Pashosh (Warbler ) dwelled peacefully together in the same small building, with good, neighborly relations. The teachers were all friendly and the children shared the playground. One day, however, one of the ultra-Orthodox parents decided that the children should be separated. He turned to influential members of the community, who demanded that the municipality put up a fence.

The secular parents were furious, the Haredim became defensive, and both sides went to consult a rabbi. Rabbi Ezriel Auerbach, who is respected by Michael Ben-Avi, the director general of the local community administration (a kind of council of several neighborhoods run by representatives of the residents ), ruled that no fence should be built. The influential religious people didn't give in and, according to Ben-Avi, convinced the rabbi to change his ruling.

Overnight a high fence was built in the yard. There was shouting, compromises were suggested, and in the end Ben-Avi ordered its removal last month, a few days before Purim. Since then, "Everything is back to what it was, but a fence remains in our heart," summed up the secular nursery school teacher, Mika Lavi.

But the covert tension between the two communities that share the building came to the surface. Esther Kirmaier, one of the founders of the secular nursery school, says that in random conversations with the Haredi parents on the other side of the fence, two admitted they wanted separation.

"They said that they're afraid their children will be influenced by the secular children," says Kirmaier, "that they'll learn curses from our children, that they'll see children without a skullcap."

The oldest of these children is 2 years old, and most of them don't talk yet, she chuckles, adding that the Haredim also expressed a fear that the secular mothers and the nursery school teachers would be skimpily dressed in the summer. But Kirmaier says she was glad that the idea of the fence was not acceptable to all the parents, and "even those who wanted it said, 'We didn't mean such a high fence.'"

Oshrat Parzam, who is a first-grade teacher, was shocked when she saw the fence. Parzam, who defines herself as traditional and whose daughter attends the secular nursery school, says: "I'm sorry to hear that the Haredim are claiming that our children could have a bad influence on theirs. I understand the differences in education, in their religious worldview at school age, but at this age there's no place for separation. What's the meaning of putting up a fence in the middle?"

Emanuel Kelner, a psychologist who works in the neighborhood and is religiously observant, said that he decided to send his daughter to the secular Pashosh because of its good reputation and the diversity of its population, being made up of children of immigrants, veteran Israelis, both Orthodox and secular children. Regarding the fence, he comments: "I was surprised by the intensity of the segregation. I'm a graduate of a hesder yeshiva [that combines army service with religious studies], and I can understand that if the nursery school teacher shows up in a tank top one day that would be a problem, but everything could have been discussed and they could have been asked in a respectful way."

Invisible neighbors

At 1 P.M. on one day recently, a small gathering is seen at the nursery school's entrance: The Haredi parents are coming to pick up their children. On the secular side the children are napping. Their parents work and will pick them up only at 4 P.M. Many fathers are in evidence among the Haredi parents, as is usual in that sector: The men return home early from kollel (a yeshiva for married men ) and pick up the children, while the wives work until late. The men are suspicious when I attempt to speak with them.

A Haredi mother who agreed to be identified only by her first name, Tirza, said before she turned to leave: "They should have made the fence at the beginning of the year, now it isn't relevant." She also spoke about the need to separate the older (ultra-Orthodox ) children from the (secular ) babies, before offering her parting words: "It's a shame they didn't leave the fence."

Another Haredi mother, who refused to give her name, said: "You can write that I'm happy that there's no fence. What we need here is keruv levavot [bringing people together]; I'm in favor of peace." Another mother said that she had actually thought that the fence was an initiative of the secular parents "who didn't want to see us." She said that a letter distributed in the nursery school on behalf of the Etz Hada'at network affiliated to the Degel Hatorah party, "informed us that they had no connection with the incident." The executive director of the network, Avraham Maklev, also said that "we were not the ones who demanded it of the municipality. We found out about it from the media." At the same time, he refused to disclose his personal opinion on the matter.

The story of the fence is not an isolated incident. It needs to be understood against the backdrop of a long series of disagreements in the neighborhood in recent years. Kiryat Hayovel is an aging secular neighborhood in the western part of Jerusalem. Residents abandoned it, schools and kindergartens began to empty out. Some six years ago, Orthodox families began to discover the cheap apartments in three especially impoverished parts of Kiryat Hayovel, and slowly began to move into the neighborhood.

