Homes for Haredim: Israel Faces a Quandary

The rapidly growing ultra-Orthodox population isn’t welcome in secular communities but the attorney general has banned Haredi-only towns. Meantime, families are crowding into unsuitable housing.

Lior Mizrahi

In 2006, when sociologist Shlomit Canaan was looking for potential sites for Haredi communities on behalf of the Housing Ministry, the answer she received from almost all the local authorities heads was ‘not in my backyard.’ In some cases the “no” was unequivocal, in others it was elegantly evasive.

“Or Akiva’s socioeconomic status is low, and it needs a strong population with an above-average income,” replied Simha Yosipov, who was then mayor. “We have engendered an educational and social revolution and improved the quality of life, but that doesn’t mean that we can now add a weak population with large families.”

Arad’s Moti Brill was even more blunt: “Arad is opposed to absorbing a substantial number of additional Haredim. We’ve reached an acceptable status quo, and a significant increase in the percentage of ultra-Orthodox residents will change the urban image.”

Other cities responded in a similar vein. Only a tiny number were willing. “We will welcome an ultra-Orthodox population to the extent that a supply of suitable housing can be found,” said Kiryat Gat Deputy Mayor Ami Biton. The Nahal Sorek Regional Council also said that “the council would gladly absorb Haredim in order to increase the population.”

According to a study by the Housing Ministry, which developed a master plan for ultra-Orthodox housing nine years ago, demand will reach about 160,000 housing units by 2025, almost 98,000 of them to be met with new homes. Despite the problems with the local council heads, the researchers found many potential sites, including Beit Nir in the south with an area of 19,000 dunams (4,700 acres), Tzrifin in the center of the country with over 2,000 dunams, and Magal in the northern Sharon with 7,500 dunams. The plan also included the planned city of Harish, with 13,200 dunams.

But almost nothing was done. Only a few thousand homes for ultra-Orthodox Jews have since been built and plans for only one site were put into effect – in Harish, which was unofficially promoted by the Housing Ministry to serve the ultra-Orthodox population. City plans were tailored to ultra-Orthodox needs, but by order of the attorney general there was a prohibition against formally discriminating in favor of Haredim. Haredi organizations attained several lots in the land tenders for Harish, but the court found that they had colluded on prices and invalidated the tenders. Harish will now be a city of secular and “national-religious” Israelis.

There are also plans to build a neighborhood in Lod’s Ahisamakh with 3,000 units for Haredim, and in the Har Yona neighborhood in Upper Nazareth, with 3,000 units. But in Beit Shemesh, with its tens of thousands of planned housing units for the ultra-Orthodox, a bitter struggle is underway over the future of the city with its non-Haredi and secular residents. Until the legal battle is settled, construction for Haredim cannot move forward.

Young couples living in parking garages

Under the circumstances, it’s no surprise that the Haredi community is suffering a severe housing shortage. In Jerusalem, underground parking garages in many new buildings have been converted into apartments for young couples, who live in appalling conditions. Faced with no housing in their own neighborhoods, many Haredim buy in secular areas, creating social tensions.

Abraham Kreuzer, who is involved in Haredi real estate, points his finger at the government. “On the one hand you don’t want us to disturb you, to violate the [demographic] balance or lay tefillin in Ramat Aviv. So we moved to Harish, to the Galilee Triangle, in order to halt Arab control of the land with our bodies. And then you told us that we were forming a cartel there. So where should we live? There’s no government initiative at present,” he says.

Kreuzer expects the government to take action.

“There’s a social obligation based on ancient Jewish values that the state has to take care of the weak and everyone must have an opportunity to have a roof over their heads,” he says. “If the state provides opportunities in Yeruham or Karnei Shomron or Beit El, that’s logical. But at present the government isn’t letting the market do its work. It has to launch an initiative. The Haredim aren’t trying to take over cities and control them. They want places to live. This sector creates the greatest number of families in the country and it has a unique lifestyle that’s very easy to identify. At least let us build.”

