Where Beit Shemesh Went Wrong

No one foresaw the Ultra-Orthodox population boom in Beit Shemesh. What will come of it, and will trends continue?

The city of Beit Shemesh lies some 20 kilometers west of Jerusalem. Established in the early 1950s, it was just another depressed development town with a population of 20,000, when work on a master plan for its expansion, which called for the absorption of 130,000 additional residents, began, in the summer of 1990. That a large and unified block of land, most of it under state control, was available south of the existing town, and the central location of Beit Shemesh between Jerusalem and the coastal plain, were key factors in the government's decision to plan and build what is now called Ramat Beit Shemesh. Since that time, the city's population has soared: Today it stands at some 80,000. Once a backwater, today a boomtown.

Two decades ago, no one foresaw that the Jerusalem and Bnei Brak ultra-Orthodox population overflow would reach Beit Shemesh: Today though, Haredim make up a large part of the expanded city's inhabitants. The contemporary wars between the Jews of the neighborhood of Ramat Beit Shemesh - between the secular and the national-religious and the Haredim (and even among the Haredim themselves ) - were similarly unforeseen. Violent incidents involving Haredim in Beit Shemesh long ago crossed all red lines. In January, for example, a woman dressed "immodestly" had her car attacked, and she feared she was about to be set on fire by zealots in Ramat Beit Shemesh.

It was also unimaginable 20 years ago that entire neighborhoods would eventually be "captured" whole by any specific group, but the insular Haredi way of life is predicated on absolute territorial control. It was only after the completion and approval of changes to national and district plans, the master plan and the first neighborhood plans that it became clear that neighborhood plans would have to be revised to conform to the emerging Haredi reality. The first programs geared to their special needs were prepared by the Housing Ministry in the late 1990s, with the neighborhood plans revised accordingly.

The special requirements of the Haredi community pose significant problems for town planners. Their high birth rate and great number of subgroups, as well as the fact that boys and girls attend separate schools, results in an inflated number of educational institutions, which are an immense burden to finance, build and maintain. In Beit Shemesh today, no less than 70 percent of all schoolchildren are ultra-Orthodox. To avoid halakhic problems regarding Sabbath elevators, building heights are often restricted to not more than four stories, limiting urban densities.

Ramat Beit Shemesh was planned to have significant green spaces. The site included an extraordinarily beautiful, variegated landscape of rounded hills, valleys and streams. Although ultra-Orthodox society is far from homogenous, it is generally perceived to be largely indifferent to environmental concerns. Its public spaces are often dirty, and greenery is almost entirely absent in its neighborhoods. Often, land that has been designated for cultural or recreational purposes ends up being converted to other uses. The contrast between this green, pastoral setting and the Haredi way of life is striking. A far greater respect for the natural and built environment needs to be encouraged by their leadership.

Today, the minister of housing - Ariel Attias, whose ministry initiates large new neighborhood plans; the interior minister - Eli Yishai, whose ministry controls all national and district planning and building committees; and the Haredi mayor of Beit Shemesh - Moshe Abutbul, all belong to the Shas party. One needs little political acumen to understand that Shas has Beit Shemesh locked up. They already have their eyes set on the enormous swath of invaluable state-owned land north of the Ha'ela Valley, to the city's south, for the development of tens of thousands of new residential units. If they succeed in this mission, it will be a clear sign for others, including the founding families of the original Beit Shemesh, to simply pick up and move elsewhere. Such a scenario should be prevented at all costs.

Given the Haredi community's stupendous growth rates and the fact that other sectors of the population are unprepared to live under their doctrines, many non-Orthodox often find themselves forced to leave their homes or give up hope of finding new ones even on state-owned lands. Market forces are likewise markedly distorted in favor of the Haredim, in that they often function as a group. The rapid expansion of their population has had a huge impact on the Israeli real-estate market.

Hearing of the latest violent incidents in Beit Shemesh involving Haredim, Prime Minister Netanyahu spoke recently of the possibility of dividing the city, with the entire south, an enormous area half the size of Tel Aviv, allotted to the Haredim. Netanyahu, like the rest of us, evidently was assuming that the Haredi leadership of the city would not permit outsiders equal access to major resources such as affordable housing or allocation of government funds. But separate Haredi cities are unsustainable. Operating and maintaining their own services independently while having minimal revenues from municipal property taxes (arnona ), they are bound to be poverty traps. The only reasonable option, then, is to bring the Haredi leadership, through legal and democratic political means, to finally understand that if they wish to govern and have responsibility for planning, managing and maintaining a modern city, they must act fairly. There is no third option. Beit Shemesh is the ultimate test case.

Gerard Heumann is an architect and town planner in Jerusalem. He served as head of the Ramat Beit Shemesh master plan team for David Reznik, Baruch Reznik: Architects & Town Planners.