The Price Is Right

The ultra-Orthodox make up one-third of the population of the territories. But most of them are living there for one reason only, which has nothing to do with ideology and everything to do with the severe shortage of affordable housing within the Green Line

Some Tzur Hadassah residents still remember the frequent ambulance sirens that 13 years ago began to be heard every Sabbath from the direction of their new neighbors in Betar Illit and which disrupted the region's tranquillity. The sirens marked the ongoing population boom of the first ultra-Orthodox Jewish city beyond the Green Line, which registers 1,700 births annually.

Due to natural increase and especially due to the Haredi community's great demand for apartments, Betar Illit, located between the Etzion Bloc and Jerusalem, and Modi'in Illit (formerly called Kiryat Sefer), in the Modi'in area, have become key contributions to the settler population's increase. The two cities' combined population - each is estimated to have 22,000 residents - represents a quarter of the settler population.

If we add the ultra-Orthodox town of Immanuel (population: 2,700) and Tel Zion, Kokhav Yaakov's Haredi neighborhood (with 560 families, according to its own figures), ultra-Orthodox Jews constitute nearly a third of the settler population. It is doubtful whether in his worst nightmares, the late ultra-Orthodox leader Rabbi Eliezer Schach, a bitter opponent of the settlements, could have envisaged that his constituents would become such an important human resource for the them.

For the average young yeshiva student in Modi'in Illit, the political significance of his residence in the territories is of no interest. He moved to this Lithuanian stronghold because of the low-priced apartments and talmudei Torah (ultra-Orthodox elementary schools), and because of his yeshiva classmates who settled there before him. He is no settler, God forbid. So what does this young father care that Pinhas Wallerstein considers him a settler?

Wallerstein, head of the Binyamin Regional Council, to which Kiryat Sefer was initially attached, is untroubled by the blatant lack of solidarity shown by most of the residents of ultra-Orthodox cities beyond the Green Line. "It is my ideal," says Wallerstein, "to see every Jew living in the territories. I expect nothing from the Haredi settlers. But even if they didn't come here for ideological reasons, they won't give up their homes so easily."

"And what would they do anyway? Go to Tel Aviv, move to Afeka?" rhetorically asks Prof. Menahem Friedman, a scholar of Israel's ultra-Orthodox. From the first, he explains, their situation was so desperate that they were ready to move anywhere. The need to purchase apartments for many children once they reach marriageable age, with a father who is frequently a yeshiva student and unemployed, created the grave economic crisis the ultra-Orthodox dub the "Housing Decree." Facing that situation, Friedman notes, many ultra-Orthodox families "have no other consideration except the apartment's price."

The forsaking of a sheltered ultra-Orthodox community to solve the housing problem of young couples began 40 years ago. In the first stage, newlyweds moved to cities other than Jerusalem or Bnei Brak, such as Ashdod or Tel Aviv's Ramat Hahayal district. The Haredim then began to move to development towns, driven in part by an ideology of kiruv or "drawing distant siblings closer" (Haredi terminology for encouraging secular Jews to become observant). The final stage in this process was the founding of ultra-Orthodox cities, some of them in the territories.

Perfect timing

Fifteen years ago, the ultra-Orthodox community's pressing need for housing, preferably close to Jerusalem, dovetailed with the government's desire to establish a new Jewish community beyond the Green Line. After the ultra-Orthodox city of Betar Illit was built, Modi'in Illit was established by private entrepreneurs who were affiliated with the Lithuanian wing of Israel's ultra-Orthodox Jewish community and who purchased the land from Arabs.

A community beyond the Green Line of ultra-Orthodox settlers, some of whose leaders have in the past supported a moderate political-security position, is no trivial matter. Bar-Ilan University's Prof. Yoseph Shilhav, who studies the phenomenon of the new Haredi cities, regards it as one of the factors causing the ultra-Orthodox to lean to the right. Nevertheless, an ultra-Orthodox rightist orientation is light-years away from the settlers' thinking.

"We don't identify with the settlers. You won't see us demonstrating alongside them. We've nothing in common with the `hilltop youth,'" Yitzhak Ravitz loudly declares in his Betar Illit apartment, pounding the table for emphasis. "They may have drawn closer to us, but not vice versa." He then adds, "But they don't have to teach us what love for the Holy Land means."