Kreuzer also criticizes ultra-Orthodox Knesset members. “I don’t see anyone in the Haredi sector who is taking responsibility for the matter,” he says. “United Torah Judaism took the job of deputy minister in the Education Ministry rather than in the Housing Ministry. On the other hand, they’re fostering warm relations with Moshe Kahlon, the finance minister, in order to influence housing for the Haredi sector.”

But the problem is not only bureaucratic. Implementation of the 2006 plan was delayed by Housing Ministry officials, some of whom thought it was condescending and failed to meet the needs of the sector. One source pointed to the fact that most of the areas designed for Haredi housing in the plan were distant from the center of the country. Building an ultra-Orthodox city without suitable employment opportunities would condemn it to poverty.

To date, no alternative has been proposed, but in recent months the ministry has begun working on a new master plan, together with the Center of the Study of Ultra-Orthodox Society.

One of the problems in formulating the plan is to define who is Haredi. To figure that out, the ministry is conducting meetings with community leaders to divide the target populations within the sector – Lithuanians, Hasidim, Sephardim and others – who usually choose where to live based on the community to which they belong.

The Housing Ministry claims that it’s impossible today to plan a community for the ultra-Orthodox populace because of the attorney’s general’s opinion that preventing other populations from acquiring housing in them would be discriminatory.

“They’re just wasting public money on all these studies. Today it’s impossible to build for Haredim only,” says one official, who asked not to be named.

Nevertheless, the ministry is trying to find areas that can be designated for ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, noting the social tensions that arise in mixed communities as well as the economic burden. Haredim strictly observe the Sabbath and impose modest dress on women, while many of them are poor because the men refrain from working in favor of religious studies.

“The poor Haredi population is liable to become a burden. The secular community will oppose having a Haredi population, but an independent ultra-Orthodox city would require sources of income that would allow for the existence of an independent Haredi municipal authority,” according to the 2006 study.

Moreover, an ultra-Orthodox city requires a wider range of public buildings, including synagogues, kollels (yeshivas for married men) and yeshivas, gender-separated schools and mikves (ritual baths) for the residents. In other words, the conclusion was that residential areas for Haredim must be planned, rather than relying only on the private market.

Haredi man walks by the billboard in the entrance to Beit Shemesh (Emil Salman)

The Haredim aren’t squatters

“Harish aroused the legal problem of building for the ultra-Orthodox only,” says Prof. Amiram Gonen, a lecturer in the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Geography Department and head of the Center for the Study of Ultra-Orthodox Society in the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies. “It didn’t happen when they built [the Haredi cities of] Modi’in Ilit or Betar Ilit. When they built Harish, the question arose as to whether one could say unequivocally that a city is being built for a specific population group. In the case of Harish the Housing Ministry was prevented from declaring that it was a Haredi city. The city was divided into areas for tenders, the ultra-Orthodox organizations united and colluded among themselves and therefore lost the tender for their area.”

Gonen is strongly opposed to building a city designated for Haredim. “The drawback of an ultra-Orthodox city, especially in a distant place like Kasif [in the Negev], is that it will become another development town like in the 1950s. These will be cities of refuge for poor people.”

He says that even ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods in mixed communities are problematic. “In Beit Shemesh they brought in Haredim and should have done so proportionately, but there was insufficient supervision. The moment that extremist groups from ultra-Orthodox society were brought in they caused an uproar and prevented even moderate Haredim from living there,” he says.

Gonen has a solution, but “the Interior Ministry doesn’t like it. I propose attaching a Haredi city to a non-Haredi city, but with a boundary and with separate local elections. The major battle always erupts in local elections, which affect the city’s character.”

The separate cities, says Gonen, should be in the center of the country. “Haredim who want to be part of the economy won’t do so from Kasif. We have to build a city for Haredim in the center of the country, adjacent to a secular city. By means of two cities adjacent to one another, it will be possible for the Haredim to have their own autonomous government, and at the same time this would enable them to make a living from the neighboring city.”