According to the figures of the community administration, there are now about 350 ultra-Orthodox families living in Kiryat Hayovel; some Haredim estimate that the number is higher. Whatever the case, from year to year there is an escalation in the incidents of friction between them and the veteran residents of the neighborhood.

"Every week there's an attempt by the Haredim to do something illegal [in terms of squatting]: to enter an apartment or a store illegally, and to open a synagogue or a nursery on its premises," says Ben-Avi. "It's not out of a real need - they don't have a [large enough] Haredi population to fill those institutions. They bring children from outside, to prove that they have a hold in the neighborhood. We're fighting it with petitions and legal injunctions, but they ignore them."

About a year ago, when secular residents discovered that Haredim had put up eruv poles without authorization (from which they stretched wires in order to delineate the area in which they are allowed to carry items on Shabbat ), a world war ensued. On a daily basis, ultra-Orthodox and non-Orthodox veteran residents who live next to each other act as if members of the other group are invisible. There is no discourse between the communities.

When it was feared that one of the structures in the Argentina Elementary School, which is adjacent to the nursery school, would be turned over to Haredim, secular residents organized in order to establish a branch of Jerusalem's Experimental School in the slowly emptying building, where children from the neighboring Ein Karem neighborhood now study, too.

Lines are drawn

In the nursery school, the battle lines are drawn between yeshiva students and the newly religious on the one hand, and educated young people and professionals on the other. The founders of the secular nursery school are active in the Ruah Hadasha (New Spirit ) association, which was established by university students in the capital with the purpose of drawing more young people - non-Haredim - to the city and to prevent it from becoming ultra-Orthodox. They checked and found that the Haredi nursery school that was operating on the site had invaded the area without legal permits, with one classroom serving as a storeroom. They asked the municipality to open a day-care center in the classroom and the municipality agreed. According to Esther Kirmaier, they were envisioning the nursery school serving as a feeder institution to the adjacent elementary school.

"The nursery school was opened in order to make the neighborhood younger," explains Kirmaier. "Part of our agenda was to establish a high-quality framework specifically in the weak part of the neighborhood, so that families from the surroundings would come, too. And as far as I'm concerned, it's an advantage that my daughter sees religious people and lives alongside them."

Kirmaier, who hopes to run on the electoral slate of Mayor Nir Barkat in the coming elections (as she did in the past ), adds that most of the ultra-Orthodox in the neighborhood are not hostile. "I believe that Jerusalem has to create a model for living together. There's no need to be deterred or to flee from neighborhoods with Haredim," she says.

Michael Ben-Avi sounds less willing to compromise, and also less optimistic: "It won't work. They want an eruv, separation on the buses, they deliberately walk in the street when they come from the synagogue [on Shabbat], they want to close swimming pools and are demanding that we not show movies on Friday night in the city. They want to force their lifestyle on our community, 60,000 residents, a secular, pluralistic, Zionist community. They are pushing us into a corner and causing residents to flee, because there's a feeling that they're taking over western Jerusalem. If we lose the [secular] population, we are done for."

Kiryat Hayovel is only one of the areas of friction between Haredim and non-Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem. The separation craze, which is gradually taking over the public space, does not distinguish between neighborhoods. The fence system was conceived in the West Bank town of Immanuel, in the Hasidic school in which they isolated the Mizrahi students (of North African and Middle Eastern origin ). It's also the idea behind the mehadrin bus lines, in which the women sit in back, separate from male passengers, and behind the separation of male and female pedestrians on the sidewalks of certain streets in the Mea She'arim neighborhood.

On Purim, members of the two nursery-school communities exchanged mishloah manot (traditional gifts of food and sweets ), but the fears and suspicion did not disappear. As a resident of the neighborhood who grew up there from childhood, Oshrat Parzam finds it hard to take it in her stride. She herself attended a religious school outside the neighborhood, but her parents, she stresses, were pluralists and that has always been the nature of Kiryat Hayovel.

"I was shocked at the idea that I have to fight for my freedom," she says. "The whole story of the fence depressed me. It reminded me that a while ago a little girl said to me, 'Yuk, a shiksa.' What can I tell the parents in the nursery school: I'm more Jewish than you, my parents are more deeply rooted? Why do I have to defend myself?"

Parzam adds that from now on she'll be more active in the battle over the nature of the neighborhood: "I'm not against them. We're all Jews. But they of all people, who know Torah and halakha [religious law], should have understood that baseless hatred is the worst thing."