Want to Live in Harish? Bring a Letter From Your Rabbi

The town is being shaped to fit Haredim, despite promises that sales will be open to all.

Good news for young couples looking for affordable housing: In the Wadi Ara area, not far from the toll highway Route 6, about 6,000 new apartments are going up. Moreover, these spanking-new homes will be going at very attractive prices: NIS 400,000 to NIS 500,000 for three room apartments.

But now the bad news, young couples: Take a look at the questionnaire attached to the sales brochure, titled "The Binu Ami group is building the city of Harish - the new Haredi city." Beyond the usual questions (number of children, ID number ), you have to state which religious sector you belong to - Sephardi, Lithuanian, Hasidic or strictly Orthodox. Secular is not an option.

The questionnaire asks what kind of head covering (hat, wig or headscarf ) the mother of the family wears. And the father needs to state how many hours he spends studying Torah. Nor will they take your word for all this: applican't need to append a letter of recommendation from a rabbi.

If you are not observant, the new and attractive Binu Ami project is not for you.

Admittedly, the Binu Ami group has not actually won a tender to build the project; there is no tender yet. The Israel Lands Administration has not even begun the tender process. Binu Ami is merely recruiting potential buyers in advance.

But this brochure reflects what many call the actual plans for Harish, which contrast rather sharply with statements from the political echelon.

Housing and Construction Minister Ariel Atias, a member of the ultra-Orthodox party Shasd presented Harish, near Barkai and Maanit, as one of the sites that would increase the country's housing supply, in order to push down the cost of living. But as everyone knew - and as the brochure clearly indicates - the new Harish construction will help only the ultra-Orthodox.

Veteran Harish residents oppose the idea. They received a letter from attorney Oded Fluss, who represents the planning committee behind the Harish expansion, which stated that "the idea of a Haredi city, which is designed for about 150,000 people, did cross the developers' minds, but since then policy has changed, the city's area has been limited and apartments should be sold to everyone, without limits."

Fluss also promised: "According to the Housing and Construction Ministry's declarations, sales will not be selective, but rather open to the general public. Atias has specifically instructed ministry officials to let market forces operate freely."

But evidence is piling up that the homes will be dedicated to the ultra-Orthodox. This starts with construction plans allocating large spaces for communal buildings such as ritual baths and yeshivas. At the end of 2011, the Israel Lands Administration published the plans on its website. They state that the objective is "building a residential neighborhood with about 6,000 units ... with urban characteristics suited to a Haredi population."

Shas flagship

Israel's affordable housing criteria have always favored large families. The Trajtenberg committee had called for reforming the criteria to give secular citizens better standing, by giving priority to people who work and served in the army - two criteria that would give Haredim less of a chance. The number of children should not play as strong a role, the committee ruled.

Last week, the National Planning and Construction Council approved new criteria.

Under the new criteria, 20 percent of apartments will go to singles over 35 or to childless families, 35 percent will go to families with one or two children, 45 percent will go to families with three or more children. Families with a wheelchair-bound member will receive preference.

"The criteria for affordable housing do not accord with the principles of equality and distributive justice," stated the Association for Distributive Justice last week.

Affordable housing is supposed to be built in Yavne, Rosh Ha'ayin, Modi'in, Jerusalem, Yokneam, Haifa, Be'er Yaakov and Netanya.

While Harish may or may not be on the list - this won't be known until the tenders are issued - buyers there are eligible for receiving the NIS 100,000 incentive for buying in priority areas.

Atias: Market forces will decide

The plans for Harish are a slap in the face to the social-justice protesters calling for national burdens to be split more equally.

The plans call for 10,000 new apartments designed to house about 50,000 people. They suit the Haredi population in many ways - buildings are no more than five stories high, meaning elevators are not necessary on Shabbat. Sales are supposed to begin within a few months.

Although Atias stated that apartments would be open to anyone, secular citizens avoid Haredi neighborhoods. The mere talk of making this a Haredi town nearly guarantees that it will be so.

Furthermore, all it would take is for a few Haredi groups to win ILA tenders there to block out secular developers.

In the meanwhile, Haredi developers and companies have started preparing for the tenders, which are expected to be issued within a few months. These companies have been distributing brochures in synagogues and in Haredi neighborhoods in order to attract potential buyers.

"We're also interested in living here," says Hemi Bar-Or, a resident of Harish who is leading the campaign to keep the town open to all. "The Green Harish association has a list of more than 1,000 secular families who are interested in living here. But under these circumstances it's not certain that we'll be able to compete ... They tell us homes are open to all, but everything favors the ultra-Orthodox - the design, the minister's declarations over the years, the behavior of the Shas-appointed local authority chairman. It's all classic Isra-bluff. We don't intend to create phalanges of secular suicide bombers. We don't want a second Beit Shemesh here, and that's why we want the city to be designed for us as well."

The Housing and Construction Ministry stated in response: "Since the 1990s there have been several attempts to sell homes based on the original construction plans for Harish, but the tenders failed due to a lack of demand. The idea of making Harish a religious city came up in 2007. Sales are open to all, and all contractors interested in bidding may do so.

"As for the new affordable housing criteria, the facts speak for themselves. Since Mehir Lemishtaken programs were introduced in 1994 and until a week ago, the only criteria were number of children and length of marriage. Those are the facts."