Betar Illit Mayor Yitzhak Pindros, a member of the Degel Hatorah party and, formally, a member of the Yesha Council (Council of Jewish Settlements of Judea, Samaria and the Gaza District), feels no bond with the settlers and even claims the ultra-Orthodox were sent to the territories against their will and have served as "cannon fodder."

How does an ultra-Orthodox city in the territories manage its affairs, with a military checkpoint at its entrance and Arab villages surrounding it? Modi'in Illit maintains no contact with neighboring Arab villages. Pindros is quick to point out on a map Betar Illit's Hill 2, the new neighborhood that was built beyond the farmlands of nearby Arab villages and which in effect surrounds them. Hill 2 has more than 1,000 families with another 5,000 housing units planned for the future.

Pindros is proud of the access road he built for the villagers. It is under the road connecting the city's two sections. He did not have to build the access road, he claims, but went beyond the call of duty to cement good neighborly relations.

When Yitzhak Guterman, Modi'in Illit's mayor, is asked about Yesha Council meetings, he looks surprised. They do not interest him, he replies, and he does not attend them. Yesha Council spokesman Yehoshua Mor-Yosef remarks that Pindros has recently begun to attend more meetings, although it is only those concerned with matters related to a burning security issue or with the budget, but never a meeting on a political subject, such as the road map.

Shilhav explains that the new ultra-Orthodox communities in the territories create "a vested interest" among residents within the Green Line, because every ultra-Orthodox family has a son or daughter or relative living in these communities. "When the time comes," he observes, "the ultra-Orthodox within the Green Line will oppose any evacuation of the settlements."

Thus, says Shilhav, part of the blame can be pinned on Labor governments, which, like Likud governments, supported the creation of ultra-Orthodox communities beyond the Green Line. However, he believes that, "unlike the authentic settlers, it is obvious that the ultra-Orthodox settlers will agree to abandon their apartments if they are offered apartments in Jerusalem."

Even today, Betar Illit's residents are uncomfortable with Rabbi Schach's opposition to the creation of settlements beyond the Green Line on the grounds that they pose the danger of "trying the patience of the gentiles" (namely, the Americans). In this connection, the status of Modi'in Illit, which is closer to the Green Line, is less awkward. Rabbi Schach was more vigorously opposed to Betar. After the fact, Betar residents like Yitzhak Ravitz justify their living there with the argument that Rabbi Schach authorized individuals to move there (as opposed to issuing a blanket public authorization). Modi'in Illit residents claim that, since the land for their city was purchased, Rabbi Schach actually encouraged people to move there.

Among the benefits the ultra-Orthodox residents of communities beyond the Green Line enjoy are an improved lifestyle and more space. Although these communities do not have "Build Your Own Home" projects offering detached/semi-detached homes with red roofs (as in other settlements), for people who grew up in tiny apartments in, say, Jerusalem's Geula neighborhood, a three-bedroom apartment with the option of expansion is a spacious home.

On Ramallah's outskirts

According to Wallerstein, the residents of Tel Zion, part of the Binyamin Regional Council, are "much more involved." They are more sensitive to security problems, unlike the residents of Modi'in Illit, most of whom did not serve in the Israel Defense Forces. However, Wallerstein has no illusions. "The Tel Zion people are more dependent on me because their community is still not an independent entity," he remarks.

Tel Zion, says MK Ravitz, is close to Jerusalem. From the start, the justification for sending settlers there was the desire to create a chain of Jewish communities linked to north Jerusalem. Two things drew people to Tel Zion: lower prices compared to other Haredi communities beyond the Green Line and the proximity to Jerusalem. The neighborhood's first marketing campaign was a resounding success. However, the intifada has slowed down new arrivals and the neighborhood today has 560 families, well below expectations. The large industrial zone adjacent to the neighborhood, which was marketed with the slogan "A home and a job," looks like a ghost town.

Ramallah is just a stone's throw away; however, as in Betar Illit and Modi'in Illit, the residents of Tel Zion show little regard for security worries - at least, they give that impression. But, says one expert on the subject, many of the news items on security incidents never reach ultra-Orthodox ears. The ultra-Orthodox press plays an important role in this filtering process. When an Israeli suffered moderate-to-severe injuries in a shooting close to Betar Illit, the ultra-Orthodox daily Hamodia diplomatically reported to its readers: "One person slightly wounded in shooting near Tunnel Highway." n