An Israeli City's Bid to Build Secular Neighborhood Fails

Builders show scant interest, while the home buyers are ultra-Orthodox Jews

Yoga in Beit Shemesh.
Emil Salman

The ads last year for the new Beit Shemesh neighborhood of Neveh Shamir promised that residents would be “living close to nature, living close to the city.”

What they failed to mention was that the newcomers would be living in Beit Shemesh, the city between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv that for years has been a battleground between Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) and non-Haredi citizens.

Neveh Shamir was supposed to attract secular residents and help stem the growing Haredization of the city. Mayor Moshe Abutbul was behind the initiative, together with the Construction and Housing Ministry, to interest building contractors as well as potential home buyers. It was a complete failure.

The results of land auctions released over the last two weeks by the Israel Land Authority show that, of 16 tenders for the new neighborhood that were conducted under the government’s Machir L’Mishtaken (Buyer’s Price) program, only five attracted bids.

Thus, instead of 1,700 housing units built at affordable prices, the most that will be built is 600. The bidding wasn’t very competitive; in most cases there was only a single bidder.

Moreover, sources at the municipality say that most of the home buyers who registered in the Machir L’Mishtaken lottery for a home were Haredi.

On Sunday, the Beit Shemesh municipality admitted that its efforts to draw secular residents had failed.

“The declared goal was to market Neveh Shamir to the non-Haredi community, mainly secular people but also [moderate] Haredim and the traditionally observant, for the sake of good community relations,” the municipality said.

“The mayor approached both contractors and city residents, but it appears the undertaking didn’t bear fruit.”

To make Neveh Shamir attractive to its designated market, the plans called for a direct access road to Route 10, thereby avoiding ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods where drivers would likely encounter protests against desecrating the Sabbath or immodest dress.

Ramat Beit Shemesh, the part of the city that has been developed over the last two decades, is almost entirely Haredi. Only the Aleph neighborhood still has many Modern Orthodox families. The Bet neighborhood is home to some of the most extremist members of the ultra-Orthodox community and has recently witnessed large, rowdy protests against mandatory army service.

Residents of the Gimmel and Dalet neighborhoods are also Haredi but represent a wider range of observance. The Heh neighborhood – Neveh Shamir – was supposed to be different.

The Construction Ministry also did its part to encourage non-Haredi buyers for Neveh Shamir, although with more caution, at the advice of its legal adviser.

The ministry refused to sign a letter touting the projected neighborhood’s accoutrements, all of which signaled they would be geared to secular people rather than the ultra-Orthodox. But the ministry allowed Abutbul’s office to distribute the letter.

“In Neveh Shamir, we plan leisure centers like a country club, tall buildings, a limited number of religious facilities and other characteristics found in neighborhoods throughout the country,” the letter read.

One building industry source involved in the bidding process said the lack of interest by developers wasn’t about the city’s character but the more prosaic issue of construction costs.

“It’s no surprise that few contractors got involved, first and foremost because the area’s topography is problematic,” he said. “Also, above and beyond the land-development costs fixed in the auctions, everyone was expecting other costs to emerge, some of them quite significant.”